The tidying trick that works for us

Sometimes it takes a fresh approach to get your kids helping with housework.
Sometimes it takes a fresh approach to get your kids helping with housework. Photo: Getty Images

My husband thinks I should live in a display home. You know the ones: fanned magazines on a glass coffee table, with clear, expansive kitchen benches sparkling under down lights. No undies on the floor as you walk into the bathroom, no pee soaked into the toilet tile grout.

But we have four kids. We could be the poster house for how not to display stuff. There are no fanned magazines on coffee tables – in fact, after a couple of toddler incidents involving falls and something called "cauliflower ear" we ditched our coffee tables altogether. Our kitchen benches are indeed expansive, but that just gives everyone a license to dump their goods – being a flat surface, it attracts more junk than a hoarder's hall closet. And the children's bedrooms and playroom? Well, let's just say they have doors for good reason.

Since having children, my standards and expectations of how the house should look have been significantly downgraded. I was never anal about cleanliness; a clean and tidy house that was warm and welcoming was always my goal. The houses where you were too frightened to clutter the bench with your keys were not something to which I aspired.

But my goal was booted out of the park when baby number one arrived. I was so sleep deprived the thought of picking up a vacuum cleaner and buzzing around the house during his catnap was something I would never have risked. I stayed on top of most household chores, but it would be fair to say the entire house was never clean all at the same time. Clean the bathroom one day, kitchen remains a pigsty. Kitchen cleaned the next day, welcome to bedlam in the bedroom. Fold washing but it sits there for days until the new pile hides the old one. Back to bathroom and repeat.

Quadruple the washing, the toys, the bags and shoes, the lunchboxes, drink bottles, accumulated box art, random stickers, rocks, miniature toys, and lolly wrappers acquired from who knows where, and my house feels like a bombsite. Every single day. It is a constant merry-go-round of feeling entirely out of control.

I've attempted numerous ploys to conquer this enemy I call the sty. There was the "nobody goes to bed until their floor can be seen in their bedroom" rule; it lasted two days. There was the weekly chore chart, with age-appropriate jobs; I ended up bellowing endless orders then feeling frustrated at the substandard job done by my little soldiers. The war on mess seemed to be a one-woman battle.

Constant rants about "living the dream" and "do you think this is the life I always wanted, cleaning up after you lot?" could've made a 'Mother's Greatest Hits' album. Hours wasted on Pinterest drooling over my keyboard at other people's orderly fridges did nothing to help clean out my own.

I bought a labeller and went berserk labelling everything, including my children's foreheads. It made no difference to the mess but at least everyone knew where items were supposed to go. And I knew which kid was which (helpful when you have enough to warrant a headcount).

So, last week, as I teetered on the edge of a mid-life-crisis-come-nervous-breakdown (possibly a little melodramatic), I implemented the 15-minute race against the clock.

I put a bowl of water with a lemon in it in the microwave for 15 minutes (stay with me, it is relevant). The children and the husband were heaved off the couch and any screen they may have been addicted to, and were briefed:

  • you have 15 minutes to pick up anything you see and put it where it belongs
  • if you are found to be dawdling, or without something in your hands, you will have five minutes added on to your individual time – with the risk of a toilet scrub as your bonus job
  • any lazy dumping of items in hidden places will incur an additional five minutes (once I discover it in two weeks)
  • if anyone grumbles, I'll put music on and sing and dance at the top of my lungs for the entire 15 minutes (a true and real punishment).

Well, blow me down with a feather duster, but my little game worked. The kids knew it was only 15 minutes of their precious time – and I knew that the five people who helped make this sty were helping clean it up (nothing quite like accountability). The threat of me singing was enough to have a rocket up each and every one of them. The house was tidy in a quarter of an hour.

It's true that many hands make many handprints all over your glass, but many hands also make light work. My hope as the children grow is that they will all get into the habit of just putting stuff where it belongs in the first place, and the daily 15-minute race against the clock will become a five minute race against mum's singing. I also hope for world peace so I'm an optimist (or a stupidist).

And the microwave? Well, at the end of the 15 minutes I had a steam-cleaned microwave which sparkled after a simple wipe down, and my house had a citrus –rather than a boys-peed-all-over-the-floor – aroma. Just call me Martha (without the jail time).