Writer and broadcaster

My four sons are really messy. The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

My children never tidy anything away of their own accord and I spend 85% of my time tidying. They are all boys, aged one, three, six and seven. I’m not unrealistic – I do not expect anything from the two little ones, but it is as if the existing mess caused by them makes it a free-for-all for the bigger two. I am torn: on the one hand, there is a voice inside my head saying, “It is transient and you will miss all the stuff when they are gone and your house is tidy”; on the other hand there is a voice saying, “It is your job to train them for living without you.”

How do you train older children in the ways of household co-operation, when you have little saboteurs at their heels wrecking any tidy areas? Or should I shelve it until we are completely out of toddlerhood and change things then? At present I tidy, then every two weeks blow my top completely because I feel totally frustrated by the lack of help. Then they tidy up, which shows me that they can when they want to.

My husband is very, very helpful. He comes in at night and doesn’t sit down until 9.30pm.

How do I go to my happy place so their overriding memory of childhood is not a bellowing mother roaring threats of charity shops and recycling while she brandishes their toys?

Everyone has different levels of mess that they can cope with. Mess, or order, is often seen as a physical manifestation of our state of mind. But, sometimes it’s also just really annoying to have to step over everything, like a horse performing dressage, just to cross the room.

What’s important here is not so much what you fear for the future (your children growing up to not be able to tidy up – they will) but what’s happening now.

Try to see this less as you and them, but all of you learning how to be part of a family that is still taking shape. They need to learn to tidy up and be part of the family home, but you need to learn to let them be who they are, too. I don’t mean let them trash the house, but understand that they have different priorities to you. They don’t see tidying up in the same way – it simply doesn’t matter to them.

So be realistic. You have four very young children. Yes, you will very likely miss the mess when they have left home, but that doesn’t help you now. I don’t know what your set up is like but having areas where you don’t let the children make a mess and some areas where they can will help you all to learn about appropriate behaviour in different environments. We all need places in which we can be ourselves.

So if you can keep one corner of your home toy-free, that’s great. I understand about needing to sit down at the end of the day and not feel as if you are in a toy shop.

Two key things: First, get the children involved in solving the problem. I disagree that the younger ones can’t be involved because otherwise you are setting up an older versus younger thing (“Why do we always have to do it and they don’t” etc). When Jean Liedloff (author of the Continuum Concept) visited the Ye’kuana people in Venezuela, one of the many things she noticed was the absence of discord – how the older children looked after the younger children and how much responsibility and autonomy the children had. So when you are calm, talk to all the children and ask them for ways to solve this. They are far more likely to stick to something if they feel ownership of it. But don’t expect miracles overnight.

Second, think of rotating their toys so that only so many are out at one time. Give each child a trug and tell them all that at the end of each day, they should put their toys away in their trugs so tidying up is easy and obvious. But again, be realistic. Pick your battles. They very probably won’t get it right every day. Neither will you. Avoid threats – it just makes you look out of control and makes them feel anxious; and then you have to follow through.

Also avoid reward charts – it’s just something else to administer and bicker over in time.

Start the children tidying up early before everyone gets tired. Use humour whenever possible. When my children don’t take their plates to the sink after eating I say, “Did you read about the flying plates?” And they say, (wide eyed) “NO?” and then I say “Me neither so until there is such a thing, can you take your plates to the sink?”

This is far more useful and productive than if I shout. And everyone feels better about themselves.

Finally, as I will say for the third time: be realistic. Your mess is all over your house. Some people do have super-tidy houses, but the mess is all inside their heads.

This article first appeared in the Guardian Family section on 21 February 2015.