Empathy (a shout out to family!) and Entropy (disorder reigns…)

Starting today’s post with a shout out to family members who have a lot going on today: Uncle B finishing the bar exam today (good luck!), Aunt A & Uncle B closing on a house tomorrow (busy couple!), Uncle T & crew moving to our state from Minnesota (arriving at our place tonight!)…

We were so exhausted just thinking about all you (our extended family) had to do today, that we decided to take a break on your behalf.  Yes, that means we skipped what should have been a busy morning of house cleaning & prep (company is coming!  Yippee!) and spent the morning with wonderful friends at library story time and eating free ice-cream.  (I know.  You are impressed with our ability to empathize…that such a tiring day for you would necessitate a break for us…what can I say?  we are sensitive people…)

We also decided we had earned a break because we have just reached milestones in two fairly massive projects in our house. We had several goals for the summer, including fostering some growth in the kids in terms of (1) independence (e.g. getting snacks, clothes, etc. for themselves) and (2) responsibility (e.g. chores around the house).  These projects involved both a massive shift in the layout of our house (rearranging all closets so kids can reach most of their everyday things, moving snack items into accessible kitchen drawers, etc.) and a lot of learning by both me and the kids (who is responsible for what?  How are roles reinforced?).

As of a few days ago, our projects were not going well: (1) the kitchen was a mess (ok, slightly messier than usual) as our kids became experts at fixing their snacks, but not cleaning up after (please ignore any comment my husband posts about where they might have learned this “the cook doesn’t clean!” kitchen behavior…crazy kids are way too perceptive) and (2) there were daily battles over picking up toys, which usually resulted in me surrendering, letting the toys pile up, then having to devote hours to a massive house overhaul that exhausted everyone.

I think the turning point came when E said, very simply during one such cleaning, “mom, this is just too much to pick up”.

She was right.  It was a lot for me to pick up, so I know it was overwhelming for the kids.

And while you could argue that a mess could be avoided with a “put one toy away before another comes out” policy, in our house (where dramatic play involves props from every corner of the house – creativity I encourage and a play-friendly atmosphere we enjoy) that kind of “put it up right away” policy wasn’t going to work for me, much less my kids.

So I had a talk with E & S.

Did they really think there were too many toys to pick up?  Yes.

Did they want fewer toys?  No.

What if the toys took turns?  Some in the attic for now, to be traded out later?

They were willing to give it try.

What was most amazing was that once we started, they got really excited.  We did not pick which toys would go to the attic.  Instead, we focused on which ones would stay.  Together, we went to every toy bin we had and they selected their favorites.  From the Barbie/Doll bin, each girl selected 2 barbies & 2 pieces of furniture.  From the kitchen bin, each girl selected 7 pieces of play food to keep.  I selected a few items from each bin too, which allowed me to keep items which for whatever reason were not selected that day, but which I knew would be requested shortly. Everything else went into boxes headed up to the attic.

I want to give credit here to a blog I read (http://www.buildingcathedrals.com/2011/07/07/less-is-more/) that (while using a different approach that removed and donated more than we did) highlighted how liberating it was to simply box things for an attic/basement without massive sorting.  In our determination to declutter the toy bins, we did not take the time to sort items into “trash/goodwill/future-hand-me-down/unused but too-sentimental to toss” piles.  We just picked out whatever the favorites were on that particular day and put everything else in unsealed boxes that the kids & I knew we could access later (or immediately, if it came to that).  That approach was the key for us.  Instead of debating (externally or internally) about what should go in which pile, we just poured lots of stuff into the box.  (FYI: I am very pro-sorting and goodwill; another post on how we’ll introduce that later…)

For now, I am acknowledging that we are very early in the game here, but celebrating even a small step in the right direction.  On a practical level, we don’t need to dump out a whole toy bin to see what’s there.  We don’t get overwhelmed as quickly.  And (please don’t misinterpret our new approach…we love toys, especially those that inspire creativity, but there were too many things we had outgrown or were not “favorites” at the moment) there is space for things the kids will really enjoy to come in (like the Jessie doll that Ella has been wishing for recently and will get for her birthday).  Still, on a philosophical level, the kids might be learning that sometimes “less is more”, and they are certainly learning that if you have lots of stuff, that means you are going to have to spend time taking care of it.

The last point hit home when it came to the toys in the girls rooms.  They play there during afternoon “quiet time”, but still wake up often enough at night that every evening, we need to make sure there is a clear path from their bed to the door.  This necessity meant every afternoon we had a fairly stressful post-quiet-time clean up.  However, since selecting a few quiet “room” items and moving other items downstairs or into the attic, they have both been very content with a few toys each, some art supplies, and lots of books.  I couldn’t believe it when S told me today that she would rather move some of the crayons from her room into the attic because she was tired of having to pick up so many after she finished coloring.  I asked her how many she wanted to keep in her room, and – I kid you not – she said “Take the whole box.  I just want these three.”  (Yes, I know this will change, but that’s what she wanted, so for now I have honored her request…)

I think part of it has also been that we introduced a chore chart 2 days ago that (so far) the kids are really excited about.  The chores are really basic, but the kids get to put a check on the chart when they do their jobs, which include (by title here, by picture on their chart…)

–       sheets, pillows & PJ’s on the bed

–       clear your breakfast dishes

–       clear your snack dishes

–       clean-up midday

–       clear your lunch dishes

–       clear your snack dishes

–       clean-up afternoon

–       clear your dinner dishes

–       clean-up afternoon

–       clothes in hamper

Two notes: (1) If we have snack at the park or something, I draw a line on those sections of the chart so there is no empty box and (2) There is a card next to the chart from my husband and me that says “E & S, thank you for helping our family!  Love, Mom and Dad”

The kids knew this chart was coming, and honestly, I think they have been partially motivated to make clean-up easier so they could write the little checks on their chart.

I am pausing to take a breath here (sorry for the long post) and also because I am going to make a confession.

Here it is: I think that part of the reason I am writing this today is because I fear the wheels are going to fall off the whole plan very soon.  I will get tired of rotating toys, or the same kids who love putting their check mark on the chore chart today will decide it’s not worth cleaning up to make that mark tomorrow.  So I am seizing the moment and celebrating what must be considered a valiant (though likely short-lived) attempt to teach a few lessons about independence, choices, stuff, responsibility and contributing to a household.

Further confession: This disclaimer is largely intended for my brother & sister-in-law, who will see the wonderful mess our crew still is as they visit with us this week and for our local friends who will wonder what on earth I am talking about if they make it through this incredibly long post, then wander into our house and see that chaos will win.

But here in print is at least proof that we tried!


One response to “Empathy (a shout out to family!) and Entropy (disorder reigns…)

  1. I LOVE this post! I had a work friend who would rotate out toys regularly (like once a quarter/season), and the toys always seemed new and everyone was always happy. Can’t wait to read more, even if the wheels do fall off and you have to clean for 3 hours to find them.

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