Jas and I have some experience being strangers in strange lands though never more so than when we became parents, a naturally (though delightfully) bizarre state of being. This is to be expected. What we weren’t prepared for was how having children would change our home, not in the baby proofing sense but in the– holy crap! where did all this stuff come from?!– sense. Two years into parenthood and our house was a glut of stuff, stuff, stuff. Despite having a designated playroom, some form of children’s entertainment (much of it plastic with a million pieces) had made its way into every room of our house and we found ourselves strangers in a strange land once again. And all of us were suffocating.
Enter Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids written by Kim John Payne, M.Ed., with Lisa M. Ross, a book I picked up out of curiosity and a few pages in discovered a kindred spirit. Here was a licensed professional saying what I had suspected just from observing Cookie pass over her mountain of toys in favor of lining up toothpicks on the kitchen floor or using a pot as a bongo–children don’t need all that much– and what I had hoped for–it’s never too late to change course, to leave the land of too much.
Payne’s battle-cry is, “We are the adults in our children’s lives. We are the grown-ups. And as the parents who love them, we can help our children by limiting their choices. We can expand and protect their childhoods by not overloading them with the pseudochoices and the false power of so much stuff. And as companies spend billions trying to influence our children, we can say no. We can say no to entitlement and overwhelm, by saying yes to simplifying.”
The chapter that most spoke to our needs deals with toys. In a nutshell, Payne encourages parents to toss all but the favorites. You can donate some, put some away to rotate every few months, but toss anything that is broken or isn’t great for your children (you instinctually know which these are but he also gives some guidance e.g. toys that are loud and annoying). He claims, “As you decrease the quantity of your child’s toys and clutter, you increase their attention and their capacity for deep play.” I was on board. And it didn’t take much to get Jas on board either. When I shared with him this “new” approach to child-rearing with all the American swagger I could muster, he looked at me impassively.
“What?” I asked, surprised he wasn’t bowled over by my industrious research.
“You’re describing the way I grew up” he shrugged. “None of this is new to me.”
We set aside a few days to conduct what I refer to as The Great Purge. As Payne suggested, we started with our stuff.
The panini press we hadn’t used since we started living in places with actual stoves? Out.
The seersucker blazer Jas had bought on sale and never worn as he hadn’t been asked to join a barber-shop quartet? Out.
The long-sleeved jumpsuit I hadn’t worn since my sister asked me what time I was heading to the dojo? Out.
The twelve eye-shadow brushes I consider before settling on the two I always use? Out.
No room was untouched, no corner ignored. Cookie was beside us the whole time. She saw us tossing and organizing. Making space. Breathing.
Then came the night we had been waiting for. After Cookie went to sleep (again, as Payne had suggested), we hit the toys. We had four piles–toss, recycle, donate, keep. As we let go of the stuffed animals she never hugged, the games she never played with, the books that were ripped or age inappropriate, we danced giddily our feet getting lighter and lighter as we moved from room to room. I was particularly proud of the bathroom purge where we said goodbye to the singing octopus, floating ball, seal, whale, polar bear, starfish and elephant. All that remained was a stacking triad of water flow cups. Throughout, we kept only the favorites which not surprisingly happen to be the “good” stuff like blocks and puzzles, instruments and dress-up clothes, construction paper and crayons.
I had a few fears–that Cookie would be overwhelmed by the loss. That she would wake up in shock and ask for things we had gotten rid of. Would she wonder where-oh-where did that stuffed hippo go? Would she cry and beg me to find her toys and bring them back? Would this buy her extra hours on the therapist’s couch?
It wouldn’t surprise Payne to know that not only did Cookie not look for the missing toys, she didn’t even notice they were gone. She exclaimed over the “new room” (which was the playroom stripped down) happy to see and easily find all of her favorite toys which she now plays with more and for longer periods of time. She has not experienced a loss but rather freedom from the overwhelming amount of choice that she once had. By taking things away from her, we ended up giving to her.
A few days after The Great Purge, Cookie did ask about the missing toys. She climbed into the mini-tent on the floor of her bedroom, which had become a depository for an ark’s worth of stuffed animals, and poked her head out: “Mama! Where did all the guys go?!”
I pretended to be as surprised as she. “Huh! Maybe… they… went on vacation” I said.
“Oh! That should be fun” she said and ducked back in to make me a cup of tea.