Stuff, Families, and Peace

Kids fighting over a toy

There is nothing like staying at home, with your family, 24 hours a day, for 3 months to create a little tension. Even though we love each other and may be thankful for having more time together, we are still dealing with the challenges of cohabitation, such as:

  • Limited privacy
  • Shared work and play areas
  • Traffic in the kitchen
  • Increased cleaning needs
  • Perpetual “noise”
  • Differing dietary needs and tastes
  • Endless dirty laundry

In addition to the typical complexities of shared space, this recent period of “stay at home” has meant that most of us have had fewer outlets through which we can express our stress and emotions. As a result, it easy for small issues to explode into major disagreements. One potentially volatile topic in homes tends to be the use and placement of household belongings.

Here are a few common sources of arguments:

  • Refusing to put toys away
  • Leaving dishes lying around
  • Loading the dishwasher the “wrong” way
  • Borrowing others’ belongings without asking
  • Dropping dirty clothing and towels on the floor
  • Strewing toiletries across a shared bathroom counter
  • Deserting project supplies on the kitchen table or island
  • Dumping shoes in the middle of the floor

The good news is that there are solutions for almost all sources of consternation related to physical possessions. Unfortunately, they are not always quick and easy. The longer a pattern has been in operation, the more difficult it will be to change. Also, if there are chronic issues involved, such as hoarding disorder or dementia, specialized systems and consistent support will likely be required. Still, for most families, common annoyances can be addressed and improved.

So how do we proceed when conflicts are impacting our ability to enjoy a space?

FIRST, we need to remember that unless we live alone, we will not always have our own way. Compromise is simply a part of sharing space. Whether we are living with a roommate, spouse, parents, au pair, in-laws, or children, we have to acknowledge that there will need to be some give and take.

SECOND, we can prioritize working on the issues that  are causing the most grief. Not all irritants are equally egregious. Furthermore, if we try to micromanage behavior, we will become known as the family nag… whom everyone typically tunes out. Instead, try doing a “brain dump” of everything that is bothersome. You can do this alone, but you will get more family buy-in if everyone is asked to contribute. Once the list is made, go back and put an asterisk next to the two or three that are causing the greatest stress.

THIRD, we need to involve relevant parties in strategizing solutions. Of course, small children mostly require clear and consistent instruction, but as children get older, they can and should be part of any negotiation to improve the household dynamic. Parents get the final say, but children are more likely to comply with rules they have helped establish. Hold a family meeting to talk about the two or three issues from the top of the priority list. Let everyone who wishes to speak do so. Some may think there is no problem or be disinterested, while others may want to come up with suggestions.

FOURTH, identify a new pattern by which the family agrees to abide . The proposed actions should be clearly articulated, so that no one can later claim, “I didn’t know that I was supposed to do that.” There should also be agreed-upon consequences for failure to comply; everyone should know in advance what will happen if they don’t get with the system. Likewise, you may want to decide on how the group will reward itself for successfully implementing the change, such as “if everyone puts their toys back in the proper places once a day, we will pick up ice cream on Saturday night.” To ensure that everyone remains on the same page, write out the new policy and to post it in a common area.

LAST, and this can be the hardest part, be consistent in enforcing the new way of doing things, especially in the first few weeks. This isn’t about punishing, but rather about respecting the contract that members of the group have made. If/when someone falls short, the consequences need to be brought to bear. The temptation is to “let it go just this one time,” but chronic offenders tend to take advantage of this kind of mercy.

The good news is, during this season we may have a little more time to cultivate successful patterns. Perhaps we don’t have the pressure of needing to be at practice in ten minutes, so we can wait for a chore to be completed or a temper tantrum to play out. Or maybe the time saved by not commuting means having the few extra moments to walk around and put things away.

*     *     *     *     *

Establishing a new order may take a bit of effort up front but life will be so much more pleasant in the long run if you invest the time to design organizing and storage systems with which everyone can live.

What issues tend to bubble up around “stuff” in your space? Have you ever intentionally negotiated a solution?

29 thoughts on “Stuff, Families, and Peace”

  1. Great advice, Seana and I agree to invest a bit of time to organize a better system does help to allow us to adjust somewhat better at least from what I have seen so far during this time in my own home. Thanks for sharing and all your helpful tips 😉

  2. I’ve thought about lots of issues that could arise out of being cooped up together for a long period of time, but this one never crossed my mind, since my husband and I are both neat freaks. However, you’ve made me think about someone that I used to share workspace with and I definitely wouldn’t want to be in lockdown with someone like that!
    Janet Barclay recently posted…Do you have (or need) a Privacy Policy?My Profile

    1. You are so fortunate that both you and your husband share the same “style” when it comes to belongings. I am frequently working with families where this isn’t the case. In fact, I think I’d say it is very common for a couple to have one very organized spouse, and one less organized spouse. Or one “shedder” and one “keeper.” These issues have been magnified during this recent period, and are causing stress. Count our blessings, right?

  3. Seana, this is fabulous advice. You are spot on when you say some problems are not as important as others. Pick your battles. I also love the idea of a family meeting where everyone says what the problems are and everyone can contribute to the solutions. I find there is a much greater rate of buy in when everyone is invested in the solution.
    Diane Quintana recently posted…Plan but Manage Your ExpectationsMy Profile

    1. Giving everyone a voice in a family meeting is sort of what we are trying to do as a nation right now! I think each person needs to feel heard, and then we can move on to setting priorities and designing solutions:)

  4. My 14-year-old son, in response to my daily nagging, came up with a mature solution: he made his own daily to-do list. He typed it on his computer and brought it to me for approval. It included such tasks as: practice saxophone for 20 minutes, and “clean something up in my room.” I was thrilled. Now, I just ask him about his to-do list. So far, so good.
    Melissa Gratias recently posted…When your Core Values Flash Before your Very EyesMy Profile

  5. What a timely post! A few things came to mind, like “loading the dishwasher the wrong way.” The funny thing (or maybe not) is that as the pandemic hit, our dishwasher broke. It had a good 30-year run, so no tears. We decided not to replace it until we’re comfortable having traffic in our home. So for the past three months, we’ve been hand washing dishes. And frankly, I don’t mind because I enjoy doing anything water-related, including dishwashing. But here’s the thing. I’m a terrible stacker. Ironic, isn’t it? – An organizer being a terrible dish stacker? My husband loves to tease me about it. I created an especially precarious stack the other day, which he thought was photo-worthy. Instead of it being a source of tension, we laugh about it. And if he feels like restacking or putting the dishes away, I am okay with that. 🙂

    The other two things that came to mind were compromise and consideration. As you said, unless you live alone, compromise is vital in keeping the wheels greased. And with consideration, if you think about how your activities, sounds, or habits are impacting the people you are living with (and they do the same,) life will run more smoothly, and relationships will be kinder. Both ideas encourage being other-centered in our behaviors.

    1. It does come down to being other-centered, which doesn’t come naturally. BUT, it can be so rewarding that we at least warm to the idea of trying to think of others more. I love your comment about “sounds” being a source of irritation. That is so true! It can be the sound someone makes when chewing, or the way they scoot their chair across the floor. The more we voice these concerns, in a respectful and cooperative setting, the more we can address them. We need that safe forum to bring them up, instead of snapping in the moment when we are irritated. Sorry about your dishwasher! Mine is making strange noises, and I have a feeling it is going to give up the ghost soon!

  6. These are common conflict areas that arise all the time not just during times when we are all together for an extended period of time. I think about when school ends, when students move back from college, holiday celebrations and when families vacation together. During Covid19 we have time to learn and practice these conflict resolution steps you listed. Once learned they can be applied in the future to many “togetherness situations”

    1. That’s so true, Julie. These issues are always active in multi-person households, and any change of living situations can exacerbate them. I remember when my oldest came home from college:)

    1. I think you bring up an excellent point. Often we fall into patterns when an emergency or new situation hits without giving them full thought. Or, we tolerate a situation because of extenuating circumstances, but then are stuck in that routine when the circumstances pass. It is never too late to call a family meeting and set a new system in place!

  7. This is another reason why Family Meetings matter all the time. Family meetings are the time and place to determine resolutions and solutions to these type of conflicts.

    1. I love a family meeting. I think I love them more than anyone else, but if you actually give each family member a voice, they can be very successful! Remember to keep them short, though, or people tune out and resist attending.

  8. Excellent advice. I think an added benefit of this approach is modeling and teaching conflict resolution. As children go off to college or other environments where they are sharing a space with non-family members, it’s good for them to have some experience with working through differences with regard to sharing a space. I think it’s also good to include in the conversation what it means to be considerate and why that is important.

    1. I agree that it is so important to articulate the importance of being considerate. I feel like that used to be just part of becoming a grown up, but it seems many today no longer value this important trait!

  9. This has been a hard time! Particularly because we haven’t had many breaks, no one is leaving for extended periods of time during the day. So, it’s a whole new way of getting along.
    I really had to smile when I read this. Just a few hours ago I asked my son if he wanted to join me for a day trip to visit my grandson (his nephew) my daughter and son-in-law. We haven’t seen each other in the longest time and everyone’s getting tested first, So my son said, “ Take this in the kindest way, but couldn’t we use the time to ourselves, which we haven’t had in months. It’s a good chance for you to get away for a day mom!” So, what he was really saying was, I need time away from you and a long car ride isn’t in the stars.
    It does make me smile!

    1. I give your son points for being able to articulate his need for “alone time” in such a nice way. We all need a break for one another, especially when we are trapped together in a house for three months:)

  10. You’re so right, these day to day frustrations are easy to become focal points for larger stresses. I went through this a couple of years ago when I was doing chemo. I had to save the small amounts of energy I did have for what was really important. I came to feel that I’d rather spend the energy I had with my family in positive ways and not on trying to control the state of my house. As an organizer, that was a huge challenge. What I learned was that when I was truly willing to let it go, the energy in the house changed. The rest of my family picked up the slack and took care of the things that were vital to keeping the house running. They didn’t do it to my standards but they did it and figured out ways to get things done that surprised me and made me realize I’d been managing the energy in the house around chores in an unbalanced way.
    Lucy Kelly recently posted…How Long Will It Take to Get Organized?My Profile

    1. That is such an interesting testimony, Lucy. I’m so sorry you had to go through the whole chemo journey, but I greatly value the insight you are are sharing here. Sometimes we (the control freaks) need to back off in order to give others the space to step up! It is very hard to let go of that control, but I bet the others in your home felt a sense of joy to be able to contribute in their own way, which probably helped the vibe in the whole house!

  11. Longtime problem here. And on a relevant sidenote, it’s crazy to me to think that we’ve all been home together for three months now. I mean I used to RELISH my long weekdays alone and get weird about weekends. Now I’ve been at odd peace with this neverending togetherness.

    Anyway, the kids are clutter kings. Cassidy would gladly throw it all away. I’m probably somewhere in the middle. It definitely leads to tensions and brand new ways of organizing things. We have eliminated two problem zones and it’s only temporary. We eliminated all our winter gear as well as all our school gear. Sigh.
    Tamara recently posted…Best Online Travel ResourcesMy Profile

    1. I’ve worked with “throw it all away” clients, and while the results are very satisfying, I think there is a benefit when couples have a bit of push and pull on this topic. One spouse tends to encourage the other to shed a bit, while the other ensures that important items and precious memories are maintained. I for one am DELIGHTED to have finally put the winter gear away!!

  12. #2 – Pick your battles! Our oldest son moved back home during the pandemic, because his apartment lease was up. He’s pretty easy to live with. He works all day and spends lots of time in front of his computer when at home. But it was still an adjustment. I can’t imagine what some families are going through.

    1. Indeed. It has been an adjustment, and multiple adults is a bit different than parents and children. Adults are more set into patterns, and one doesn’t necessarily have the “authority” to dictate how things should be done. Communication and respect are the keys, and also learning to let things go that don’t really matter! Nice to have your son home. Both of my girls have felt very far away from me during all of this! Thank heavens for Facetime and Zoom:)

    1. I have had the same thoughts, Marcia. My heart has gone out to those trying to manage kids at home all day, especially those locked into apartments with no access to outside space!

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