Taming the Broken Window Effect

In Cheryl Mendelson’s book, Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House (which is excellent, by the way), she discusses the “Broken Window Effect”. In essence, the theory explains 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 spray bottle 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 loose pride in their decaying neighborhood. This littered, vandalized street corner draws even shadier characters, and more violent crimes.

Mendelson parallels this to the challenge of keeping a home orderly. If mom gets in a hurry after lunch and abandons an un-scrubbed spaghetti pot on the stove, each person passing through the kitchen feels licensed to leave a snack dish un-rinsed. (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.

Even those who live alone can find their tidy ways undermined by a few lapses of carelessness. The mail strewn on the counter “breaks a window” which somehow makes it easier to toss a sweater on the couch instead of taking it to the coat-closet. The sweater and the mail encourage other clutter-crimes, and are joined by a cell phone, the newspaper, a pair of shoes, a dirty coffee mug, and so on. As the week progresses the room (at first just “pleasantly lived in”) deteriorates into complete disarray–and the disorder flows into adjoining rooms.

In preventing broken windows, provide a bit of wiggle-room. Family and guests will feel ill-at-ease in an environment that forbids them to set down a book for a moment, so allow areas where life can be “in progress.” The Lego Colosseum your children are building to scale, the knitting basket, a partially worked crossword puzzle–all can stay out to allow people to work on them at leisure.)

While balance is necessary, being mindful of broken windows can keep things from spiraling out of control.

What broken windows need fixing in your home?

(This article was also published in my Taming The Chaos column on the HSB Company Blog)


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