A tidy home might seem impossible when children are around, but a little organisation can go a long way.
How to combat kids' chaos and clutter
When my children were small, their favourite game was to pull all the CDs off the shelf and hurl them from their cases. Left unattended for the shortest while, they could create a scene of devastation akin to a hurricane aftermath. A shamefully untidy person myself, I was pitifully ill-equipped for dealing with the mess-fest of life with little ones, and the clutter began to mount.
I hadn't realised quite how bad things had got, though, until a visiting toddler brought me to my senses.
"It's very untidy in here," he announced as he surveyed my kitchen. I had to admit that he was right: my house was, quite simply, a mess.
I blame my mother for this. Ever conscientious, she had read somewhere that insisting on neatness would hamper my creativity. Accordingly, I was never required to stow away my toys at the end of each day, or even to make my bed or hang up my clothes. It's a habit that has proved hard to kick.
Creating an orderly house, however, can help parents' state of mind, according to the home organising specialist Rachael Ross (www.purelypeppermint.com). She says that clutter and disorganisation can have a negative effect on how you feel.
"Letting your clutter take over completely affects a parent's sanity," she says. "Juggling life is complicated enough as it is, so having a more organised home allows you to have one less thing you need to juggle."
Even if your sense of aesthetics is not offended by childish disarray, there's another reason for creating order out of chaos: it is an important element of keeping your home safe. Clutter on the stairs is an obvious tripping hazard, and anyone who has ever stepped on a Lego figure in bare feet will vouch for the pain it can cause. If your kitchen is disorganised, you may be putting your children at risk of accessing toxic household products and messy bathrooms can conceal further hazards.
Making your house safe for children is about more than just locking up bleach and putting guards on electric points. Ross suggests that you get down to your child's eye level and have a look around. Ask yourself what you see that needs to be cleared, tidied or secured; there may be more dangers lurking at child level than you realised.
The starting point for good management is clearly labelled storage. I fell into a classic schoolgirl error here. After the toddler's damning verdict, I spent a day organising my kids' toys into wicker baskets, each neatly marked with a written label. Then I remembered that my sons couldn't yet read, so none of the toys ever returned to the correct hamper.
Instead, Ross suggests labelling containers with a bold, bright photo of what belongs in it. She also recommends ensuring that all storage is at a height that can be reached by your children, so that they can get involved in clearing up.
Persuading your kids to participate in regular tidy-ups is, of course, a challenge in itself. The earlier you begin, the better, says Ross. "You want clearing and tidying to be a life skill and almost fun, so praise them when they have completed a task."
As your children get older, you'll also need a system for dealing with discarded toys. One friend of mine whose house is admirably neat is merciless; she waits until a day when her children are out and goes round with a black bin bag, throwing out anything she considers to be surplus. She has learnt to harden her heart to the anguished cries that follow the cull.
I never managed this level of ruthlessness. My own, more feeble, system was to get my children to weed out a boxful of toys once a year, to be donated to the school fair. If they had second thoughts, they could always buy their belongings back. They rarely did.
Equally hard to tackle is the problem of stains on the furniture, an inevitable consequence of young inhabitants. Here, prevention is better than cure. Insist that meals and snacks be eaten only in the kitchen to avoid food smears on the carpet and sofas. And if you have young children, plain fabrics are probably best avoided until they're a bit older.
Most importantly of all, however you go about child-proofing your home, remember not to let it stress you. A bit of disarray is part and parcel of family living. When you enter a room and find it full of empty CD cases and scattered toys, remember that it will pass one day. My own beloved, messy children are growing up fast and before I know it the only clutter in the house will be my own. I rather suspect that when they've left I'll miss the dismembered teddies and discarded clothes.