I Know It's A Pain In The Butt, But We Have To Let Our Kids Get Messy

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
kids get messy
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“Oh no, I can’t let the kids have playdough,” you say, shuddering. “It gets ground down into the carpet.”

I don’t know how to parent without playdough. Playdough guarantees at least an hour of mom-time, which should involve cleaning but really involves the internet. They mold and sculpt and make dino footprints with their action figures while you stalk ex-boyfriends on Facebook and wonder how the hell it came to this. This does not involve cleaning, because you hate it. The kids are happy. The kids are messy. The two are generally synonymous.

The same goes for paint. I know people who won’t let kids paint in the house. I hand my kids paints of all kinds. Watercolor is for everyday, when I don’t feel like trying too hard. Like, here are some watercolors, kid. Don’t paint the walls. This is still good for an hour of free mama-time, probably spent mainlining coffee and pondering the laundry. Pondering, not doing, because like every sane mother in the United States, I hate doing laundry.

If I want to be the cool mom, I squirt out tempera paint on an old Amazon box and let them finger paint. Then they hand me kiddie masterpieces all covered in raked lines and handprints and tell me, “Look at my spaceship, Mama!” and instead of saying, “What the fuck is that?” I have to coo, “That’s beautiful, baby,” and set it somewhere to dry.

This means their hands get covered in paint. They like to squish it between their fingers and rake it under their nails. The paint trails off the edges of the paper. It crawls up their arms. Mothers hate this. Mothers cringe at this. Mothers know they have to force-march their kids to the sink begging them not to touch anything, then scrub them up to their elbows, thus getting paint all over themselves and the sink and the countertop. Then they have to scrub down the sink and anything the kids touched on the way to the sink, because they totally touched the doorknob and the vanity and probably each other. Oh, and they touched her, so now she has to scrub off and/or change. This is why some mothers ban paint. I do get it. I’m not devoid of understanding.

But along with some grandparent-worthy art, they’ve produced a spectacular mess. And they were really happy. Because they were messy, and messy is good for them. Researchers have proven, in fact, to the chagrin of Martha Stewart moms, that kids learn better when they get messy. In one study, toddlers learned nonsense words for solids better when they were allowed to get messy with them versus when they were not. Mess is hardwired into the childish human condition. They need it. They love it.

We’ve lost touch with kids’ need to get down and dirty. Children’s art has degenerated into a Pinterest-pile of craft, not free-form creativity. We need to give the kids glue and glitter and paper and tidbits and ignore them, except to admire their creations. They will cover an entire piece of construction paper with glue and then glitter the whole damn thing, because glitter is sparkly and awesome and just pray they don’t eat it. Yes, it’s craft herpes: Once you get glitter, it never goes away.

They will hand you paper heavy with paint and finger-tracks. You will lay them around the house, on the heirloom dining room table, on the TV stand, on the computer chair, on top of the dog crate. You’re always moving artwork for a few days. That’s okay. They made it, and they love it. They are proud of it.

It’s hard. You only have so much time, and that time’s dedicated to reading Dr. Seuss seven times in a row and playing hibernating bears and laundry, laundry, laundry, laundry. You don’t carve out special hours to, say, scrub acrylics off the kitchen table, or clean up the massive Mod Podge spill. I understand why moms ban playdough and paints and things of this nature, but the kids need it. So we have to be okay with more messiness — yes, more of it. We have to be okay with glitter tornados and bead spills and random paint splatters on the white, white walls. Kids need mess. Kids need sensory play. Kids need art.

Not only do they need art messiness, they also need personal messiness. When they go outside, you have to let them use the hose to “dig up worms.” This means they spray the hose in one place in the grass for several minutes until worms emerge. In the process, they get covered in dirt and water and blades of grass. Or they spray water in a container and slowly add it to a hole in the ground, where they stir it into a muddy mess — to paint on trees and sidewalks and the house. Your curb appeal includes a scrawled T. Rex. You learn to love it.

The greatest thing about all of this is that kids wash. They wash and when they wash, they play, which gives you even more time to sit quietly or to scrub the glitter off the kitchen table (the glitter will never leave the kitchen table). You can scrub the mud out of their hair, and the mud drawings on your house will eventually dry and run off in the rain. The worms will go back to wherever worms go (you may need to be pretty explicit on this point). But playing in the rain, spraying with the hose, stirring up mud and dabbing it on themselves like they’re trying to keep mosquitoes away? Those memories will remain long after the kids (and their clothes) are scrubbed clean.

So folks, let the kids get messy. It’s hard to let go, to see them painting their torso and not stop them. It might make you inwardly crazy — or maybe that’s the ex you just Facebook-stalked? — but let them make a giant mess. Then clean them up, and maybe teach them a lesson by making them help clean everything else up. They get to use the good paint, but they have to help wipe down the table and put the supplies away.

Or just give them some playdough and do it yourself. Pick your poison.

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