Just 2 days earlier I had spent half the day cleaning their room & re-organizing their toys and closet, which is something I do fairly regularly. I wasn’t asking them to clean some giant out-of-control mess, just to pick up a few items off the floor and put them away in the very clearly labeled baskets. Every time I came back to check on them, they had not only NOT picked up, they had made an even bigger mess.
I finally gave up and took it all away. I wasn’t angry, just fed up. I calmly began packing up not just a toy or two, but every single thing. All their dress-up clothes, baby dolls, Polly Pockets, & stuffed animals, all their Barbies, building blocks, and toy trains, right down to the the furniture from their dollhouse and play food from their kitchen. I even took the pretty Pottery Barn Kids comforter from their bed. The girls watched me in stunned silence for a few minutes and then, when the shock wore off, they helped. And just like that, their room was clear.
When I initially read the post I thought it was kind of a dramatic overreaction, even though I spent more than a few minutes wistfully fantasizing about how clean the house would be if there simply were no toys. But that afternoon, Sienna came home from school and immediately launched into being Sienna. This entails endless requests for things. Either new toys, new books, looking something up online, getting her Easy Bake Oven out, playing outside…something, something, something, all the time. One thing, or even several things in a row, never satisfy her. It’s always more, more, more, and she’s never content to wait, rest, or just be still. She’s been like that since she was little, but in the last few months I’ve noticed an almost frantic intensity to it…like she just desperately needs something, anything. To make her happy? To fill a void? To occupy her mind? I don’t know.
I do know, however, where I’ve seen that kind of behavior before. In the mirror.
That’s a classic addictive personality. There is some great absence, some negative, that drives her. She is striving to answer some unidentified, nameless, formless question, a question that consumes her and yet terrifies her. Or, you know, she’s seven, so it’s probably not that hyperbolic yet. That’s probably me and not so much my daughter. But the building blocks are there.
What I’ve noticed is that when she gets more attention, more gifts, more stuff, more freedom, or when she’s surrounded by the possibility of endless excess (think commercials) the intensity of her desire for even more rockets up to a fever pitch. It frightens me. Mostly because I don’t know what she is lacking so profoundly. Oh, I have many guesses that begin with my own feeble non-attempts at mothering in her early years, but even so. How do I correct it?
It seems to me that the best way to help her is the way you help any addict. You don’t treat the great underlying misery or depression or despair first — you’ll never get there that way. First you remove the object of addiction. Only then will you (the person treating/loving) and the addict be able to see clearly enough to start identifying and addressing the underlying issues.
It kind of sounds crazy, maybe, to treat my 7 year-old’s love of things and entertainment as an addiction, but I’d rather her learn from an early age to be satisfied within herself than to be always searching for some outside fulfillment. So the concept of toy purging took root in my mind.
Yesterday morning, I started actually watching Charlotte and Liam play with toys, to gauge how drastic the purging could be without causing the end of the world. And what I discovered is that Charlotte does not play with toys at all, and Liam only plays with his cars. What they really do is get up in the morning, dump every single toy bin out on the floor, and then find something (usually a kitchen utensil or a shoe or another non-toy) to fight over for a solid hour. When Charlotte goes to school, Liam quietly plays with his cars…but only IF all the toys have been picked up. If they haven’t been, he wanders around the house like a ping-pong ball, peppering me with requests, yanking things out of Lincoln’s hands, and trying to scale the counters to reach the sugar bowl.
So last night, I asked them to pick up the toys, and when they didn’t do it I took the toys away.
All of them. Even the cars and the stuffed animals. Everything except Lincoln’s wooden rollercoaster toy, which he plays with for minutes on end.
Just like in the blog post I read, no one cared. Charlotte only cried when I took her dress-up clothes, and Liam only got upset when he had to go to bed without his car pillow. Other than that, nada.
Last night was so peaceful. No one fought over anything. Charlotte sat quietly and looked at books for a solid half-hour. Liam actually played with Lincoln instead of ripping things out of his hands. Sienna happily helped me clean and sweep the kitchen.
And today. Oh, seriously, bliss. There are no toys on my floor. No toys to step over. No toys to step on. No toys being thrown at anyone’s head or in the stockpot. Nothing. Some clothes I folded are on the couch, and there are a few shoes on the floor, and that’s. it.
I gave Liam back a small selection of cars to take to the doctors’ office, which I’ll let him keep. The dress-up clothes and wooden blocks will be put up in a closet and brought out periodically, along with the tangrams, and I’ll let the girls earn back one or two stuffed animals or dolls. Aside from that, though, this shit (because that is literally what it is) is going far away from our house, forever.