Some moms don’t mind a mess; others like to keep things spic-and-span. Then there are the moms like me: I like a clean-ish house, but I don’t mind if my kids make a mess when playing.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and this rule is no exception.
On the days when I am feeling like a competent, capable mommy, one who has gotten a reasonable amount of sleep, one who has managed to accomplish enough to ward off the feeling of worthlessness, one who has had enough adult contact in recent days to maintain sanity—on those days, I can easily let my kids be kids. “You dumped ALL the Duplos out when you were trying to find that one train piece? Okay, we can clean them up.” “You knocked your cup of milk over for the second time in half an hour? Well, accidents do happen.”
Then there are the other days—the days when I have NOT gotten enough sleep, I have accomplished nothing, and I haven’t seen hide nor hair of another adult (except my husband in the evenings, but somehow that doesn’t help the days seem any shorter). Those are the days that I am perhaps a tad bit less patient than is ideal. (Somehow those are also the days on which my kids seem to require more patience than normal.)
One of the ways I’ve learned to improve my parenting on the not-so-patient days: avoid things that are likely to frustrate me. Some things are difficult to avoid, like milk spills once you are past the sippy phase (though even that can be improved by providing only a half-cup of liquid at a time). Others, however, can be easily avoided to minimize frustration for everyone. The following is my short list of activities to avoid if you’d rather not have a mess on your hands:
Moon Dough. When I bought this, I thought it was just the non-drying alternative to PlayDoh. (Remind me to share my homemade playdough story some time.) Boy, was I wrong. This product, while sold in a cute little crescent-shaped container with built in molds for the dough, is essentially fine sand that tries valiantly to stick together. I found it nearly impossible to do anything except squish it with my hands or make shape-prints in it with a fork; it’s not a roll-yourself-a-snakey type of product. Its lack of adhesion poses another problem, as illustrated by this picture of Peatie (who is actually reasonably neat, compared to little Goober—but she blinked for her photo). After numerous episodes of Mommy-spends-as-much-time-trying-to-gather-the-sandy-crumbs-as-the-kids-spent-playing-with-the-blasted-stuff, I’ve decided to try shifting it off to some other unsuspecting parent.
Sidewalk Chalk. If you’re like me, you probably never considered that this one could create much mess. The kids scribble around on the patio a little, maybe color a tree, and we wash their hands when they’re done, right? Right—unless you have a child like my Goobie. I think the photo speaks for itself.
Sand or any Sand Substitute. My kids have had a longstanding fascination with pouring things. When winter approached and I began desperately racking my brain for indoor activities, I heard about folks who were using rice or dried beans or lentils to make little indoor sand boxes. “Perfect!” thought I. “The kids can pour and dump to their hearts’ content right in our own kitchen, and any little spills can be easily cleaned with a broom.” It worked that way…to an extent. First of all, if you have a toddler, you know that understanding capacity is a learned skill like any other. This translated into lots of spills—and not all little ones. Kids are also prone to making rather ill-advised choices on days when they are tired and cranky. Thus, on the days when I was most hoping for distraction, what I got was a bean-flinging contest.
Paint. This should not be the least bit surprising to most parents of young children. Give a child a damp art medium, and they’ll get it smeared all over. It’s delightful fun on the days you don’t mind a mess (or if you’ve got them outside in swimsuits and can hose them off when they’re done), but not so great on those days when you’re feeling tetchy. (I should also add that markers, being a damp medium, are similarly messy—but much harder to wash off skin. Don’t get me started on markers; I’ve never liked them.) If Mommy’s cranky, we stick with crayons.
Water. The only time water play can be remotely clean is in the tub, but even then I find myself perpetually urging my children to splash a little less and for heaven’s sake pour the water IN the tub, not over the side! The day my mother thought she’d let my kids play at doing the dishes was the day her Lazy Susan (fondly known as the round-and-round) became mildly warped due to downstream flooding (it’s several feet away from her sink). Outdoors…well, there’s dirt everywhere. You do the math.