In defense of messiness

One of my favorite pastimes is to sift through the bowels of the Psychology Today archive and to debate the authors of select articles in my head.

The latest is one Dr. Pickhardt who wrote a charming, little piece entitled, The Messy Room: Symbol of the Adolescent Age. Perhaps more intriguing however is the ominous subtitle of Pickhardt’s screed: “The messy room is a small problem with big implications.”

Big implications, indeed. The essay begins with a messy room and ends with a caricature of some depressive teenager that presumably subsists on drugs and sex. The teenager is a caricature for obvious reasons, but must be so as Pickhardt’s essay is more suggestive than persuasive. Concerned parents are supposed to undergo a kind of gestalt shift where they forget they’re reading an article at all, but only bask in the glow of their own worst fears validated.

Alternative explanations for a child’s messiness are totally unexplored; we’re instead treated to what amounts to no more than the authoritarian parent’s folk wisdom on parenting. Such morsels include:

  • “By insisting on regular room clean up, you let it be known that your child must live on your terms so long as he or she is dependent on your care. She can live on independent terms when she is out on her own.”
  • “If your child knows you will keep after the small responsibilities, like cleaning up a messy room, he or she also knows this shows you will be keeping after big stuff like obedience to major rules.”
  • “The only thing you can’t understand is why your teenager left incriminating evidence so easily found.  The answer usually is that the she was desperate to be found out, but lacked courage to tell you directly.”
  • “Privacy remains a privilege, not a right.  So long as that freedom is exercised within the limits of mutually agreed upon responsibility, you will respect that right.” (Where “mutually” can only be understood euphemistically.)

None of these axioms are self-evident, despite their presentation as such, and couldn’t even be imagined to apply to the adults that enforce them. But they’re easy enough to enforce upon dependents, and for this reason alone, many parents would believe them true and their enforcement virtuous.

I wouldn’t claim to have any special advice for parents, but I don’t think these kinds of edicts can produce balanced human beings. What I can do, however, is provide some defense of messiness.

1. Messy people are messy because they do not anthropomorphize rooms.

Messy people do not believe in the intrinsic wisdom of rooms or workspaces. Unlike others, they appreciate that rooms are only a first approximation of utility. The kitchen is a place for cooking, but it is also a place for the Sunday crossword puzzle. The living room is a place for relaxation, but it’s also a place for nibbling. The bedroom is a place for sleeping, but many people also read there.

2. Messy people are messy because they do not force nature to conform to the unnatural.

It is only natural that the items one uses will collect in the places where they are likely to be used, and so perhaps the hot sauce on the living room coffee table might not be so heretical after all. Rather it could be seen as an opportunity for some enterprising person to devise some kind of holster that might allow the condiment to blend in with its more appropriate surroundings.


  • Ten books on a nightstand is really no offense if one is a bibliomaniac.
  • A bottle of Hendrick’s Gin at the foot of one’s bed can only be seen as convenient if one finds their sleep intermittent and superficial.
  • Everything conceivable belongs on a desk because it is the place where the modern person spends their entire life.

3. Messy people are messy because they are honest.

Messy people are considered a nuisance because they remind us of how we differ from one another. The person who likes to write while sitting on the couch can only sing the praises of a person who likes to keep all of their stationery on the end table. The person who confines such matters to the desk, on the other hand, has only contempt.

Can the messy and the tidy coexist?

The solution to all this is simple. The bedroom must become a miniature of the modern house with its own kitchen, bathroom, living room, and bedroom. Current kitchens and living rooms can be repurposed as neutral territories containing nothing more than a few steel chairs and a furnace that automatically incinerates any foreign items that are abandoned for more than a few minutes.

Only then can there be domestic peace.