Living With Kids: Julie Sparrow Carson

By Gabrielle.

As anyone who is living with kids knows, smart storage is essential. It’s the difference between a quick clean-up at the end of the day, and exasperation and a lot of sighing. It’s the difference between a frustrated ten-minute hunt for winter boots when you’re already running late for school, and spending that ten minutes in a much more relaxed way. It’s the difference between cluttered and curated. It’s an intelligent design concept, but it’s also a brilliant way to live well with kids. It’s simply smart. Julie knows this, and executes it daily and stylishly with her cubby design. What’s so cute to me about it are the collections her kids keep inside! Like their own little Pinterest boards! Enjoy the tour, Friends. (And just you try not to get all sentimental when you read what Julie will miss most about living with her kids.)

Q: Please tell us who makes this house a home.

A: There are five of us now, and we have another baby on the way this fall. Gulp. Stella is seven, Cedar is five, and Jules is three. They have plenty of fun together, run pretty wild, and spend lots of time at home. Kevin is a scientist, and active on the Rocky Mountain Rescue team. He negotiates year-round for more hunting time, and wakes up with the kids every morning. I tend the home fires, and run Bundle, a franchised cloth diaper service and baby shop.

Q: How did the home come to be yours?

A: We had to move out our rental house last summer, and were looking to buy our first home after years of moving from rental to rental. We had to be out of our rental in three weeks, so I was sure that I wanted a move-in-ready home. But after looking at many many beige houses on manicured streets that I couldn’t see myself living in or on, I finally agreed to *drive-by* this complete dump on the end of a country road just outside of town. The house was so neglected I wouldn’t even let my kids inside: the floor was torn up, the appliances ripped out, and there was broken glass and nails everywhere. But it felt like the right spot for us with a huge yard, a few cows for neighbors, and beautiful mountain views.

With a tiny budget, a tight time frame, and a huge renovation list, we started calling friends – an architect here, a contractor there, a kitchen designer around the corner. And we hatched a plan for me to take the kids to my parents’ house for the summer while Kevin worked his full time job, responded to mountain rescue calls, and stayed up late rebuilding the house. Kevin did most of the work himself. He demoed almost all of the interior of the house, and then built it back up: framing, plumbing, electrical, and whatever else goes into rebuilding a house. Friends helped out (he ended up driving a couple of them to the ER!), ex-cons with solid friend-of-a-friend credentials proved invaluable, and the house was ready-ish by the time the kids and I rolled up in the minivan a couple of months later.

I, for my part, obsessively internet-shopped for every design element in the house. And Kevin, for his part, didn’t object to my choices. I did get one little phone call when the hot pink lacquered bedside tables got delivered. I was hoping they were going to stay in the box and I could discreetly set them up at just the right moment, cover his with books, and he would barely notice. My Plan B, though, did work! That plan was just that he is very fond of me, and doesn’t actually care that much about home decor one way or the other. Phew!

Q: How would you describe your aesthetic? In what ways did it change when you added kids to the mix?

A: I like things that are industrial, quirky, and bright. With kids my taste has gotten a lot more minimal and a little more playful. Before kids I accumulated more stuff, and enjoyed displaying it. But with the energy of five people in a little house, I focus more now on creating a warm but blank canvas. The little items that we do display are meaningful, and their meaning has space to resonate because they aren’t crowded. When we clear away the clutter of the day, I want the one thing left on my counter to be something that I really love. Or when I set the bread out to rise on the counter, I want it to look peaceful and beautiful…not one more thing in a sea of things.

When we had our first daughter, we got lots of plastic gizmos. But living in a very small place at the time, it soon looked like a hazardous daycare center more than a house for adults. So I got rid of almost everything. Turns out, a beautiful little wool ball is just as fun as a singing plastic one. I curate the toys for two reasons. The first is that I want our house to be beautiful, and I don’t want to have to hide the kid stuff. I see the toys as an integral part of our home, and I like the look of toys and kid stuff out and about…as long as it’s good looking stuff.

The second reason is that I want my kids to be surrounded by natural materials and beautiful things that encourage them to dream. Even with three kids we keep a pretty small number of toys, and most of them are handmade or have special meaning to us. Because kids accumulate toys like magicians – where does all of that stuff come from?! – I go through their stuff every couple of weeks to cull the things that we don’t want to keep. They have much more imaginative play when their shelves aren’t crowded and their toys and tools are organized.

I always notice the day after I cleanse their stuff they will play on their own endlessly. The less they have, the more fun they seem to find.

Q: Do you consciously decorate a room with your kids in mind?

A: We have a pretty small house, so every room is used a lot, by everyone. I do like to have a couple of toys out in each room, and I like the look of beautiful toys. But I try to keep our bedroom as a place where the kids don’t play. They are welcome to be in our room, but only to rest or read a story with one of us. This is a place where we keep our sacred objects, and try to maintain as a peaceful and more private spot.

We never did much baby-proofing, banking instead on our kids having a steep learning curve. If you throw the cup, it will break. If you hit your head on a sharp edge, it will hurt. So far, so good. I probably clean up more toddler messes that way, but I just don’t care for sippy cups or foam-wrapped coffee tables.

Q: Cubbies! What’s your favorite thing about that kind of storage in your home? How have cubbies worked for you?

A: I like the look of repetition, so I truly love our little cubbies lined up like soldiers at the door. The stuff of five people, especially in the winter, is a voluminous mess. So tucking it all away behind glossy white doors is a good thing. It also helps us get out the door more easily when everyone knows where their shoes are.

Here, too, I do a lot of editing to keep the insides tidy enough that the space works. I also do a fair amount of hanging up little coats that have been thrown on the floor. Everyone’s cubby has shelves, coat hangers, and shoe shelves sized to their height so that they can hang up their own coats (in theory) and reach their own stuff. The sixth cubby is devoted to art supplies.

Everyone gets to decorate the inside of their cubby door however they want, and I like seeing how they use their space. Jules’ cubby has a bag of trains that he likes to bring on outings and abstract pictures of cars, Cedar’s is filled with dog treats and rocks and pictures of animals, and Stella has art projects and pictures of people. To me it is like a little private microcosm of our family.

Q: Speaking of cubbies, how do you handle clean-up and chores?

A: My kids do all the cleaning at my house. They are actually child robots. Cute ones, though. No! Of course I am the main clean up lady. But I actually kind of enjoy it; there is something satisfying about getting everything in order. Tedious sometimes, but also worth the effort for me. And sometimes I don’t feel like cleaning, and that’s when my house turns into a circus and I get very grouchy. We are all at our best when the kitchen is tidy…or maybe that’s just me.

Since my kids are so little, I focus not on chores, but on an expectation of kindness. Being kind might feel removed from chores, but it seems to me like a continuum. Keeping a house is very giving work, and ideally it comes from a place of kindness – not resentment or bitterness.

Plus, getting little kids to do chores is a lot of work! So for now I have settled on seeking more meaningful help from my kids, like ‘get your sister a band-aid’ or ‘go see why your brother is crying’ or ‘run and get the mail,’ instead of actual chores that take a lot of effort on my part, and are actually – at their ages – not helpful at all.

In this way I ask my oldest daughter to help out quite a lot, my five year old just a bit less, etc. While I don’t have a perfect success rate, I try to make helping a privilege, which it really is. I don’t ask for too much, or ask for things when I can see they aren’t up for it, so that we avoid a begrudging attitude and they don’t get to say no. It works pretty well for us, and our days run more smoothly when there are lots of little hands available to help in their sweet little ways.

Q: What is your favorite room in the house to spend time with your kids?

A: I love to sit down at the marble table, which was passed down to me by my grandparents. It is a beautiful, functional, wide open spot for sharing meals or drawing pictures together. We spend a lot of time in the kitchen, but stepping over to the table is a chance to put my work aside and just be with my kids.

Q: What do you hope your decor choices and the items that surround your family are teaching them about you and their someday ideas about family?

A: I think they know that I value aesthetics, and value our space on behalf of our family. This place, our home, matters very, very much. I hope they see our home as both an intimate and a structured place, and find comfort in that balance.

Q: What has been your favorite part about living with your own kids? What surprised you the most about kids and about being a mother? What do you already miss?

A: My favorite part of living with my kids is the fun they have. They are so funny and sweet and squishy and sincere. And the little things are huge for them, which reminds me how miraculous the world is.

It surprised me that motherhood has been such a deep personal challenge. Living with kids, with all of their watchfulness and honesty and trust, is a huge opportunity to grow every single day. To remember that their problems are not mine, to be kind to them, to be patient. Oh, to be patient.

I already miss those clear faces staring back at me, so curious. Reminding me to be curious, too. And to be good.

Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish I had known…

A: …to go slow to go fast. Kids sure do rebel against a rush! Going slow solves most of my problems these days.


Go slow to go fast? I’ve never heard that, but it’s so true! And you got me with the clear faces staring back at you, Julie. You truly did. “Reminding me to be curious, too. And to be good.” Oh. That’s one of the most heartwarming characteristics of a child, and so, so heartbreaking when it disappears.

Friends, didn’t you love her chore philosophy? Keeping a house clean is a very giving act. It’s true. So teaching kindness, promoting kind acts, and treating chores as a privilege seems smart, doesn’t it? How do you introduce your littlest ones to the concept in your home?

P.S. — Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here. And if you’d like to share your own home with us, just send me a note! It’s a lot of fun…I promise!

51 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Julie Sparrow Carson”

  1. That is really sweet about the kids! Also, I neeever thought a home with so many kids could look this modern. I’m a “stuff” girl, but I still appreciate the minimalist look!

  2. Love this home tour! I so appreciate the minimalist aesthetic and completely agree that kids play better with less stuff. My daughter loves being at her cousins house – filled with the aforementioned plastic toys – for a little while. It’s exciting but clearly overwhelming and she inevitably melts down before too long. However, in a space with a few interesting things to explore she can just play and play and play…

  3. This has been true for me: And the little things are huge for them, which reminds me how miraculous the world is.

    I love the joy the kids get from the most simple of things.

  4. What a great house full of organization and simplicity. I love it.

    This isn’t a criticism in any way; I am genuinely searching for the answer as to how to go about chores + my kids. The idea of kindness she presents is so lovely and I would like to implement this concept more into my home. On the other hand, I believe an important life lesson is teaching children that sometimes we just do things, even if the time isn’t perfect and we’re interrupted and we don’t want to or feel like it–to me, that is genuine kindness, not just convenient kindness, and can be taught to even a kindergartener. And yet Julie is so right: this does create resentment, and it fosters tension in my home, which isn’t the best thing.

    Should the lesson of ‘inconvenient’ service/chores be taught only to an older child, while keeping things simple as Julie does with her young children? At what point are children old enough to start giving a bit more of themselves? Any thoughts on how to reconcile the two ideas?

    1. I do love Julie’s idea of kindness, but if I was the only one doing all the cleaning at my house (with five kids to keep up with), I would feel like a grumpy, unappreciated drudge with no time to do anything thoughtful or kind. Beds need to be made, living spaces straightened, toys picked up, dishes loaded, bathroom sinks wiped, dirty clothes sorted, and clean clothes put away. I feel like all of those tasks are simple enough that even my four-year old can participate. (I certainly don’t expect perfection.) If we all pitch in, cleaning tasks can be quickly and pleasantly done, and my children learn the value of work.
      Granted, if I had to choose, I would prefer that my children were kind and thoughtful and gracious and pleasant rather than cleaning machines, but I don’t think that’s an either-or proposition.

      1. Emilee, I guess I’m with you: if I had to do all the clean-up all the time, my kids wouldn’t be resentful but I sure would! And I’d feel as though I wasn’t teaching them to work. I suppose in theory, the idea of regular chores doesn’t have to veer from the idea of kindness, as kids pitching is a kindness to mom and really, the whole family. Of course, in practice, I get a bunch of whining and griping a lot of the time, and things feel more like forced labor than acts of service, ha ha, but at the end of the day, I do like everyone in the family pitching in as much as they can. Still want to try to input that idea of kindness in our chores, though!

        1. I totally agree that giving/helping even when we don’t want to is an important lesson, and a part of growing up. I guess part of what I am trying to get to is that when I ask my kids to do something, I don’t consider whining or saying no to be an appropriate response. And I repay this courtesy by being aware of where they are at (like not interrupting some big game, or asking them to help with dinner when they are tired). BUT maybe I am just being lazy, too, by not keeping up with set chore expectations. No doubt the work of keeping a family home running entails a huge amount of physical labor that kids are capable of helping with. I think the secret sauce is a system. If a kid knows they have to set the table every every single night, eventually they will just do it without a question.

          1. Julie, I love the idea of instilling kindness for young ones. You’ll probably find that as the kids get older, and more capable, this kindness will translate into an eager willingness to help, with chores, with siblings, with world issues. Kindness seems like the perfect introduction to later work.
            In our house our three do a lot of work. It doesn’t seem like a lot to me, but each time I discuss this with other parents they are surprised at how much our kids to do. We started early with simple tasks and always made work fun, like helping to put away laundry and “getting” to help with cooking and cleanup. Using the vacuum in our house is a privilege and something all three have been excited to learn how to do. My kids are 10, 8 and 3 and they all do work around the home. We do not have set chores but rather a family philosophy of things that need to get done for our family to be happy and healthy. This means they help take garbage, recycling and compost out to the bins. They help unload the dishwasher (when they are tall enough to reach the cabinets) and they make their beds and clean up their room. We also have a philosophy of just a little stuff and that helps keep the mess at bay. Minimalism and kids go together really well, and even when every last stitch of dress up or wooden blocks are out, if there isn’t much, and everything has a place, it all gets put away pretty easily.
            Our older children have started asking about getting an allowance for the work they do. I’ve been pondering this idea but for now we say that the regular work done in the house is what it takes to have a family and we all pitch in without monetary payment. If they do an extra job (like water grandma’s garden- she lives downstairs) or helping to really clean the bathrooms, sorting the garage or cleaning the family bikes or car, then they can have a little something extra and usually they just want to put that in the piggy bank.
            Anyway, I was just hoping to concur with the philosophy if kindness as the foundation for work, because then it doesn’t feel like so much work. Kindness in our house means cleaning up together, doing something helpful and working side by side so we can all enjoy our house and each other more.

  5. What a beautiful home. As with so many in this terrific series, I love the esthetics, but I love even more how that expresses a sense of family and care.

    On the purely design side of things, I’m wondering which shade of white Julie used. It’s lovely and bright without being too sterile.

    thanks for welcoming us into your home, Julie! and thanks for the tour, Gabrielle!

  6. gorgeous home! everything in it’s place. i love her chores ideas. I grew up with a list of daily chores, but have been completely unsuccesful implementing it in my own home…so I love her ideas.

  7. Oh, I SO enjoyed this post! Thank you, Julie, for giving us a peek inside your home and into your heart for your family. My husband is very invested in the design aesthetic of our home, so it’s highly unlikely our home will ever be a blank canvas — he is constantly filling it! — but I love your philosophy with that. I also LOVE the cubbies. Wonderful idea. We just might do the same thing with old school lockers for a more industrial/vintage look. :)

  8. Also… going slow to go fast. I had heard that, but lately, I think I’ve forgotten. I’ve been telling my daughter to “hurry up” a lot — and it’s definitely not working. Thanks for the reminder!

  9. This was inspiring to read. Thank you, Julie. ‘Going slow to go fast’ rings very true. Any tips on how to implement that for those of us who would like to use this philosophy with our own little ones?

    1. Hi Sarah! You are late getting out the door, and things are going south. Stop, get on your knees, and give your kid a nice hug. It is kind of amazing how these 5 seconds will easily save you 5 minutes. Kids that feel rushed are the slowest human beings on earth!

  10. Such a lovely home and interview. I so appreciate Julie’s take on getting kids to help with chores. This offered me a fresh perspective on the “clean-up time” I’m alwasy pushing on my son. I’m also in love with the whole house — especially the cubbies and purses! Would love to know where the blue dog print is from. Thanks for sharing :)

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    1. That is a Rob Ryan tile – one of my favorite treasures, it is a good reminder for me that all that nonsense is coming from a good place!

  12. I am in the middle of a great purge of our 2 bedroom apartment that houses 4 of us. Empty space is so inspiring. Our amount of living space is ok, but without an attic or basement or garage to house the “sometimes” stuff we’ve grown used to living in clutter. But I’ve learned that my kids don’t have a good sense of cleaning up when there are so many things for which the “place” is just on the floor.

  13. I feel like I could have written this post – even though my house is not a fraction as beautiful or fancy! we are renters in a very small house – three small children (ages 6, 3, and 1) – and a huge goldendoodle dog. I embraced minimalism a year or so ago, and it has been hugely life-changing. So good.

    My question is – the author keeps referring to her “small house” – and that makes me wonder- just how small is she talking??? :-)


      1. we are about 1200 square feet – which is just about perfect for us…but if we added another child, 1500 would be ideal! your home is beautiful!!! xoxo

  14. What a lovely home, Julie! If you have a moment, I would love to know where you purchased the chair and ottoman? It is similar in style to a couch I have and we would love to have a chair similar to that to go along with it.

  15. I love the minimalist approach but my ability to “edit” my children’s belongings has lessened as they have gotten older– my 8, 12 and 13 year olds don’t want to have their things edited and they definitely notice if things disappear. Any tips for that from seasoned moms out there? I have so far taken an approach where if they can’t find spots for things in their room and keep the rooms mostly tidy, then they need to edit. Of course the editing is less aggressive than I would like! We use closet organizers and the label maker a lot for their possessions, so that things have designated spots but it is an ongoing challenge. My children have sentimental hearts and definite packrat tendencies!

  16. I love everything about this home! This is one of my favorite all-time favorite all-time Living with Children interviews. Perhaps because it seems very relevant and timely to me as our new home is in desperate need of an organization and editing strategy.

  17. I really love this house tour. There are definitely a few pictures that are getting pinned :) Julie – will you please share the source for the blue dog print?

  18. Beautiful home and story. Where did you get that gorgeous play kitchen? It’s so had to find a well-made wooden kitchen for kids.

    1. Nydia,
      The kitchen is Ikea. It really is pretty great. Some other wonderful wooden ones are made by Hape/Educo – searching “wood kitchen” on Amazon will get you to them.

  19. Go slow to go fast is good to remember at any age — I try to remember that with my grandchildren! I like the look of the round gold cushion on the pink sofa. Where did you get the gold cushion?

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  21. Kate the Great

    Julie, I love your philsophy of handling stuff. Purging, culling, getting rid of excess– I find the same is true with me: the fewer toys he has, the more he plays with them. Your philosophy is similar to Gabrielle’s, and I try my best at it, but one thing gets in the way— gifts.

    So here’s my burning question, for you and for Gabrielle, if she wants to answer: How do you handle gifts for your kids?

    I’m talking about Christmas, birthday, spoil-rotten-while-visiting gifts from the grandparents and the aunts and uncles. That ugly and poorly-designed thing from grandma to kid? That giant stuffed animal from Grandpa (that he lugged all the way here) that throws off the design scheme completely, but won’t fit anywhere but on the floor? All the little plastic dohickeys sent in the mail as a care package from auntie?

    Culling the stuff that you got for them to entertain them for a trip are easy because you bought them and they’re easy to sneak out and off to thrift stores. Giving them well-designed stuff yourself is easy because you can control what you buy them. But gifts for the kids? I have the hardest time with.

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