First and foremost, no glitter. Ever.
Put glitter straight in the garbage.
Let’s get ruthless right out of the gate. I live in a 1,200 square feet apartment (which, honestly, isn’t even that small in New York City) with my husband and two kids. My kids are young, 5 and 3. When they bring home art projects from school that have glitter on them, I smile, tell them it’s beautiful, wait for them to leave the room, and take it straight outside to the building’s bulk trash cans. (I’m assuming glitter is not recyclable?) Those sparkly, shedding flakes get everywhere, and in a small space, that means they’ll end up on your dinner table and between your sheets. You think you vacuumed them all up, and then sunlight comes through the window at just the right angle, and dozens of glinting shards mock you from deep inside your living room rug. If you can’t part with a piece of glitter artwork, quarantine it in a plastic bag.
Buy a dark-colored couch.
In a small space, every room and piece of furniture is used constantly. There’s no never-used sitting room off the foyer where you can put the silk-covered settee, no “kids’ TV room” with a sectional and bean bags, like many of my friends had growing up. Our couch is where my kids drip cream after dinner and where their diapers have leaked a little and where my husband and I eat dinner most nights. It is upholstered in chocolate brown velvet—that wipes down surprisingly well with a wet cloth—and doesn’t show stains. If you want a lighter color, get indoor-outdoor fabric.
Give kids the bigger bedroom.
In a small apartment, kids usually share rooms. Who says the master bedroom has to belong to the parents? Once my son graduated out of the walk-in closet—yes, closet—we put him and his older sister in the master bedroom, while my husband and I took our daughter’s old room. Before, the kids’ toys were always in the living room because they didn’t have space to play in the smaller bedroom. Now, everything is in their room. Toys are corralled. It’s easier and faster to clean up. And our grown-up bedroom is cozy and efficient—no wasted space.
Don’t be sentimental.
Remember the glitter rule. Throw things away. Don’t hoard your children’s artwork. You don’t have room for it (and even if you do, people with attics, it's still not a great idea). Keep one or two things a month (at most) or only the most special pieces. Sort through your keepsake box a couple of times a year and reevaluate. Give away toys and books that your kids don’t need. Say your kid has outgrown the infant car seat—but you might have another baby!—loan it out to a friend for a year rather than store it. In the same vein, borrow a friend’s bouncy seat or play mat—the things you need for very short periods of time—and then give them back.
Go easy at birthdays.
Again, this is helpful for any parent but crucial for those in small spaces: Don’t buy a lot! Kids don't care. Focus on small things: books, those plastic tubes full of 1/2-inch sea creatures, art supplies (that eventually get used up and discarded). Ask grandparents who can’t resist spoiling to buy one big-ticket item, like a scooter or an American Girl doll. If those grandparents don’t listen, wait until your child stops playing with something and give it away. It won’t take long, and no one will notice.
Understand your limitations.
My kids didn’t get a train table. They don’t have a lot of shoes (winter pair, summer pair, church pair, rain boots). You know those plush, kid-sized chairs with their names monogrammed on them? Nope. I got sentimental (see #4) this past Christmas and bought a 2-foot-tall stuffed camel because my son is really into animals. It was a mistake.
Don’t have multiples.
Similar to the above: You do not need a drawer full of sippy cups. You need a couple per kid. Rinse it out and reuse it. (This also forces you to keep up with lids.) One bath towel is completely sufficient—or just, gasp, let the kid use one of yours. He still gets dry, even if his head isn’t covered by a terry cloth duck.
Make sure everything has a place—a basket or shelf or container that is its home.
I’ve found this makes it much, much easier to clean up, and it keeps me from saying things like, “The board games look kind of graphic and cool stacked up in the corner of the kitchen,” which is a slippery slope. If you run out of room in those baskets or shelves or containers, make room. Get rid of something.
But don’t use every square inch.
It can be a weirdly fun thing to find creative storage solutions in a small space. Ooooh, winter coats hanging like an art installation down the hallway! Your apartment is not a Jenga puzzle, though. Kids are loud; their toys are colorful (and also loud). You need empty, stuff-free space for your eyes to rest—a corner by the couch where you could put another basket crammed with blocks but don’t. Next thing you know, your kid curls up there with a pillow to read.
In a small space, life can feel louder and more cluttered than if you could send kids to the backyard or another floor. So you have leave the house. But that’s the good part of living in a small space, too. Your home expands to include your neighborhood: the parks, the community garden, the deli on the corner. There’s something about forward motion that can reset cranky moods, and your kids start talking to other people instead of just you (yes!).