Christian Homeschool Resources & Homeschooling Advice

Ten Tips for Taming Chaos

  • Dell Tunnicliff The Old Schoolhouse Magazine
  • 2009 18 Aug
Ten Tips for Taming Chaos

When I began writing Taming the Chaos articles for Front Porch, I was amazed at how vast a topic organization really is! Organization (and too often disorganization) affects every aspect of life. I'd like to share my top chaos taming tips—the tips that I repeat to myself almost daily.

1. Keep First Things First

Those things we consider our highest priorities too frequently end up being pushed to the bottom in the practical day-to-day. Arts and crafts might be high on the philosophical priority list, but if supplies are difficult to access, projects fall through the cracks. Family reading times are awkward in a room where everything faces the rarely used television. (In some cases something as simple as moving the sofa could alter the course of the entire family culture in the evenings!)

Things I consider "above" scheduling are frequently neglected. I'll think, "Of course we will memorize scripture!" and that assumption leaves me vulnerable to the whim of my memory. It is a constant challenge to me to live intentionally and to keep first things first in a practical sense rather than just as sentimental good intentions. Giving important things their rightful spot on the schedule helps keep me on track.

2. Leave It Better Than You Found It

Leaving things better than we find them is a simple concept we teach to our children, but I can be heard reminding myself to do the same daily. Especially in those seasons when I'm not up to striving to reach complicated goals, I just try to ensure the laundry is more caught up today than it was yesterday, that our finances are better this month than last, and that the children know a little more today than they did last week.

3. Productivity Breeds Contentment

When one of the children is testing boundaries and being inexplicably difficult, I ask myself whether his days are meaningful and productive. Thorns and thistles are part of the curse, but work itself was assigned to Adam before sin entered the world—without it, we struggle to find our place.

Right now, I have a little guy suffering from work deprivation. He's begging to learn to read and looks on longingly as Daddy, Mommy, and older sisters do most of the chores. It's easy to put him off—training a new recruit takes longer than doing the tasks myself. Young minds and hands are itching to do something purposeful and constructive and when deprived of that opportunity will do something destructive. I've recently given my small helper a few special chores and am already noticing a difference. His eyes reflect the confidence and joy of being part of the family team.

Certainly childhood requires generous amounts of playtime—time to romp, blow dandelions, and simply watch dust particles in the sunlight—but unless it's balanced with productivity, leisure loses its power to quench and refresh.                  

Productivity is good for us as moms too. If I am not careful to balance my leisure time, I become lethargic and detached and irritable. Whatever our age, productivity breeds contentment.

4. Don't Expect What You Aren't Willing to Inspect

This phrase (borrowed from a Marine Sergeant) is now one of my favorite self-reminders! The Marine Sergeant knows he must be diligent in training and then follow through with inspection. (And if that's true for grown men, how much more so for little children!)

If the goal is neatly made beds, then inspecting the beds each morning is critical—especially in the training phase or "boot camp." Catching problems quickly and not allowing sloppy habits to become ingrained pays off.

Ironically, I wouldn't dream of neglecting to review a first grader's math assignments until the end of the year, for I know that without consistent feedback and evaluation, bad habits and mistakes take root. Yet for some reason I am more diligent about teaching new math skills than I am about encouraging my children to develop good work habits.

5. Do the Next Thing

When I'm at the end of my strength and the end of my rope, God often answers my prayers by reminding me of Elisabeth Elliot's saying: "Do the next thing." Rather than thinking of all I need to do, I simply focus on the task at hand, and it alone doesn't seem as overwhelming. One step at a time, a mountain is climbed.

6. Eradicate UFOs

Are UFOs out of control in your home? No, I'm not talking about flying objects. (Although if your home is like mine, you may catch a glimpse of airborne articles zipping past on occasion!) The kinds of UFOs I'm thinking of are unfinished objects.

Those partially done cross-stitch projects that are lurking in my workbasket are UFOs. I have fabric for jumpers cut out, but the girls outgrew them before they ever made it to my sewing machine. I have hooks purchased for the coat closet—still sitting in the bag from the hardware store. Unfinished Objects can be sources of guilt and waste. I like to start the week by thinking of a few UFOs to eradicate and then enjoying the thrill of crossing them off of my list upon completion.

7. Get a Fresh Perspective  

Imagination is a wonderful tool in organization. Try looking at your house from an outsider's perspective. Walk through the rooms as if preparing for a make-believe houseguest. As you shower, imagine your guest using that same bathroom. When you open the refrigerator, look at it through the eyes of the stranger. Visualize her opening the medicine chest in search of a replacement roll of toilet paper or looking for a towel in the linen closet. (When I did this I noticed spots on the bathroom ceiling, and I also noticed that my kitchen sink needs caulk.)

Familiarity often breeds complacency instead of contempt, and I become desensitized to things I see each day. While remembering that it isn't all about externals and appearances, think of yourself and your family as honored guests worthy of a nice "first impression" each time you come in the door.

I like to apply the same "fresh perspective" to our schooling as well. I make-believe a friend is considering homeschooling and wants to watch an "average" day in our home. While trying to be real and true to who we really are, I ponder, "What would I do differently with an audience?" Assuming my friend has a similar style and goals that are similar to my own, what would she love about my day? What would she want to change? (If nothing else, this exercise always reminds me to smile more as I teach. How unfortunate that I'd smile more for an observer than I would just for my own children!)

8. Tame the Procrastination Monster

"Do not put off until tomorrow . . ." the adage reminds us.

Some time ago my daughter brought me a jumper with a loose button. I could have sewn it on immediately, but I wasn't in mending mode. Instead of getting a needle and thread, I began searching for a safety pin to secure it for its sojourn in my mending pile. In the time I located a safety pin and attached the button temporarily, I could have sewn it on and been done with the job. I catch myself in similar instances of counterproductive procrastination far too often. My mending pile (and countless other aspects of life!) will be less overwhelming if I remember to not put off for tomorrow what can easily be done today.

9. Beware of "Broken Windows" 

Police refer to a phenomenon called the "broken window effect." The theory is that signs of physical or social neglect in a neighborhood provide "green lights" to characters who are already inclined toward criminal conduct.                   

A broken apartment window indicates to delinquents that enforcement is lax. Thus, a prankster with a can of spray paint is likely to choose the "broken window" alley over a well-maintained area. The graffiti in turn sends a message that litter is acceptable, and residents lose pride in their decaying neighborhood. This littered, vandalized street corner draws even shadier characters and more violent crimes.

The "broken window" principle applies to clutter and chaos in our homes as well. If I get in a hurry after lunch and abandon an unscrubbed spaghetti pot on the stove, each person passing through the kitchen feels licensed to leave a snack dish unrinsed. (What does one extra dirty bowl matter, when there are already two others on the counter?) Chairs around the table won't be pushed in, and crumbs and spatters are added to the mess. The children come in from outside and pick up on the "anything goes" attitude, tossing their sweaters on the couch rather than hanging them in the closet. The sweater-strewn couch in turn encourages other clutter crimes. As the week progresses, the room (at first just "pleasantly lived in") deteriorates into complete disarray—and the disorder flows into adjoining rooms.

I'm quick to repair "broken windows," because I know that once I let things slide they can get away from me quickly. The rewards of diligence are a tidy home and a calm atmosphere. Just as chaos begets chaos, order often begets order, and a calm, tidy house does wonders for morale.             

10. Organization Isn't an End Unto Itself

My final reminder to myself is that the structure that allows one mom to stay on track might burden and stifle another. Organization is a tool to enable better stewardship and to equip your family to accomplish the plans God has for you. Like anything else, organization can become an idol. I have to frequently evaluate my motives to ensure that my schedule and structure are serving my family rather than the other way around.

Whether it's repairing "broken windows," eradicating UFOs, or just doing "the next thing," tame a bit of chaos today! 

*First published on August 18, 2009

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Dell and her husband Ken homeschool their five children on the windswept plains of Wyoming. When not tending, training, and teaching, Dell might be found with her nose in a book, behind a camera lens, in the chocolate chip bag, or blogging.  

Copyright 2008. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Spring 2009. Used with permission. Visit them at For all your homeschool curriculum needs visit the Schoolhouse Store.