YOU Are Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: How to Live (in Style) with Small Children

Small children are an absolute delight and are a great source of satisfaction.  But like most things that provide delight and satisfaction, they leave a serious mess behind.  They pick their noses, throw their food, eat your houseplants and drag their dirty feet across your hand-tufted Tibetan wool area rug.  Don’t be alarmed, but right now your child may be hosting multiple parasites in her hair and/or intestines.

all white living room

My actual living room before I had kids.

Picture 460

Is this really what you want?

Perhaps you’re planning to have kids, and think that your own offspring will be special, different; that you’ll be able to maintain peak levels of cleanliness and style in your home.  Nope. Your kids aren’t special, and neither are mine.  They are a powerful destructive force, and for the few first years it’s best just to duck and cover.

But before you spring for that vasectomy, take heart:  Even with small children underfoot, there are many simple ways to maintain acceptable levels of style and cleanliness in your home.

The most vulnerable room of all, due to the volume of food and liquids being sloshed, spilled, and splattered about.  After our little family destroyed three “natural” rugs,* I came to my senses and bought an “outdoor” rug (euphemistically named “poolside rug”).  It’s made from Polypropylene, which is a fancy word for woven plastic.
Picture 1257Six months and 183 spilled bowls of oatmeal later, we soaked the rug in the bathtub for a few hours, then scrubbed it down and hosed it off in the backyard. And aside from the puddle of white primer I spilled on it last month – it’s as good as new.

And nothing beats our cheap (and surprisingly sturdy) plastic white dining room chairs. We found these in the Office Furniture section at IKEA;  they couldn’t be easier to wipe down.

Picture 1259

The slot provides drainage for spilled milk and ventilation for Baby Farts (it was definitely the baby that farted).

And for goodness sake, if you’ve got a deck, backyard or nearby park — eat outside as much as you can.  Cleanup involves only a hose and your friendly neighborhood vermin.

Picture 1250A Note About Ugly Baby Supplies:
Most kid stuff is ugly — garish colors and Disney Princesses.  Who says you have to give up your modern style just to feed your kids? Buy your baby’s dining supplies at the thrift store.  This modern four-piece yellow plate-and-cup set was only 75 cents at the Salvation Army (yeah, we already lost one of the cups); the gorgeous mid-century sippy cup only a quarter.

Picture 1253

We affectionately call this “Don Draper’s Sippy Cup,” though it is not usually filled with whiskey.

As we wander from the Dining to Living areas, I must enforce one critical rule: Food does not leave the dining room.  This single rule will save you hours of cleaning and hundreds of dollars in exterminator bills.

For easy maintenance, take a tip from our Dining Room tour and invest in plastic furniture.  Especially if you enjoy Mid-Century Modern styles, there are many attractive options that can also be hosed off in the backyard, like this “reproduction” Eames chair (right).

My kids put the "knock-off" in my Knock-Off Eames Rocker

My kids put the “knock-off” in Knock-Off Eames Rocker

Or this tasteful vinyl lounge chair that we dragged in from the alley and disinfected (pssst… Vinyl is another fancy word for Plastic).

Picture 1270Since some of your furniture actually needs to  be comfortable, I recommend choosing couches in Neutral Booger-Tones.

Fortunately, Scott and I were still pretty broke when we started having kids, so we didn’t have much for them to ruin.  We bought these Booger-Toned sleeper sofas off Craigslist, and because I was 8 months pregnant, I didn’t have to help carry them home.
Picture 1266Finally, keep nice things up high. Children can’t resist electronics, lights, or things that spin. Last year, Scott bought a sexy new turntable, and we made the mistake of placing it proudly on the living room credenza.  It lasted about two days. If you work in the living space, make a standing desk to keep your computer safely out of sticky toddler hands.

Even standing on an upturned bucket of legos, this mischievous toddler can't reach the keyboard.

Even standing on an upturned bucket of legos, this mischievous toddler can’t reach the keyboard.

About two or three times a year, a small but potent group of Grandparents and Aunties unloads trunkfuls of brightly-colored plastic toys, some of which actually beep and blink.

Learn to Be A Crap Curator! Your kids really don’t need any of this stuff, and they definitely don’t need all of it.  The day after their birthdays or your relevant religious gift-giving holiday, quietly put aside the ugliest, most obnoxious toys – the ones that make the loudest noise or have the most pieces – and either re-gift, return or donate.

The most wonderful time of the year.

The most wonderful time of the year.

In fact, any time you’re feeling overwhelmed, simply wait until the kids are away or asleep, and put half the toys in the closet or a closed box on top of a high shelf.  Don’t worry, you’ll know which ones they’ll actually miss.  Six months later, you can switch them all back again (sometimes the space under the couch serves this purpose as well):
In our house, the adult bedroom is — for the most part — a no-kid zone.  The door stays closed and is too warped for a child to open on her own. Aside from Scott’s drawing desk, there’s nothing particularly dangerous for them to get into…  I just don’t want them in there. Though I will confess that when the weather is just too miserable to bear, I will let this happen for an hour or so:

Highly recommend a latex mattress – it will absorb all the impact so you won’t disturb your downstairs neighbors

A latex mattress will absorb all the impact so as not to disturb your downstairs neighbors

Installing childproof latches on your cabinets will pretty much take of things in this room.  A Special Note about Make-Up:  I don’t have much, as wearing it makes me feel like a drag queen.  But small children find it absolutely irresistible.

One day my mother-in-law, who was living with us at the time, put the two-year-old down for a nap in the same room as her make up bag. This is the result:

Probably what I would look like if I wore lipstick, too.

Probably what I would look like if I wore lipstick, too.

I give up…

Picture 434*This post is in loving memory of the all the dining room rugs that lost their lives due to suffocation by spilled oatmeal.


16 thoughts on “YOU Are Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: How to Live (in Style) with Small Children

  1. Thanks for the memories 😦 Love your blog 🙂

    When we hit big time ie a new sofa that I got to choose rather than accepting all the hand-me-downs I went all out and splurged on the prettiest, chinziest (tightly packed with pinks, greens and other shades of garden delights) heavy duty linen loose cover comfiest sofa ever. Three snotty little boys and it hid EVERYTHING! Even a spill or two of my red wine. We lived on that sofa!


    • Sofas are tricky. My parents still have the same sofa as when we were all kids. They covered it in plastic until the youngest child (me) was 12. I’m also dreaming of a big sofa splurge (i.e., not Craigslist or a hand-me-down), but really don’t want to do it while the kids are still small. Would love to see a pic of the sofa you got.


  2. We bought a couple of IKEA Lillberg rocking chairs off Craigslist a couple of years ago and my mother-in-law’s friend offered to dye the covers for us. She asked me what color I wanted and I told her it didn’t matter as long as it hid snot, food spills and barf. She ended-up doing a cocoa-colored tie-dye and it hides everything!


    • YES! I see a business opportunity here — Let’s design a line of furniture with a whole palette of gross child colors: snot, barf, boogers, dirt, and — with apologies to our European readers — peanut butter.


  3. We had those trays/cups! Two orange ones and two navy blue. My youngest is eight now. As long as I don’t go in their rooms, my life is definitely less messy.


  4. Kitchen hints!
    * Make the front on the bottom shelf or two of the fridge a “free-for-all” zone stocked with veggies, cheese sticks, fruit, etc. Fewer things knocked out during exploration, and fewer trips up from the couch to provide more grapes.
    * same for a cabinet at kid level. Crackers, kids bowls and cups, etc. bonus: “I’m thirsty!” “You know where the cups are.”
    * having plenty of collaborative tasks, like helping start the dishwasher or grinding the coffee, make the “no you may never touch the knives” seem less personal (to some kids, anyway.)
    * having a six year-old who can make your morning coffee or an eight year-old who can pour cereal for the three year-old is a huge plus. Put in the extra work up front and harvest later.
    * clean up the spills early. Especially the eggs.


    • Thanks for the kitchen tips! As you can see, beyond child locks on the cabinets and a lid on the trash can, I don’t have much to add. I do think that letting your kids help you cook — and giving them little jobs in general — is a great idea and helps them develop their knife… I mean life… skills. My own problem with this approach has been that my now-4-year-old wants to help us cook ALL THE TIME, and sometimes I just don’t have the patience or the time to let her. What do you do?


      • I just spent half the afternoon figuring out how to let my youngest (also 4) help me cook… Dinner will be about an hour late because of that 🙂

        So I don’t have a direct answer to your question, other than planning buffer time in the day. Eventually they can fold dumplings and microwave snacks without supervision and it all pays off.


      • I know your kid’s probably 6(?) now. But I just found your blog. Montessori parents are way into having kids help in the kitchen and can be a good resource for ideas. I think many would suggest putting a four-year-old in charge of making salad for dinner: tearing lettuce, maybe grating carrots and cheese, using a mushroom slicer, adding tomatoes, and shaking up pre-measured vinaigrette ingredients. If you’re looking for more ideas for older kids, I’d check out some of those blogs.


  5. Ah, I remember those days. My husband built a lovely wooden jungle gym thingy in the living room so that we could keep our couch. It worked out nicely.

    I don’t wear lipstick either, because, like your daughter, I never got the hang of applying it properly. Love your blog!


  6. I love the idea of an outdoor rug. When we gave up our indoor rug, our dining room table got wobbly. A “poolside” rug would undoubtedly look classier than the post-it note pads we’re using as shims.


  7. Pingback: Alley Lamp Make-Over: Just Add Spray Paint and an Old Pillow Case! | projectophile

  8. Thanks for the tips! We have a 6 month old and she will soon start on solids, I was thinking of reupholstering our chairs with beautiful linen (sigh), maybe I’ll hunt for some waterproof kind of textiles like the ones used for outdoor verandas…I’ll let you know how it went 🙂


    • Goodness, this post is nearly two years old, and looking back I feel like I have misled everyone on a few points (my younger kids are now 4 and 5).

      We got rid of that indoor/outdoor rug. It just got to be too much of a pain to clean. Even though it’s made from polypropylene, it’s still “woven” and so, so much crud gets smooshed into the fibers. Think mashed banana, rice, avocado. We found it much easier just to wipe down the bare wood floors after dinner.

      Happily, after we put that rug out in the alley, our next-door neighbor (a young man in his early 20s), pulled it out, scrubbed it down and uses it in his own kitchen. Hopefully he’s old enough to keep the food on his plate!

      I also recovered that wood bench in our dining room with foam and a slick, totally wipe-able oilcloth. This is a big success story because the thick foam gives the bench more height (so the kiddos can reach the table), and the oilcloth is super easy to wipe down. Here’s that project:


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