Fifteen years ago, I wrote a column for the Abilene Reporter-News – a newspaper for which I still worked remotely as online content editor even though my family and I had moved from Abilene, TX to Little Rock, AR. (My blogging buddy Deana Nall used to write a wonderful, somewhat-similar column for her hometown newspaper, The Baytown Sun.) I thought I’d re-post a few of my entries, as she has occasionally done with some of hers. My column was called “Parenting on Purpose.” This was the fifth installment.
(originally published August 16, 2002)
Maybe it was because we’ve been reading “Little House on the Prairie” with Matthew.
Maybe it was because we’ve been reading “Bearenstain Bears: Too Much Stuff” with Laura.
Maybe it was because we had gone to one of those prairie settlement recreations with the kids the Saturday before and saw how little the pioneers got by with.
Maybe it was just because Angi has been vowing to do this for months.
Whatever the reason, we spent most of our Labor Day un-stuffing the kids’ rooms. We laid out the big black lawn-waste bags in the hall. Matthew made signs for them reading “Toys Only” and “Trash Only.” And we dived in head-first, because that was really the only way to get into their rooms.
It’s incredible how much stuff accumulates there, because our kids not only want every toy they see on television, but also to keep it forever, plus the box or blister it came in. When the accumulation gets past a certain point of diminishing returns, it’s too intimidating for a grade-schooler to tackle alone.
We knew that The Great Un-Stuffing would take coaching, so we split up: Angi with Matthew and Laura with me. I mention them in that order because little Laura is better about divesting her stuff than I am. Only once did she ask if we could keep something: her doll stroller, and in the garage.
“There’s no room in the garage,” I said. “You know that.”
She just looked at me. She knows whose stuff fills the garage to overflowing: mine.
While I worked at organizing and weeding out trash, Laura filled one of those lawn-waste bags with her working (but outgrown) cast-offs in pretty short order. No tears, no wailing. We didn’t hear any from next door, either, where Mom and Brother were working.
In fact, he filled two of those bags with his toys and one with trash.
We labored nearly all of Labor Day.
In the end, they had vacuum-able, navigable floors … desk space they could actually use for writing and drawing … accessible toys and clothes.
— As well as a lot of pride in what they had accomplished.
Mom and I were proud of them, too. Though we were tempted, we didn’t offer any kind of reward — edible treat, swimming or museump trip, or (heaven forbid) new toy — for their work. Our instincts were on-target this time: having the clean room was its own reward for them.
I wish I could have taken the kids with me when dropping off their stuff at the Goodwill collection center. But they’ve been there before, and have seen the smiles and heard the thanks given back by the folks there.
We used to put our unwanted stuff in a garage sale. We’ve done pretty well at that, too. I don’t think we’ve ever made less than $400. One of those garage sales in a toasty garage on a blistering August afternoon in Abilene made us swear them off for good. We always ended up donating the unsold stuff anyway, so now we just skip the part about having the garage sale first.
I think the best reward for me was overhearing the kids react to a commercial the morning after The Great Un-Stuffing.
“I want that,” Laura giggled. “Matthew, do you want that?”
He thought. “Not really,” he said. “I can do without it.”
“Yeah,” she replied.
Excuse me, please.
I’ve got to go un-stuff the garage.
Keith Brenton is the father of Matthew, 9, and Laura, 6. He and his wife, Angi, are adoptive parents. As content/media editor, he helps maintain Reporter-News Online and works at home. You can reach him by e-mail at [no longer active], but he admits he doesn’t have all the answers.