Good Mess vs. Bad Mess

I veered from Friday Home last week to write about married love.  But back on track today:).

My Mom has long divided it up into two categories in her mind: the reversible and the irreversible.  Mess, that is.

As mother to 5, it was necessary early on to learn which battles are worth fighting for, and which are a deflating waste of time and energy.  Mess was one of the battles she quickly laid to rest.  While our home was always neat, it was full of life and the scattered activities of a half-dozen other members of a family.  Mom was at peace with this- after all, the choice to raise a large family was the related choice to live with more mess.

As young kids, we were encouraged to work at any manner of creative activity, whether it was banging out chords on the piano or doodling amid paper and markers in our rooms.  We did not have a television ever, and so our time was spent “doing”, and not watching.  I look at my mother now, through eyes of admiration.  How did she manage-to keep her cool amid the busyness of family-raising and its daily, resulting mess?

It all boils down to her theory of home-making and its reflected choices:

Reversible mess: Reversible mess can go back in time.  It is bits of paper cut up into snowflakes, or crayons dumped out on the table for coloring.  It is blankets unfolded for forts and play-dough rolled out for pretend animals.  It is baking, cooking, making and inventing.  Reversible mess is messy, but it is harmless.  As children, we were given free reign to engage in endless reversible messes.

Irreversible mess: Irreversible mess cannot be undone.  It is by nature, destructive.  It is the carving into the kitchen table which my daughter enjoyed.  It is the monogram etched into the leather sofa, which my {same} daughter created.  It is the juice toted upstairs which stains the carpet.  Typically, irreversible mess requires discipline to prevent further destruction – assuming the cause was intent and not accident.  My boys are responsible for most of the shattered remains in my home.  It is a constant process to teach them respect for belongings which are not theirs.

Though irreversible messes are a frustration and unfortunately par-for-the-motherhood-course, reversible mess can be the greatest open door to imaginative thought.  In an article for Scientific American, psychologist Stuart Brown indicates the significance of imaginative play in the development of children becoming emotionally healthy adults.

But in the 42 years since (he began his career), he has interviewed some 6,000 people about their childhoods, and his data suggest that a lack of opportunities for unstructured, imaginative play can keep children from growing into happy, well-adjusted adults. “Free play,” as scientists call it, is critical for becoming socially adept, coping with stress and building cognitive skills such as problem solving.

In a similar vein, CNN reporter Carolina Miranda, references the benefit of developing the 2-step thought process, called divergent thinking.  Divergent thinking is key to problem solving and is the backbone of creativity — understanding what is, and then imagining the possibilities of what could be.

Miranda goes on to observe that divergent thinking is in decline since the 1990’s, as traditional schooling emphasizes class-time more than “free-play” time.  And as screen-time replaces creative time.

I am first to admit that I have an uneasy relationship with certain forms of reversible mess.  For instance, blanket forts are my nemesis: they begin with a sweet minky blanket and end in a fight, every time.  But crayons, glitter, glue and paint are friendlier to me.  They are colorful and pretty and non-physical.

Setting up a pattern of creative play in a home is entirely personal.  You might be a blanket-fort Mom, appreciating the fun of creating imaginary spaces.  You might be the nature-walk Mom, enjoying sharing your knowledge of the outdoors.  Or the painting Mom, who is comfortable with splatters all over the floor.

Sometimes we will grit our teeth at the dragging out of another mess which will require cleaning up.  But reminding ourselves of the link between crayons and paper and creativity and critical thinking, is a helpful tool to make the embrace of reversible mess just a little bit easier.

Happy Friday, all!


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8 thoughts on “Good Mess vs. Bad Mess

  1. Oh how I live this and Oh, how i live in constant mess! I don’t have the shattered mess as I have no boys…but crayons, paper pieces, dolls, toys are scattered everywhere, all the time. Cora’s latest is to make all her shoes little beds for her dolls…so shoes with dolls stuffed in them are all over the house :)

    Mom was so good about mess and then every once in a while she would be over it…and cut the hair off one of my barbies…or something like that. Haha! Still remember her storming in and “snip.” My barbie still wears her wig to this day….

  2. Loved the pictures of what a home really looks like with little ones running around! Often I tidy a room, sigh with relief and by the time I come back from throwing a load of laundry in all my work is undone. After baby number 4 it was something I had to let go of and my husband noticed it recently, when on a Sunday night I was watching Downton Abbey, enjoying a glass of wine in a playroom that had been completely torn apart and not been put back together. It was a good moment of realizing that yes, life goes on and one can still relax even if toys are scattered everywhere!
    Lindsey Sieders recently posted…“I will say it again, Rejoice!”My Profile

      • I agree with Lindsey. Thanks Maryanne for showing real photos of mess. Too many time I think we see in blogs all the picturesque photos of everything neat and tidy and it makes those of us looking at the dirty dishes in the sink, toys sprawled on the floor, and laundry undone feel despair. Especially with a 3 and 1 year old!

  3. I finally got around to reading this. I had saved it, because I knew I NEEDED to hear it, and I wanted time to soak it in. I am surrounded by reversible mess, and so overwhelmed by it most days. Thank you for the reminder that it is Good Mess, Creative Mess, Kids-Growing-Up-The-Way-They-Should Mess!
    Beautifully written, and perfectly said, as always!

    • Christina, glad you enjoyed. Such a life-long process, right? I go through stages of being more laid back, more over-reactive. A lot has to do with rest- whether I have had it, or not!

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