Why We Need To Let Kids Make Messes -- And Not Clean Up After Them

by Jessica Buchanan
Originally Published: 
Jessica Buchanan

Inwardly, I cringe and sit up a little straighter, as my three-year old awkwardly grasps her plate between two unsteady hands. As she tries to simultaneously scoot off her chair and balance her plate all the way into the kitchen, I watch her undeveloped movements, as I wait for the inevitable. Scraps of uneaten food go flying all over the floor that I just swept for the umpteenth time. It’s all I can do not to say something — just a gentle reminder to “BE CAREFUL!”

I bite my tongue hard and look the other way. Blocking my view with my coffee cup, I take a deep breath, signaling total surrender.

Whatever will be, will be.

She looks down at the mess and then back up at me. I shrug my shoulders and take another sip. With that same toddler awkwardness and a few “uh ohs,” she stoops down to the floor and manages to pick up the biggest parts of the mess, and then heads into the kitchen to return her plate.

It’s a minute thing, really, but I have found this simple refrain is just what she needs to reinforce that it’s her responsibility to clear her place at the table and the mess that will inevitably follow. Somehow, just these small happenings that used to cause me so much exasperation have fortified both of us, allowing her to build crucial confidence as she learns a new life skill, enabling me to do the necessary: relax a little bit.

I hear the crash of plates and silverware as they are dropped into the sink and wonder if it has broken into a million little pieces. More often than not, allowing them space to do these things for themselves causes me more work. In these instances, I try to remind myself that this is the process of which we call life, whereby they will learn how to be functioning and well-adjusted members of society. It is not my job to do this for them, not the carrying of the plate or the cleaning up of the mess, but rather, to be the facilitator that gives them space to learn how to take care of themselves and the environment around them.

I know, it’s just a plate and some uneaten food falling to the floor. But the clink in the sink prompts me to really contemplate the seemingly insignificant as it gradually connects together, like the millions of Legos littering my son’s bedroom floor. Ultimately, what I expect from these small and unimportant experiences is the basis by which the structure of a balanced and secure existence will be formed.

It’s going to get messy, this life thing, and sometimes, it’s all going to fall apart. We know this and, as parents, of course, we want to protect our babies and do our best to keep everything from unraveling. Maybe, if we sit with this thought for a little while, what we want, too, is protection for ourselves from it, as well.

We take on many responsibilities as we raise our children. One that garners much of my consideration is that I need to allow the opportunity for things to periodically fall apart. Whether it’s glitter all over the floor right now when they are young and unencumbered by the happenings of this world, or we are looking at some tough consequences as a result of a bad decision many years from now, I want them to understand this basic yet fundamental truth: there is very little that cannot be swept up, picked up, glued back together, or figured out — whether it is crusty waffles all over the floor, busted toys resulting in tears, or broken hearts that feel like they will be shattered forever. I want them to be confident in knowing, it will eventually all be ok.

It just takes time.

Things will take the time they need to take. I tell my kids this when they barrage me with the “whens” of life. “It will be done when it’s done. It will be ready when it’s ready.”

If they can grasp this, I tell them, then it will serve them well as they move through living in a world that refuses to bend to the demands of its creation.


We have to teach them that they are capable of picking up the pieces and figuring out how to put it all back together. And when the time comes that it isn’t possible to put it back together, we may very well have to grieve what was and is now lost.

I won’t do it for them, but I will try my hardest to stay calm and sit with them, until they can figure out the best way to pick it all up. And if they need help putting it back together, I want them to know we will find a way. It may not always be easy, and sometimes it will come at a personal cost, but beautiful things can be recycled out of those broken and shattered pieces.

Every time I open up my social media feed, there is a new article highlighting the anxiety epidemic that is eating America’s teenagers alive. Kids are refusing to get out of bed because they cannot face another ridiculously stressful day. Packed into their backpacks along with pounds of college level AP text books are the overwhelming feelings of failure and fear of messing up. It has become too heavy and impossible for them to carry, and so with resignation and in the uttermost depths of loneliness, they look at the broken pieces of their lives, and decide it’s easier to let go than to mess up.

What’s the use of trying if I am just going to make a mistake? Many kids repeat this mantra as they disappear deep into the bed covers, too overwhelmed to find a space to begin.

This all hit fairly close to home when a teacher friend of mine asked me to come and speak to his high school students about resilience. In his email, he explained the situation of their community and that they were seeing horrific results due to problems of pressure and anxiety. With a heavy heart he confided that last year alone, they had six students decide to take their lives because it had all become too much. This is an upper middle class area of the United States. They most likely had enough food, shelter, and warmth on cold nights.

What causes a kid to feel their only option is a permanent out?

As I think about these kids, I pick up the broom again, and start sweeping up the crumbs on the floor.

As I sweep it all up into the dust pan, I decide it’s a small price to pay, all these messes and the clean up that follows, if it gives her the confidence she needs to move through life willing to just try.

Life isn’t perfect, so why should she have to be?

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