We have a problem with clutter.
Late winter (you know, last week), it hit a new high. (Or was it a new low?) Boots, balled-up socks, sweaters, toys, coats, shoes—just follow the trail and it was likely to lead you to one of several little people around here.
Not much can be done about the twenty-two month old right now. He’s simply at That Stage. But the girls? At five and almost-eight, they are both capable of picking up after themselves.
I was sick of reminding them. But I didn’t want to turn clutter into a huge disciplinary issue. They didn’t need me following them around doling out punishments every time they took off their socks and let them on the living room floor.
They had to be internally motivated to put their possessions away, not externally prodded by me all the time. And whatever I did to motivate them, it had to be self-sustaining.
At first, I thought maybe I would put up a chart, with stickers for clutter-free days.
But I hate charts. (There. I said it.)
Charts are great and wonderful—for mothers who remember them.
Around here, the first week of a chart is exhilarating. Everybody is excited about the new program and the neat stickers. And then, one day, we forget to put up stickers until after the girls are in bed. Or one girl remembers and the other doesn’t. Or one girl always takes the pink stickers and there’s only green ones left and I don’t want green, I want pink, but she has them all. The gloss wears off. We fall behind in keeping track and everyone stops caring.
I am too absent-minded to be trusted with charts. I stand with one foot in the real world and one foot in the world that exists inside my head. This divided attention means many details of living can completely evade me or slip through my distracted fingers.
I’ve tried to improve. I buy vitamins that are supposed to help me concentrate and remember, but (you can see where this is going, can’t you?) I forget to take them. I keep an erratic planner. I make lists. I married a man who never forgets.
None of this has helped me much. I’m a chronic thinker and daydreamer. Vitamins and husbands aren’t going to change that.
A chart for clutter? Let’s pretend that I try it and I wouldn’t forget. So what if someone lets one sock on the floor? Would that completely erase the daily sticker? I could just hear the fuss that would make. They are children, not pre-programmed robots. Besides, we all live here, and if I look around, I can see a few of my possessions here and there.
While I was kicking this problem back and forth, I stopped beside an empty cardboard box that had been used to haul groceries home from the local discount store. I looked at it, and my chart idea vanished into the ether.
I’d like to introduce you to The Box.
It’s my new best friend.
It takes care of the clutter for me.
Here’s what I told the girls: “You know how you have a problem with letting your things all over the house, like shoes and backpacks and dolly clothes?”
[Insert sheepish nods here.]
“Do you see this box?”
“Whenever I find things on the floor that shouldn’t be on the floor, I will pick them up and put them in The Box. If you want to redeem them, you will need to do a job for me. One job for every item in the box.”
“What’s redeem mean, Mom?”
“It means if you want to wear your school shoes again, you’ll need to do a job for me.” I looked at the other girl. “It means if you want to play with your dolly again, you’ll need to do a job for me. Whatever is in The Box, you can’t have it back until you work to get it.”
The best part of this program is that I don’t have to remember anything. I still pick up things that shouldn’t be on the floor, but now I just toss them into The Box. However, the girls are finding it much easier to put their possessions away immediately rather than doing jobs before redeeming their stuff to put it away. If something of theirs is in The Box, they don’t complain about the job they have to do, because they know they could have prevented the job from happening.
The Box creates internal motivation. No more nagging from me. All I do is march toward the coat on the floor, and suddenly there’s a girl diving for the coat and whisking it into the closet.
We might even graduate to a smaller box, since this one is over-qualified.
And with all this putting away clutter and redeeming clutter, the house hasn’t looked so good in a long time.
Well. Not entirely. There is still the twenty-two month old, and he’s messier than both his sisters combined.
Maybe we should put him in The Box.
And redeem him with kisses.