The “10 Things” Rule Helps My Family of 6 Stay Clutter-Free

When my husband and I decided to have a large family, I knew some clutter and chaos would come along with it. But what I didn’t realize is that it would only take one simple rule, implemented consistently, to maintain some semblance of order in the mayhem. It’s been dubbed the “10 things” rule, and it means I can see the playroom floor at the end of the day in spite of having four sons under the age of seven.

Believe it or not, my home actually stays more organized with the “10 things” rule than it did when we had no children. The rule is simple: anytime my family transitions between events or locations every single person — even (and especially) the kids — grabs 10 things to clean up.

The rule was born from necessity: After having a few kids, we realized how much stuff everyone accumulates over time, and how quickly it can clutter our home. The kitchen island was always filled with bills to be filed, pieces of Happy Meal toys, and cereal boxes that somebody left out. The living room floor was home to shoes in a variety of sizes scattered about.

The “10 things” rule wasn’t the first trick we tried. Making sure every kid put back every toy they took out wasn’t working. Doing a full house clean up after bedtime wasn’t working either, and it also didn’t teach the kids to take care of their own stuff. So instead, we focused on picking up during transition times — like right after a meal or before leaving the house —and over the years, the 10 things rule has evolved to become even more effective. Neighbors, cousins, and playdates know about it because it’s become part of my family’s routine, and I’m sure it will live on into the boys’ teen years (at which point I’ll be met with a blank and indifferent stare and the rule may die — who knows).

Until then, it works. And if you want to try it for yourself, here are five tips on how to implement the “10 things” rule in your own home:

Match the number to the mess

Sometimes the 10 things rule is actually five things, like when we are in a hurry, or 20 things, like when everyone needs to clean up after a long playdate. Quickly analyze the size of the mess, and choose your number. This can help kids with logic, reasoning, and math skills too at an early age, as they make predictions of how many items each child needs to pick up to be able to see the floor again.

The reason all of the neighbor kids know this trick is because they help clean up after playing, too. The rule is catchy, and it sticks — sometimes other parents even help initiate it when they are picking up their kids to leave. It works because a whole floor clean up isn’t really doable, but 10 things really puts a dent in the clutter quickly, especially when you multiply it by five little kids or more.

Take it outside the house

Much to my kids’ chagrin, the rule follows us outside the house too. Eating pizza at the zoo? Grab five things to help clean up the picnic table. Exiting our purple minivan, affectionately called “Grape”? Grab five things off the floor to bring inside (this is my personal favorite after finding an apple core that had been dissolving in my van since the beginning of creation).

Be consistent with transitions

At first there was lots of whining and the rule seemed to just delay the already difficult process of getting out of the house with all these people. But over time and with some consistency, it became as routine as using the restroom or filling up a water bottle on the way out. For a few weeks, use it at every transition until it becomes the norm, and then you may even find some other family members initiating it. The transitions that work best for us are: before TV time, before or after a meal, before leaving the house, before bedtime, and right after weekend breakfasts (before fun things start happening).

Another fun strategy that’s originated from the 10 things rule is racing to see who can finish the fastest in multiple rooms. With six people (five able to help, until the baby is old enough to discover the magic), six rooms in the house are picked up in a matter of seconds. It has also taught the value of teamwork when two of my sons decide to tackle one room that is more daunting together, at which point we might be shooting for 30 things, such as when baskets of clean laundry need to be put away.

The rule isn’t perfect, and neither are any of us. Sometimes we have lazy days and my 4-year-old slow-plays it: “putting Legos away” by building them into a structure while everyone else helps. Or, the 2-year-old spends the whole time trying to find shoes, ending with only two of his 10 things. But overall, the tip has saved our sanity, our home, and our parenting from stress and mayhem, and created a place we all want to come home to.

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