Archives for January 24, 2012

On managing “stuff”

January 23

January 23
This morning found my oldest son in a state of frantic searching, followed by angry words.  His words were directed at me.  I was amused that he labeled me “horrid.”  But my amusement quickly turned to remorse when his tears started to roll.

Keeping a small home (less than 1500 square feet) neat and manageable is no small task when eight people, six of them growing every day, reside within it’s walls.  People who visit may comment that it doesn’t seem like that many people live here (depending on the timing of their visit,) but that is because I keep a tight rein on everyone’s belongings, including my own.  Well, there’s also the fact that I very openly clean for company to the best of my ability, so only the closest of friends have seen my house at it’s messy worst.  And believe me, it gets messy (thank you Larkspur and Beatrix for helping me keep it real.)

Most of my children are not terribly attached to many particular belongings, and those that they are, I do my best to respect and help them keep those items to a small and manageable number.  The key is to prevent stuff from ever coming through the front door to begin with.  When it comes to things, I say no quite often.  My extended family knows our living situation, and they are all wonderfully respectful of my wishes to only give very meaningful or needed gifts.

But, what about the take out food containers of shells and rocks from the beach?  What about the bits of rusty metal dug up in the yard, the bottle caps, the old bottles, the giant collection of pinch pots made at pottery class?  I have one son who clings to every item.  Seth shares a 9 by 9 foot bedroom with Gabriel.  In the room there is a set of bunkbeds, an armoire (there is no closet) and a bookcase.  Under the bed each has one storage container to keep their prized possessions in.  Gabriel does well limiting himself to that box.  Seth has exceeded his limit with his endless collections and they are taking over that tiny space.  About a month ago, while Jonny and the kids were at a Cub Scout function, I entered the boys’ cave as I call it, and was horrified at the mess and the dirt.  There was literally dirt on the floor.  I couldn’t help myself, and I started cleaning for the sake of simple hygiene.  I zeroed in on a cardboard box that had been sitting in the floor full of random items for months, untouched.  There is so little floor space in that room, and in order to clean the floor, I had to get the stuff out of the way.  Digging through the contents of the box, I determined that the rocks, shells, bowls from the pottery class from four years ago, etc, etc, weren’t needed.  I honestly don’t even remember what I did with them.  In my mind they were just sitting there taking up space and contributing to the mess. This morning, Seth recalled some of the items that had been in that box, and started asking questions.  “Where are my shells?  What did you do with my stuff?”  He clearly doesn’t live by the “rule” that states that if you haven’t looked at, used, or needed an item in the past three months or more, then you can probably part with it.

Please don’t misunderstand.  I am not a control freak.  I am not a tyrant.  I do respect my children.  But, I find myself at a loss for how to give them a healthy relationship with things.  Clearly, getting rid of stuff when their backs are turned isn’t the answer (although with younger children, sometimes it is.  My technique in that department is to put the items in question in a box in the attic for awhile before getting rid of it for good.  That way, if the item is missed too much it can be retrieved.)

I am easily distracted.  Very easily distracted.  I took medication for this in college for one semester.  However, my level of productivity during those months felt unnatural, so I gave up the meds.  But when I say I get distracted, I mean that if I am cooking dinner and my hair is touching my face too much, I can’t focus on the recipe.  If the kitchen is a wreck, I have to clean it before I start cooking.  If I need to give math lessons, but the room is littered with this and that, my mind keeps going to the this and that.  It’s not about control, it’s about distraction.  On many levels I have gotten better at handling this problem of mine, one technique being to cut back on stuff, to prevent it from taking over the house to begin with.  My other technique is to simply talk to myself.  As if I wasn’t crazy enough to begin with.  I find it effective to tell myself things along the lines of, “That mess can wait, stay focused on this lesson with Keats right now.”  This is mental exercise for me, and it’s good. I have a houseful of children, so clearly God wants me to learn to manage this little distraction issue of mine.  It’s sink or swim.  Or is there middle ground?  Can I just doggie paddle?

The bottom line is that I have to stay on top of stuff and clutter, I have to.  But, it is essential to do this with respect.  I do want my children to have a healthy respect for the belongings of others, and it is so very important that I model this behavior.  Honestly, looking back on the past few years, I think I’ve done a pretty good job.  I nearly always involve my kids in the purging and we discuss the reasons why we can’t hang on to everything.  They get to feel like they are in control of the process.  I don’t think I will mess up again and clean an older child’s room (my ruthless version of cleaning) without their presence.  I made a mistake.  I am sorry.  I do hope that at the heart of it all that my children will grow up valuing relationships over stuff.  Because ultimately that is my goal.  I want my time and my attention focused on relationships, not the messes of stuff.

Feel free to share your experiences in this department.  I know I am not the only one who struggles with the taming of the stuff monster.