By the time my son Parker turned 10, he had amassed an impressive collection of armless action figures, hardened clumps of clay, sticky soda can tabs, gnawed pencil eraser tops, parts of magic tricks, a few torn playing cards, broken paper clips, wheels from long-gone Hot Wheels cars, and other tween treasures too dear to part with.
And this was on top of all the actual “good stuff,” like toys, books, puzzles, science kits, remote-control cars, CDs, Nerf guns, and light sabers.
It was a mother’s nightmare. Stuff littered Parker’s room, overflowing from drawers meant to hold clothes, creeping out from underneath his bed, spilling off shelves in his closet. His “treasures” practically jumped out at me from every corner, making it pretty stressful every time I’d go into his bedroom to kiss him goodnight or gather his dirty clothes to do laundry.
I couldn’t take it anymore, as I began to have visions of Parker being featured on a future episode of "Hoarders: Kids Edition."
So I went on a stealth decluttering binge in Parker’s room while he spent the day with Grandma. Armed with a few empty boxes, I crossed the border into The Land of Mess and excavated every drawer, shelf, and crevice, trying to weed out the excess and bring a sense of order to the out-of-control chaos that had become his room.
I’m all for respecting my son’s things. But truly, he’d turned into a garbage collector.
Granted, Parker can get pretty creative, often fashioning broken and disparate possessions into some new contraption. (My husband and I often refer to Parker as our Little MacGyver, the 80s TV character who could escape a North Korean prison with just a toothpick, a piece of string, and a little ingenuity.) Creativity aside, Parker simply had too much stuff.
In the “keep” pile I organized anything still in good condition that Parker used, needed, or played with, along with a few keepsake items, like his well-worn copy of "Goodnight Moon" and his beloved Angel Bear that he still occasionally snuggled with. (Shhh, don’t tell his friends!)
In the “toss” pile I tossed all the broken things that could easily have found a home in the bedroom of Sid (Andy's mutant-toy-building neighbor from "Toy Story") – the armless torso of a firefighter, the dried-out marker, the empty Tic-Tac container, the wadded-up gum wrappers, the so-old-they’re-no-longer-stretchy rubber bands, the chopstick. (Why just one chopstick?)
In the “donate” pile I put aside everything still in good condition that Parker had outgrown or no longer used that would bless another child – sweaters, jeans, shoes, stuffed animals, Scooby Doo puzzles, rubber balls, extra carabiners. (Why so many carabiners for a boy who does not go camping or rock-climbing?)
Hours later, I emerged with a large cache of clothes, toys, games, puzzles, CDs and books, along with a wastebasket full of throw-aways.
As I wondered how Parker accumulated all these things, I quickly realized that he was only partly to blame. Yes, he’s a garbage-collecting pack rat, saving everything from old shoelaces to used paper placemats (dotted with a few salsa stains) from our favorite Mexican restaurant. But he’s also the passive recipient of hand-me-down clothes from his older brother Trevor, birthday party favors, good-behavior treasure box prizes from school, Christmas gifts, book store splurges, dollar store treats, and the ubiquitous Happy Meal toys.
I also realized that, besides teaching Parker better organizational skills, my husband and I needed to stifle the influx of stuff into our house. While we can’t control what others give our sons, we can control what we allow into our home or what we personally buy.
One solution: We adopted the family-wide “one-in, one-out" rule for certain things both boys seem to quickly accumulate in large quantities (such as books and Hot Wheels cars). If Parker bought a new car or Trevor bought a new book, they’d need to give away an old one.
As parents, we simply stopped buying things for our kids for no reason (other than very special occasions). Instead, the boys now use their allowance for their own purchases or put their “must-haves” on a wish list for birthdays and Christmas. (Not surprisingly, those hot, must-have needs often become lukewarm, second-tier wants after a few months.)
With my simplification mission complete, I worried Parker might get mad that I confiscated…um, redirected… some of his stuff. (Before I donated anything, I checked with Parker first. Wisely, I did not show him the stuff I threw away.) To my surprise, he thanked me for cleaning his room and told me how good it felt to have it tidy. He didn’t miss one thing! On the contrary, he seemed almost relieved to enter a clutter-free, orderly room that invited him in to play rather than overwhelmed him with too many choices and too much to clean, sort, and organize.
The unexpected benefit of my de-cluttering efforts was a dramatic improvement in Parker’s behavior (which had become quite disrespectful and defiant lately). Was it a coincidence? Did the clutter contribute to the disobedience? Was he simply overwhelmed by his own stuff, causing him to lash out at his family? I’ve got zero scientific proof to back up the connection between the two. But I can’t ignore the noticeable difference in Parker’s attitude and behavior, as harmony now envelopes our family like a big hug. And I’ve learned not to question how or why – just to be quiet and enjoy the results of ditching clutter.