Friday, July 01, 2011

A clean playroom is great; giving up control is better

From today's Briefing:

As Cooper and Katie have taken on more chores, I have relinquished all kinds of control.
Take, for example, the silverware drawer. Katie is in charge of putting away clean flatware. Over the past year, she has rearranged the pieces. Her organization system trumps mine. But it wasn’t always this way.
When she started the job, I never explained my plan; it seemed obvious to me. You match the salad forks with the salad forks (except the few that look different from our matching set — those go in a different bin). Big spoons with big spoons (same exception applies). Et cetera.
Katie ignored the existing system. When grabbing a butter knife or teaspoon, I might notice pieces askew from “my” way and I’d spend a minute or two rearranging.

This offered no benefit. I was wasting time. I was second-guessing Katie, to whom I had delegated the task, and I wasn’t even explaining why. Perhaps because it would have been something like this:
“Katie, you need to put the silverware exactly where I tell you to. Because that’s how it’s been since before you were born.”
Not exactly rational.
So I’ve stopped worrying about it. I’ve adjusted to her method, relearning where each piece belongs. That drawer is her territory.
For the past couple of years, I’ve let the kids’ playroom become their territory, too.
Before my husband’s battle with cancer began, the playroom was accessible. You could see the carpet. You could sit at the desk to sculpt Play-Doh or play with superheroes.
That’s because every few weeks, after the kids were asleep, Steve and I would attack the room. We would restack game and puzzle boxes on shelves. Separate Playmobil figures from Lego figures. Make sense of the Little People village, placing farm animals back in the barn and wilder creatures back in the zoo.
We would cull items to be given away. Move toys from the top shelves to the bottom drawers, hoping to rekindle the kids’ interest in long-forgotten trinkets.
It was a chore we dreaded and yet always enjoyed in the end. Steve and I would visit the entire time. We’d reminisce over the green stuffed crab (a baby shower gift) and the giant stuffed chicken (an Easter Bunny gift) and other critters that made us giggle.
When we completed the task, we’d stand in the doorway to survey our fine work and pat ourselves on the back while fully anticipating a mess within days.
That mess got totally out of control once Steve was severely ill. He couldn’t walk well or stand steady, much less sort bins. And I had no spare moment for anything beyond survival. (Almost two years after his death, I sometimes still feel that way.)
Cooper and Katie would “clean” it weekly, doing the best they could without guidance or specific space for specific items. Their version of cleaning mostly meant shoving and stacking.
Those stacks grew and grew until movement in the room was difficult and toys were seemingly lost forever.
Memories of late nights with Steve plus my time-strapped schedule kept me away. Finally, last week, I had had enough. It was time to face the beast.
I rearranged my work schedule and enlisted help from three others on a day when the kids would be gone. We pulled out almost every box, toy and stuffed animal and started over.
We created piles for art supplies, fake food, costumes, puppets, books, playing cards and lots, lots more. We recycled, tossed or gave away everything that didn’t go back in.
After five hours of work, there’s a home for almost every item. I used transparent over-the-door shoe bins to organize little things; each bin is labeled (bubbles, jump ropes, dice, robots).
Small children can actually walk around and access drawers and desk space without risking an avalanche.
I was thrilled to regain control of the room. Then I handed control back to the kids. They are loving their “new” room and “new” toys.
After playing hard all day, they tidy the room each night instead of just once a week.
And so far I haven’t second-guessed their decisions.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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