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Why Parents Shouldn’t Clean Up After Kids, With the Author of ‘Messy’

Everyone has been at that point when the house is trashed, the dishes are in the sink, and a producer from Hoarders is knocking on the door. Oh, if only you made the bed. If only the clothes went in the hamper. But what if dinner at 6, bath by 7, bed by 8 didn’t really matter in the long run?

In his book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, journalist Tim Harford makes the anti–Marie Kondo argument that a little bit of disorder is not only acceptable, it’s necessary for creativity. He has some tips on how you can embrace “messiness” as a parent — and stop crying over your kid’s spilled milk.

Stop All the Magical Tidying

Nobody is saying Lego bricks should be strewn across floor — because those things are like tiny plastic IEDs — but, pick your battles. Especially if you’re in your kid’s space. “We have a real tendency to try to control other people’s mess and make them tidy up. It’s a very common problem in offices when you have clean desk policies, and there’s really no rationale,” says Harford. “It frustrates workers. The same thing is true in the home.”

Cleaning up bedrooms used to be a real sticking point with Harford and his kids. He’s since let it go. They’re still responsible for shared household chores, like clearing the dinner table, because gross food is exempt from the messy doctrine. But when it comes to their rooms? Eh, not worth it. And he’s happy to report that his kids haven’t become filthy street urchins. “They’re still doing just fine, but now we’re no longer arguing over the mess. It turns out that my attempt to tidy up the mess was just a source of tension.”

All Kinds of Messed Up

“Messy” doesn’t just mean piles of laundry or stacks of newspapers threatening to crush your family. “There’s having messy surroundings, but also messiness in other ways. Like having to deal with different kinds of people and things that can’t be planned,” he explains. Those situations are actually opportunities to problem-solve differently and, according to Harford, they “make us more creative, more responsive, more human.”

Don’t do your kid’s chores for them, but also don’t be so dismissive of their weirdo ideas. “Children interrupt you all the time with all kinds of crazy suggestions … it’s easy to fall into that trap of just presenting them with a wall of negativity,” says Harford. Instead, listen to them and build on their line of thinking. Harford recalls a stressful morning when his wife was out of town, his oldest daughter called an audible on the routine.

“At the time she was about 11 and she asked, ‘Can I walk to school?’ And my initial instinct was ‘I can’t deal with another change to the routine right now,’ and I caught myself and I thought, ‘Why can’t she walk to school? She knows the way, she just told me she wants to do it, and this actually makes my life easier.’ ” Instead of doggedly sticking to the usual plan, Harford benefited from a bit of improvisation. (And not in a terrible, first-year UCB group kind of way.)

The No-Plan Plan

You think you’re winning because you put together a three-page, color-coded daily itinerary. You’re not. “I think it’s really tempting to overschedule our children. And, I think it’s really tempting also to let them overschedule themselves,” says Harford. He cites a study where high school and college-age kids were encouraged to schedule every hour of the day. The result was that these students quickly became demotivated. Things outside of their control would derail the schedule and make them feel like failures. So, while the route an unscheduled kid takes may be more circuitous (and include a stop at 7-Eleven), at least they’ll keep going.

Let Playtime Be Playtime

If your kid wants to play soccer, you could sign them up with the local rec league, buy some cleats, get them a uniform, volunteer to coach, and start running drills every morning in the backyard. Or, you could just give them a ball and let them start kicking it.

“I would encourage parents to try to let children play by themselves or with their friends more in an unstructured way. Rely less on rules and organized activities,” says Harford. “Just let them engage and make mistakes and get bored themselves.” When it’s just a bunch of kids on a playground, they have to learn how to cooperate and negotiate their own rules, or somebody’s going to get mad, take their ball and go home. It may not result in a brilliant display of soccer prowess, but there’s plenty of time after they get into the sport to kill their dreams.