When is messy too messy?

Dear Rabbi and Susan Lapin,

I am wondering if ancient Jewish wisdom applies to de-cluttering a house. I’m a mom of three with a fourth on the way, and I have never erred on the side of neatness (to put it lightly.) But I also dream of a mostly orderly house where all the spaces function so that we can have the family life we want.

I’ve concluded that personal character flaws in myself are part of the problem, but the harder I work on it, the more kids I have, and the more I am surrounded by chaos and laundry. I also think the values I learned growing up were depression-era, frugality-focused, never-waste-anything values, whereas our reality is middle-class America where things flow into our house on a daily basis, but not back out.

Plus I have a highly creative, productive little five-year-old artist for whom all her works are precious, and even with judiciously displaying art for a week or so and then either stowing it in her art box or discreetly filing it in the circular file folder, the art piles up. I’ve read Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and I think she has the heart of the problem by the tail, but not everything she recommends seems congruent with a growing family, or for multiple opinions within that family over what items “bring us joy.”

In the meantime, if I let up for three hours, the house starts to fall into chaos. (The other two children are twin girls, nearly two years old.) I can’t help but feel that if we had fewer things, and if everything had a place (preferably a place that could be secured against marauding toddlers) our home would be much more livable.

So to sum up: 1) Do you have a Bible-based philosophy, or advice, for the management of physical items that come into our homes and for finding a balance of livability and order? 2) How do you handle children and their desires to never throw anything away, being respectful of their feelings and also training them to help their family now and manage their own homes later? 3) How about spouses (ah-hem) who maybe still feel anxiety about throwing things away that “we might use someday”? What do we do with the never-waste-anything mentality that can be laudable, but also paralyzing?

Thank you for your time and thoughts!

Heather M. 

Dear Heather,

Your question resonated with me (Susan) partially because of what you see in the accompanying picture. 

I am in the process of culling through games discarding those that get little attention. We have no little ones left at home, but we do still have a house full of toys, games and books thanks to the blessing of grandchildren. Until a few years ago we had a house large enough to store piles of things, so most of the games you see stayed on the shelves and are now in second-generation use. In other words, we feel your pain.

A full and comprehensive answer to your three questions could be the basis for a book or seminar rather than the ‘Ask the Rabbi’ format, so forgive us for focusing only on the first two questions. (Also, we’re still working on #3 ourselves, ah-hem.)

Here are the three key words that encompass the Biblical attitude which you are seeking.

  1. Kindness
  2. Gratitude
  3. Balance

The kindness is to yourself. You sound like a caring, busy mother of three young children. We never had twins, but from watching friends we’d have to say that two two-year-olds can present quite a challenge. With another blessing on the way, you don’t have full energy to tackle mess. So, pat yourself on the back every single day that you treat your husband and children with warmth and affection. You have to become accustomed, in your own heart, to see this challenge as more important than being neat and tidy. And, if you also manage to provide your family with nourishing food and clean clothes and even sometimes not such nourishing food and not-so-clean clothes, you’re doing really well and you should recognize that.

If the mess in your house is making you unhappy, is it because of how you think it looks to others or is it not meeting your own needs? Maybe a short-term solution like a high-school girl coming in and tidying up with your children before their bedtime or a laundry service would be a good idea until you are past the next newborn stage. In other words, have realistic standards and forgive yourself when you don’t meet them.  But remember that a happy messy home is far preferable to a cold clean house.

Employ gratitude along with kindness. We’re sure you already are grateful for a spouse, three children, your pregnancy and the economic ability to buy toys and art supplies. The problem of “too much stuff” is a wonderful problem to have. There are practical ways to manage the stuff and we suggest looking at a few of the many Mommy blogs out there for some great ideas. For example, with two-year-olds you might want to rotate their possessions. Not only will this keep fewer things around at any time to make a mess, but after a hiatus, things will seem like new and they will be played with more. (We couldn’t help including that one piece of practical advice. It was a great help to us to have several ‘toy-boxes’ of which only one was out and available at a time.)

You phrased your questions beautifully. You obviously recognize that how you and your husband run your home will be the basis for the lessons your children learn. Here is where balance comes in. You and your husband should discuss how you want your children to think about tidiness and possessions. Respect for people comes into this as well whether it be for a child’s feelings about her artwork or a parent’s feeling of discomfort around mess.

It isn’t surprising that you come from different places; that is one of the valuable gifts of marriage. It is true that our society is awash in materialism and we don’t value items the way people used to when each item was laboriously acquired with sweat and effort. It is also true that each generation has its own challenges and it would be a misuse of energy, for example, to spend time turning worn clothing and sheets into braided rugs (unless that’s a craft project you particularly enjoy).

If you drew a line and put hoarding at one end and squandering at the other, a Bible view would tend towards the middle. Neither extreme is desirable. Figuring out exactly where you want to end up is a long term project; aim for what is doable now while slowly implementing what you see for the future.

Still tidying,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin


18 thoughts on “When is messy too messy?”

  1. I look through the dirty lens of my past mistakes
    Gallantly adjusting for the unknown future
    Supposing the pieces I possess will suffice my need
    And yet these were not available when I began
    The journey will always calculate longer than your supplies
    It is paramount to possess unendment
    What is unendment you may ask
    It is the enoughing of everything you lack
    Like the capacity of your lungs hold less than you’ll ever need
    So you cannot carry all that is necessary
    But if you find small amounts of unendment and enoughing
    You will need nothing more to complete the course.

    I do not wish for you prosperity, but simply enough.


  2. What a great reminder that people are always most important. Can I offer a slightly different take on a tidy house? I am a naturally unorganized, stuff-loving person who tends to hold on to things, and throughout my life I’ve struggled with what to keep, what to toss, and where in the world to start with the mountains of things that I’ve accumulated. And it’s gotten harder with a three year old and a one and a half year old in the house who like to play with everything and anything!
    Although my husband does not make me feel bad at all about the state of the house, he does mention from time to time that he relaxes so much better in a straightened up house. I find that I do, too. Now I’m not talking sterile or minimalist spaces with nothing out of place, or anything remotely near HGTV! But we find it’s much better emotionally and mentally when the house is decently in order.
    So here’s some resources/tips that have helped me in my journey to learn to organize my house and my efforts better. (If these aren’t allowed on this site, I understand!)
    Check out FlyLady.net. The woman who runs it has been in our shoes and encourages us to build habits and reclaim our living spaces one baby step at a time. Seriously, she wants you to declutter only 15 minutes a day! And she emphasizes progress, NOT perfection, encouraging us that we’re not behind, just jump in where we are.
    For help knowing what to keep and what to get rid of, check out the books written by Don Aslett. He’s been around a while, but his common sense and sense of humor about the stuff that piles up in our lives provides me with a shot in the arm whenever I get down about my seeming inability to get rid of things.
    And as for your little ones helping and learning about possessions, start now! Two years old is not to young for them to start helping put toys in the toybox every day at a set time (Clean Up Pick Up Time). Yes, you’re going to be walking with them from the spot on the floor to the box with the toy, back and forth, for a while, but they will get it sooner rather than later. Maybe find several items of the same sort (dolls, trucks, etc.) and ask which ones they (actually just one child at a time) want to keep and which one(s) can be given to another little girl or boy who doesn’t have one. Then box those toys up for Goodwill, the church nursery, or a friend.
    All that being said, Susan’s absolutely right (on many counts, but this one resonated): Do what you can while you’re pregnant and beyond. My husband always tells me that when I’m pregnant, I’m actually 3-D printing a human being! Be proud of that, and take care of yourself and your little ones. It sounds like you have some great ideas already. Maybe all you really need is some hope and encouragement. Hopefully Susan’s post and all the comments helped provide that. God Bless! 🙂

    1. Michele, I have Don Aslet’s books and ordered things from his catalog that I used for years. I also got some really good ideas from FlyLady. You made a lot of good points in what you wrote.

  3. I used to struggle with the “clean house” syndrome as my husband was the preacher’s son and during the time of people dropping over unannounced so the house he grew up in was always spotless. Those are his expectations. It is not reality. After much prayer, the Lord said that to be present with my daughter was far greater than laundry 100% done at 9PM. Playing games, instilling values and raising a woman of integrity and respect are far greater than a house that looks like it is ready for a magazine shoot. As my daughter gets older (she just turned 12) and I take her clothes shopping, she already has instilled a modesty that makes me proud and that is far greater to me (and the Kingdom of heaven) than my dishes done after every meal. P.S. I still have an under-the-bed storage box of her art from her childhood that we get out of the closet every now and again and have a good laugh. She is even surprised at how much I kept, but each piece has its own story and we both treasure them.

  4. We live in a small home without children. Our philosophy is when in doubt, throw it out. We have limited closet space so old items have to be culled when new items arrive. Children can learn to clean and to be neat and tidy. Let them help you clean, even if their efforts leave a lot to be desired. They can help hand you things as you tidy up. A 2 year old might enjoy a pretend vacuum to follow behind as you vacuum.
    Proverbs 22:6King James Version (KJV)
    6 Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
    Teaching responsibility for one’ self and place in the running of the household is an important lesson. The lesson will carry out to how the children see themselves fitting into and contributing to society as they grow. In what will seem the blink of an eye, your kids will grow up and your house will not be quite so messy. Perhaps there is a subconscious thought that a tidy house lacks love and warmth, if you grew up in a less than a meticulously tidy house? Do your feelings about the deeper meaning of tidy vs messy guide / sabotage your attempts and desires to have a tidy home? And finally, remember that we are all a work in progress and forgive yourself for your imperfections.

  5. I enjoyed reading this whole question/answer. It was well written and answered. It perked up my interest because, through the abuse of a childhood neighbor’s abuse by a family member, I then have received abuse from this person. Joyce Meyer’s life story is a mirror to the truth and sadness and shame that No child should have been Made to tolerate. This then has everything to do with the lack of organization, clutter, and very needed room that Is Needed than the house where I currently live. Taring me down tore down my dignity and care for my surroundings. The Prophetic statements I made on January 15, 2012 to my Christian brother and his Jewish wife have yet to come to pass. Proverbs 14:19 is to happen, and I Pray Soon. Proverbs 13:22b applies to this circumstance also. I ask for you and Susan’s prayers for the Holy Spirits movement. Thank you both.

  6. Wow, what a lovely surprise as I eased into my nightly bubble bath to quell the pregnancy nausea, to see my question had been answered! Thank you so much – your gracious advice brought tears to my eyes. I will take all of it. I have a neighborhood girl who comes to help two hours a week; I’m going to re-focus her on housework and let the kids be more independent, and see if she and her sister would like to up it to twice a week once we’re deep into the third trimester. I’m going to cull a bunch of ignored toys and store them in the basement. Most of all, I was so encouraged by the advice to prioritize being warm and affectionate to my family, and to be satisfied that the basics are getting done (one way or another.) I think most of my angst is from seeing the difference between my vision and my reality, and so I think I need to put the fantasy on the shelf and re-imagine what success looks like for now. You have both been a blessing to me. Thank you!

    1. Your question resonates with many, Heather. We hope the nausea abates soon and wish you have a healthy pregnancy and delivery.

  7. Sigh! I was hoping you knew of a pill I could take for that. Isn’t there some ancient wisdom about burning down your house every few years to eliminate clutter? Maybe that was about ridding your hut of lice and fleas. Not quite the same thing I suppose.

    On a more serious note, I’m a neat, “small-footprint” daddy living in a house full of pack rats who exhibit almost psychotic levels of retention anxiety. My 3’x3′ corner of the living room, 1/4 of the master bedroom, and 1/8 of the closet in that bedroom are organized to my liking and filled with just enough “stuff”. The rest of our living space is filled with stuff I choose not to notice because the air in there is filled with love and joy. It seems there is really nothing to resolve.

  8. The question and answer, both beautifully written, tugged at my heart as I remembered the feelings of having three children within a five-year span. I wanted an orderly house but it was a rare occurrence. As they grew, they wanted it, too, because as soon as I cleaned a room, that’s where they wanted to play! In hindsight, I would do some things differently to train them up, but I have no regrets that a clean/showy house was not a priority. My house is much better now, but it still hasn’t reached that picture-perfect space—now I have grandchildren. Wouldn’t miss any of it!

  9. I clean homes for many different types of households. I too, used to fill my life with more than was necessary. It all became a burden instead of a blessing. Worrying and caring for the stuff just was not worth the effort. I down sized everything, not looking back , because I knew most of it would not be remembered (out of sight, out of mind.) I knew there was a niche to fill in cleaning houses, with the thought , let me be a blessing and not a curse. I also would say a prayer for shalom on the home when leaving. The clients eventually begun and finished personal tidying on their own as their stress subsided. I hope she will consider employing cleaning help. The women trade their frowns for smiles, it is worth every penny spent .

  10. What a wonderful question and beautiful response. Although not a mother with young children creating such glorious, living, loving chaos, my version is older pet mommy to two adorable cats. One chews her cardboard scratch pads into tiny pieces that get carried everywhere through the house. Both love to jump up on my workspace and push various items onto the floor – pens, papers, books, the occasional breakable knickknack. Then there’s my little sock thief – she loves to play with my socks when they are folded into a ball and run off with them. If I ever move, I expect to find dozens of pairs of missing socks in hidden caches. While I sometimes wish everything was neat and tidy, I decided when I adopted them that my home was their home and that their needs came ahead of the appearance of order. Of course, I also have a young lady who comes in every two weeks to clean and help straighten things out. Overall, this has worked well for me. In the meantime, I am also gradually disposing of the knickknacks and where possible buying ebooks rather than physical books. I don’t expect I will ever have a home that looks like is came out of Southern Living, But it is comfortable for my friends and family when they visit, for my cats, and for me. Though some might disagree with me, I think a home people feel comfortable and relaxed in and where friends are welcome and family and pets are loved is more important than the lack of clutter. Heather, blessings to you as you find your own comfort zone in dealing with the joyous side of entropy.

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