Perhaps I have a problem: I can’t vacuum up Lego pieces. Well, of course I can, but I have a hard time forcing the vacuum to clink-clink-clink over those little bricks without cringing. Instead, I usually stop what I’m doing, pick them up, and put them aside for my son, who doesn’t even know they’re missing and wouldn’t notice if they disappeared for good. But I know that those Legos were part of a certain set, and that set likely cost a nice chunk of money.
Before you call A&E to film an episode of “Hoarders” at my house, know that I truly love to declutter. I am happier in a neat house. Since I have a hard time keeping it neat when it’s overflowing with things, I’m always looking to streamline our stuff to get rid of extra nonsense, especially if it’s nonsense my children consistently leave on the floor. I’m well-acquainted with the drop-off door at the Salvation Army.
The dilemma is that my aversion to clutter bumps right up against my aversion to waste. I don’t like the idea of things being manufactured, shipped across the world, sold, bought, and brought into my house – just so my kid can play with it for an hour before I throw it out and send it to an ever-higher heaping landfill. I’m looking at you, plastic party favors and the Target dollar bin.
What I want to do is throw it out. Even more, I want to stop it from sneaking in in the first place. But it does, over and over and over. It comes home as objects from the dentist’s prize trunk clutched in my children’s paws. It comes from SpongeBob goody bags from “the best party ever!” It comes in Halloween trick-or-treat bags, from folks judiciously trying to avoid candy overload. It comes from kind friends and family who can’t resist picking up trinkets for the kids. It comes home by the handful from the school carnival. Even Santa and the Easter Bunny sometimes bring doodads. And kids do love these little items, for a few minutes at least.
I hate to sound like one of those walked-uphill-both-ways types, but when I was a kid, I don’t remember there being so much stuff given to me all the time, from everywhere. There were lollipops at the bank, of course, and we kids sent away by mail more than once for those “Free with 5 proofs of purchase!” items advertised on the back of the cereal box – usually refrigerator magnets, Frisbees, that sort of thing. I might get a sticker at the doctor’s office, just like my children still do, but I didn’t get a strip of eight stickers from Trader Joe’s. One is more fun than eight. One gets stuck proudly on a shirt. A strip of eight winds up in a discarded heap on the floor of my car.
Gift-giving events were also simpler. I had frugal parents and grandparents, and only one aunt and uncle, so there was far less birthday and holiday swag. There were no toys bought outside of those occasions unless I bought them with money from my own thin wallet. What I did have, I organized, carefully curated, and treasured.
What’s my real problem with the Lego pieces on the floor? Yes, the mess (and the painful stepping on!) is irritating, but I think the heart of it is that my children don’t value their things. They don’t really care if I throw little things out, as long as something new is coming or there is plenty more lying around the playroom. (And as long as they don’t see me doing the throwing out. Heaven help us then.) They don’t put their things away because they have too many things to keep track of, and new things keep coming in to replace – or simply overwhelm – the old.
Of course there are always terrific ideas rattling around to keep the toy population down in your house, like having your children choose items to donate before his or her next birthday or holiday season. I know all about that. Fostering the giving impulse is a wonderful idea. But isn’t this clear-it-out urge really more about teaching your children about organization and decluttering than it is about true generosity or curbing material cravings? Because the next round of shiny new things is coming soon, and they know that.
What if, instead of constant decluttering, and then re-cluttering with new things, we brought in less in the first place? Imagine that.
This essay was originally published in The Washington Post’s On Parenting.