I have two children. They live here, in my house. They have had an outdoorsy summer. Now, they go to school. All year, they go to birthday parties. This means, they go out, and come back with more stuff every single day.
In summer it’s trash found outside. It might be called nature, but still, it’s stuff with no daily purpose in the house. From school, it’s papers, so many papers. It’s things found on the bus and in the school yard, including snails, rubber bands, and actual trash. And birthday invitations.
Following the weekend parties (why are there so many weekend parties?), it’s more stuff, nebulous, drawer-and-cupboard-filling stuff. Maybe candy. Maybe toys. Maybe something in-between, like candy-flavored Chapstick that the 3-year-old mistakes for actual candy.
I swear we don’t buy this stuff. We don’t shop, unless it’s in advance of a kid party. We don’t go to the bookstore. In the kid-buying category, it’s food and “things for school,” like snow boots and hair bands.
Then last week, I cleaned out the garage. And I was mystified: How did I end up with 7 deflated soccer balls, various other sport-less balls, 5 scooters, and two ride-on toys no one has taken, yet, from the curb? Two years worth of pieces of sidewalk chalk, assorted sand toys. Tennis balls stolen from the neighbor’s Labrador.
I can only blame the fact that children live all around us. To me, the kid stuff forms a vast network, like maybe it’s one way the kids signal to each other that they are, in spite of us larger folk, ever-powerful. They have stuff, and that stuff? It moves around. They don’t mind sharing – sure, you take it.
My kids can’t seem to play at anyone’s house without wearing another child’s clothing home. Right now, I can think of several headbands, none of them ours, that live at our house. We also have one stuffed dog, also not ours, that lives here, and one pink tutu that I recently looked at and thought, “That’s not ours.” But whose tutu lives here, I’m no longer certain.
Children are magnificent packrats. Stuff magically sticks to them and their roaming, treasure-seeking fingers. Sometimes I ask myself, is it me, am I the hoarder? But I only walk in the door with food, and them, the children. They are the stuff I take and bring home on the regular. The other stuff gets tossed.
Do they see me rip up the mail? Don’t we talk about how we compost food and re-use paper ? Maybe, to them, recycling is simply evidence of the power of stuff. My hunch is that they are not aware of the stuff’s creep. It's clear they're biologically inclined to take in every experience they can, and somehow, in our daily lives, that includes stuff. Stuff of ephemeral value, but real mass. The children place equal value on every little thing that comes in the door.
As a result, I’ve grown quite skilled at tossing stuff. It may take expertise, and a little deception, but here is how I outmaneuver the packrats:
Things I expertly throw away: papers from school.
That Friday craft, I may admire it, but I will throw it away. All the lovely letters from teachers, the lists of rules and regulations, I read, and throw away. The forms, I fill them out, quickly, so they can go back. The snack schedule, can it be thrown away? Sure. Cafeteria lunch plan gets stuck on the fridge, for now. If I know I can find it quickly online, it gets tossed.
Things I covertly throw away: all of their greatest and best drawings.
I may snap a photo of the lovable art, but since the drawing production exceeds space on the table, each day, I toss them.
Same for the small objects that accumulate in art cupboards. This includes buttons, pieces of old art sets, broken crayons, and countless tiny things special to children. Stuffed animals. They come from everywhere, and when I get a chance, I round up a bag, store, see if anyone asks about them, and then recycle.
Repeat for other toys, with consideration for the fact that my children will play with any toy, any time, if they haven't seen it for a while. It just needs to look like “not their old toy.”
Things I immediately throw away: stuff in the bottom of their backpacks, unidentifiable.
Stuff in their pockets, e.g., not our barrette. Stuff that is living, sticky, or wet goes right back outside. I used to feel somewhat apologetic, as if I’ve accidentally thrown a friend’s toy away. But after years of stuff, with years ahead of me, I have no shame.
I throw it away, as if it’s a skill, or an art, I must only hone.