The BLOG: Lifestyle

The value of a comfortably untidy house

The kids and I drove to Alabama this week to visit family and friends. I was the sole driver (and adult) in the car for those 1500 round-trip miles … It was a lot of audio books, pretty much continual snacking, and — let’s be honest — more DVD-watching than my crew normally gets in a month. Gotta pull out the big guns for a venture like this. But the trip was so worth it. And we fared pretty well overall.

Among the CDs we listened to was “Ramona’s World,” one of the half dozen or so Beverly Cleary books that my youngest two kids keep pretty much on continual repeat in their room. I must say, Ramona can be a pretty entertaining kid to follow, even for an adult (and even lo these many years after my first encountering her.)  This exchange between 9-year-old Ramona and her mom struck me as I listened to it:

“I don’t like going to Susan’s house,” said Ramona. “It’s too clean, I guess.”

Mrs. Quimby looked surprised. “You can’t say that about our house.”

Ramona was loyal to her house. “Our house isn’t dirty. There are magazines and things on the coffee table … But everything isn’t all nicey-nice and just so.”

Later in the chapter Ramona visits the home of another girl, Daisy, for the first time and is delighted to find it “comfortably untidy,” with descriptions of a gangly dog greeting her at the front door, and a vacuum cleaner sitting out.

God bless Ramona and her quintessential kid perspective, I thought as I listened. Not only is she not drawn to a perfectly ordered house, she actually prefers a messier alternative. Comfort and enjoyability of a space to her are measured on a kid-level, play-oriented scale.

On the tidiness scale as a housekeeper, I’d put myself about a B … with a range that slides anywhere from a C/C+ to an A-, depending on the circumstances and how far we are from our cleaning day(s). Clippings from endless scissor projects, errant toys, shoes, and dog hair seem to breed at a lightning pace at our house, no matter how much we may chase them down. I’m not oppressed by the reality of never measuring up to Pinterest-type homes as some are, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t sometimes heave the deep sigh of a fatigued mom who wished that order and neatness were easier to maintain.

The perspective of a kid is helpful. By and large, kids don’t yearn for crisp neatness and perfectly wiped surfaces the way their adult counterparts do. These often aren’t things they especially notice. They want a place to be, a space to play, to feel welcomed in and included in the happenings. “The purpose of order is to lead to joy,” a wise friend of mine once said, memorably. If things are too disorganized, it squelches the joy because you can’t find anything. And real mess can create stress, even for a kid. But if there’s a pressure for everything to be completely organized and tidy, that can squelch joy, too — especially for a kid.

This is a good thing for a mom to remember.

As we kick of a new year, this is my nugget: There are times when “pare down, declutter, clean, reorganize” are called for. But there are times when “get behind the eyes of a child, and spend time there” are the higher priority. This, for me, is one of those times. So as we kick off a new year, I say here’s to Ramona and to embracing a house that isn’t “nicey-nice and just so” (and one that’s even sometimes comfortably untidy). May joy be here.

Susan Arico

Susan Arico

Susan Arico — wife, mom, and strategy consultant — can be found at