Say Yes to the Mess

I am a neat freak, and most of the time I am glad that I am. My house feels peaceful yet lived in, and I can find most of the things I am looking for without too much effort. Most of the time there are toys strung out in nearly every room, but I don’t sweat it because I know that it won’t take long to pick up…I’ve made peace with that type of mess. There is another sort of mess that usually surrounds artistic pursuits that I just can’t stand: paints, cutting paper, markers, and the most God-forsaken craft supply, glitter. I had put a huge kibosh on every activity that required any of those things, and my house stayed clean, but I suspected I was stifling their creativity and confidence in the process. I published this essay over on Kindred Mom, and you can read it in its entirety over there. But for now here is an excerpt.

My brain switches to Red Alert when my children ask “Mom, is this okay to put in water?”


What water?


All I can think about is the destruction possible when a random object is plunked in water and the chaos that will accompany such an endeavor. I have caught my toddler one too many times playing in the toilet because the bathroom door was left open. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if the toilet was flushed; most of the time it isn’t.

When my kids start in with requests for messy activities, my first instinct is to gather all knick-knacky items that might seem experimentally exciting and place them on the highest shelf, because I am a perfectionist and order makes me feel I am in control. I don’t have time for mayhem because I am exhausted by maintaining the current level of clean in my house. The idea of adding to my workload fills me with anxiety. I have considered taping the children to the wall to hang on to the fragile peacefulness that comes from a clean floor.

Because of this perspective, our household has become a creativity prison, where only approved methods of exploration are permitted.

No markers, because I am afraid of coloring on everything but paper.

No paints, because I love my drapes and upholstery.

No scissors, because the last time we tried to use them, my son cut a hole in the shirt he was wearing.

No glue and glitter, I’m tired of seeing yesterday’s creativity sloughing off in my kids’ beds.


Habitually saying no to embarking on exploration is a method for maintaining order, but creativity is not the only casualty, I am also covertly squashing my children’s self-confidence.

Saying “you can’t” is powerful. I have come to realize that, for better or worse, my children believe the things I tell them. I realized that if I want my children to know they are capable people, I have to give them opportunities to do things they don’t know how to do.

Back in my kindergarten days, I remember an activity involving a butter knife. One of my classmates looked at my teacher and said: “I’m not supposed to use knives. Mommy said they’re dangerous.” My teacher said, “Yes, sharp knives can be dangerous if you don’t know how to use them, but these knives are not sharp. Do you have knives like these in your house? Maybe you’ve used one to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” The little girl shook her head vigorously and replied: “Mommy does that for me because I’m not supposed to touch knives.” My teacher reassured her that the knives were not dangerous and asked how she ever expected to learn how to use a knife correctly if she didn’t practice?

I want my children to grow up confident in their abilities.  When faced with new experiences, I hope they would be courageous to take risks and try new things instead of believing they are incapable and held back by fear. Click here to read the rest of the essay.

What things are you saying yes to with your kids?

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