Life Lessons from Cleaning the Toy Room

This past weekend we cleaned the toy room.

Next to our living room is a little study that we’ve turned into a toy room.  It is filled with shelves that are filled with boxes and bins of toys, the accumulation of almost twenty-two years of having children at regular intervals (so there has always been at least one young child). I also have a mother-in-law who buys the kids presents for every possible event (including not just every single holiday or performance but days when they felt a smidgen sad or sick). While there is a bright-colored rug meant for playing, the toy room has a way of becoming so messy and chaotic that you can’t even see the rug, let alone play there.

So about three times a year, we do a big cleanout. We haul everything out into the living room, sort it all out, make some tough decisions about what stays and what goes, vacuum the bright-colored rug and dust the shelves, and put it all back. While that sounds easy, it’s really hard.

Decisions about Stuff (grownup term: possessions) are always hard. Every time we do one of those cleanouts, we relearn some important life lessons:

Liam with Stuff in the living room

We all like having Stuff. Let’s face it. Whether it’s Matchbox cars or real cars, doll clothes or real clothes, there is a true appeal to owning things. Stuff can be fun. It can make us feel powerful, or rich. It’s comforting to know you have it. We like to show it off. For all sorts of reasons, we have a tendency to accumulate things.

Some Stuff has emotional worth. I run into this every time we do the cleanup. I’ll toss something into the garbage bag because it is clearly stained or broken or missing pieces, only to have one of my children (or sometimes my husband) grab it out. “Not that!” I’ll hear the explanation of why it’s special (and why I should have known that)—or there’s no explanation, just a resentful look as said toy is carefully placed back where it’s felt to belong. Some things we keep for inexplicable important reasons.

You can have too much Stuff. Wow, is this a hard lesson for all ages. We don’t want to believe it, but it’s just plain old true. Three times a year, faced with the piles in the living room, it’s very obvious to all of us, as much as we might want to deny it. Some people never figure this out.

If Stuff is important, you need to take care of it. This is another hard lesson. Liam was really sad to throw out the parrot that mimicked everything we said, but its wings were broken off after being left on the floor and getting tossed and trampled.

Everybody deals with Stuff differently. My 11-year-old is a take-no-prisoners type of person (she gets that from me). She’s fine with chucking things—as long as she can get more at some point (she does not get that from me). My 7-year-old is far more attached. So is my 21-year-old, who nixed some of my throwing out plans yesterday via Skype from Paris. Toy room cleanup requires negotiation—and tolerance.

The toy room after cleaning, rug visible

Giving Stuff to others feels good. Every time we clean, we get a box and fill it with things to give away-things that are extra or outgrown. We’ve given toys and books to shelters, and I’ve brought things in to work to give away. These days, there is a two-year-old boy across the street who has become the beneficiary of our toy room cleanup efforts. This weekend we filled a box with some great Stuff—some lift-the flap books and board books, the toddler-sized monkey costume, a few of Liam’s old trucks, the hard-to-part-with hobby horse and a few other treasures. There was some reluctance as we put things in—but all of that was erased when we brought the box to Oliver. Once they were showing everything to Oliver’s parents, they were just plain old happy—and proud to be doing something kind.

And those moments make all the hassle and angst and arguing of toy room cleanup worthwhile. Almost makes me want to do it more often.