Sweet Spots inside the Chaos Living with Love and Young Children

When the flood that started my feng shui journey happened in our home, my son was 18 months old and my daughter was four. So both of them swam in a fishbowl in which clearing clutter, organizing, arranging furniture and artwork, and rearranging were regular occurrences. Because I worked as a feng shui consultant, the many benefits of the practices and principles of feng shui became part of their experience growing up.

Loving our children is as easy as breathing, but parenting remains the hardest job in the world. As many parents have, I’ve worked diligently to understand child development and evolve my human skills, knowing that I needed to break free of my own messy upbringing. I often felt helpless and ill-equipped to control the emotional chaos of small children. Often I threw my own tantrum or wept on the floor right next to them. I found that I had a lot of work to do to be the healthy and loving parent I knew I could be. I also found that by containing some of the physical chaos of my home, I could better manage my own strong feelings and respond to those of my children.

It is possible to find sweet spots of calm and order amid the rocking ride of parenting young children. Below I share some of the ideas that can make a difference for busy parents with young children. These ideas are inspired by many experiences with my own children, my clients, and their children, and the spaces and places we all live, eat, sleep, and play.

Special Time Switch-Off

If you have multiple children and parents in your family, consider having periods of time in which you bond with each of your children one on one through an activity that your child chooses, perhaps from a few options that you offer. This is something you can do on a small scale most days and on a larger scale once a month or at the frequency that best fits your family’s needs and schedules. The benefits of special time include the bonding in a fun and relaxed way and mitigating sibling squabbling.

At the scheduled time, usually on Sundays, my husband and I would take one child and play with that child one on one for a time, and then switch children. Our son usually loved being outside and active, while our daughter tended to love imaginative play.

On a day-to-day basis, with really small children, even 10 minutes of special time can be a pleasant addition to your day, especially when you can be present and engaged with your child during this time. This sometimes can happen when a baby brother or sister naps. While this time can be a challenge to fit into our busy lives, it’s a practice that has many rewards. Breathe in these moments. It can become something everyone looks forward to.

In addition, to building in a special time on a daily basis, you can have an outing with one parent and child on a monthly basis, or whatever timeframe works for your family. We wrote this special time on the calendar and could show our children when they would get special time. Scheduling outings reinforce to the children that they are valued. As children get older, you can change the kinds of activities as you notice their interests evolve and change.

In a family where there are more children than parents, it may be trickier to schedule this time, but it can still be done when older children are at preschool or school, or when some children are with friends or other loved ones. Have a relaxed approach to finding and implementing this time, and do what works best for your family.

The Donate-Keep Ritual  

The belongings of children seem to flow out into every space, nook, and cranny of our homes. This can become visually overwhelming and even a safety hazard. (If you’ve ever stepped on a Lego you know exactly what I mean.) Containing the toys to certain rooms can seem impossible, let alone finding a child’s bed amidst all their treasures in a bedroom. If toys and kid stuff become overwhelming, it can be difficult for a child to find beloved toys or choose one activity. For some, this physical chaos becomes the new normal and they roll with it. For others, the physical chaos creates stress and anxiety. They may feel out of control and the physical world matches this experience. Find out where your children’s sense of comfort is on this long continuum. Again, keep looking for the sweet spot of balance for you and your children. The practice of donate-keep can help.

Every six months or before a child’s birthday, consider sitting with your children and helping them sort belongings into two piles: donate and keep. Explain to them that items in the donate pile can go to kids who have few or no toys, or who were affected by a fire or natural disaster in which their toys got destroyed. (Some children might be frightened by this idea; you can determine whether mentioning this would be helpful or upsetting.) Allow your child to decide which items go where. I suggest beginning this process with five- or six-year-olds; you know your own child and can tweak this accordingly.

I remember my son holding on to a plastic hammer he never played with; I wanted the decision about what to let go of to be his, so I didn’t debate the issue with him. It went into the keep pile. Three months later, he voluntarily brought the hammer to me and told me he was done with it. “Donate it, Mommy.”

For children younger than 5 or 6, you can gather and box up less used items. Keep them handy in case your child asks about them. If after six months these items aren’t missed, then you can donate them or give them to friends with young children or those who are expecting.

It helps to model this behavior when you, too, are making decisions about what to keep and what to donate. Consider showing your children all the belongings you are choosing to release and what you know you will keep, or encouraging them to help you move items into piles or containers as you make these decisions.

The “Good Night, Toys … Good Night, Books” Ritual

If a child’s room seems too stimulating because it’s filled with toys and books that distract him or her from going to sleep, play a game of putting everything to sleep and tucking the belongings in at night. You may drape a blanket over the bookshelf and say, “Good night books, sleep tight—see you in the morning.” Several of my clients embraced and benefitted from this idea. You and your children may, too!

You can bring in containers for sorting toys and put these to bed. Work to calm the room down visually by tucking things away out of sight or under blankets. It can become a soothing ritual your child performs as he or she gets older.

If possible, relocate as many items as you can to a separate room so that your child’s bedroom becomes a true place for sleep. I strongly encourage you to relocate TVs and other technology to other rooms in the house, especially if restful sleep is a challenge for your child.

The Craft Cupboard  

Consider creating a storage space for crafts that school-aged children can easily access.

I dedicated one entire cabinet next to the dining room for crafts; I still call it the craft cupboard. I placed plastic drawer containers on the shelves, each holding different types of items: play-clay, crayons, stickers, colored pencils, glue sticks, and scissors, and paper. The kids had access to this cupboard and could get supplies out anytime they wanted to draw or make something with craft items. During the school years, this cabinet became the place to find supplies for school projects. My children easily returned all the supplies to this convenient cabinet, because they could reach it easily.

You or some of your family members may be visually cued. If this is the case, consider keeping items on open shelving units in full view or in clear containers. You can experiment and find out what works best for you and your children. This idea is meant to help restore order and keep mental clarity flowing, as well as creativity. When you cannot locate what you need and desire, it can be more challenging to create.

Each person has his or her own place on the continuum from preferring pristine order to liking to have items in the open, which some people might view as a disorderly mess. Distinguish what works for you and your family. You know your children best.

The Multi-Purpose Dining Table

Many families use the dining room or kitchen table for many purposes, including eating, crafting, working, doing homework, and playing board games.

Whenever a room or table serves several purposes, it’s important to be able to easily clear it for the next use. For example, meals ideally should take place on a table that’s free of work, school papers, or bills, all which could distract family members from the purpose of eating and bonding with one another.

Eating together is such a special social ritual for nourishing our bodies, hearts, and souls. Some of my favorite memories are ones I spent eating, talking, and laughing at the dining room table during a meal. Of course, my favorite memories also include the times at that same table when I laughed with my daughter while helping her with homework or a paper she was writing.

To accommodate these multiple uses for your dining table, all of which are important in your home, work to keep the table and surrounding area (which might be a dining room in your home or a designated part of your kitchen) free and clear of objects not intended for mealtime, such as exercise equipment, “to-read” piles, TVs, and garden tools. Consider relocating these items to other areas of the home. You can create cabinets or shelves to store non-dining items between uses. When the dining area is clear and serene, it helps to make dining and digestion more peaceful.

Treasure Boxes

I gave each child a long, large “treasure box” in which I encouraged him or her to place meaningful keepsakes and mementos. Once a year, usually at the end of a school year, I sat with my children as we’d go through their treasure boxes and look for things they no longer wanted to keep.      

I remember my son letting go of elementary school items. Once he was in middle school, he couldn’t remember many kids from preschool and grade school. He easily let go of the cards and trinkets associated with those children.

This once-a-year ritual is especially important because otherwise, the box may get stuffed. I did not buy any more boxes. I told my kids the one box was it. As time passed, they found it easy to let go of items that no longer held meaning in their changing lives.

I especially remember sitting with my daughter a few weeks before she left for college and going piece by piece through her treasure box. We laughed looking at photos of her middle school friends and cried as she read letters. We opened a calendar I created during her first year of life with milestone stickers and notes I had written about her and how much her dad and I love her. She kept this calendar, a true treasure.

Parent Treasure Box

Have your own treasure box of the items you value most, both related and unrelated to your children. Be open to releasing old birthday cards, Christmas cards, and other mementos. Know and trust that in the years to come you will continue to receive both birthday and Christmas cards from people who love you. Take photos if needed as a way to remember your favorite cards before you put them in the recycling bin. Otherwise, you might find that these items pile up so much that you cannot find the items that are truly meaningful to you.

You may find it difficult to let go of children’s artwork, schoolwork, and homemade gifts. It may help you to remember that creating artwork often involves the joy of the process itself. With children, especially, there is often less attachment to the product and great joy inside the process of creating. Keep some of them up and current. If your children have graduated from high school, consider taking down the kindergartner finger paintings hanging in the living room, or choose just one, frame it, and store the rest. Again, take lots of photos if you need to, and keep your very favorite items for your treasure box. Let the rest go, trusting that you are making room for new memories that will come.

The Wish List

Anytime you are in a store or out and about, have a pad of paper and pen in your purse and write down ideas your children share with you about things they would love to have. Tell them that the item is going on the wish list, and let them watch you write down the information about the item they would like. Next birthday or Christmas, choose an item on that list you think your child would still enjoy and purchase it. You might notice some items are forgotten the moment after you write them down. Let those ones go, too

This idea allows young children to be heard and validated for a desire they have at the moment. It empowers the imagination for both children and adults with our “bucket list” of dreams and aspirations.

Secure Your Own Oxygen Mask First

I’ve grown to have deep compassion for parents, especially those who struggle to manage their stress and anger and heal the wounds of their own childhood. Once I hit my daughter’s bottom in a moment of rage. I don’t even remember now what she had done; I’m certain she was only being a two-year-old. I know I terrified her; I terrified myself. I never did it again (although I continued to struggle with feelings of rage that seemed to come out of nowhere). At that moment, I knew that people who hit their kids rarely do it from a place of deep love and peace inside themselves. I also knew that I needed help responding in the best ways I could to the challenges of parenting. I now know why hospitals give parents numbers to call so they won’t abuse their children. I know why parenting classes are mandatory for some people and why many organizations exist to help parents heal their own trauma or childhood wounds. Breaking the cycle takes commitment, persistence, and courage.

I came from a sexually, physically, and very emotionally violent upbringing, with parts of the violence persisting into my adulthood. As the targeted child in my family, I internalized the brutal words of a mentally ill mother, who has had an awakening in recent months. After 11 years of separation from my entire family of origin, I’ve recently been blessed by a miraculous reconnection. My mom has recently apologized with heartfelt remorse for her cruel behavior. I have forgiven her and love her to this day. However, the experiences of my childhood presented challenges that I found formidable when my children were young and I suddenly found myself face to face with my own rage.

Keep in mind that the advice the flight attendants give to passengers with children applies to us in life too: We need to secure our own oxygen masks and then help our children with theirs. That is, we need to work to heal ourselves and to find strategies to best deal with young children. I encourage you to look outward for the people and resources that can help you to be the parent you want to be.

I had done a lot of healing before becoming pregnant, but it turned out that was only the tip of the iceberg. Inside the experience of parenting is when I discovered both my strengths and my trauma that had to heal. In addition to the work I did in counseling and various other modalities, I reached outward for other experts who could help me to be the parent I wanted to be. I cherish all the authors, preschool teachers, life coaches, mentors, clients, and therapists who shared the wisdom that continues to resonate with my heart.

It is also important that on a day-to-day (and sometimes moment-by-moment) basis, you balance caring for your children with caring for yourself. Take the time you need to meet your own needs, whatever they may be.

All my Best,

Laura Staley

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