Have you seen the show Hoarders? Scott watched it for the first time last Monday, while I lay in bed with the stomach flu. He tried to get me to watch the show on the bedroom TV, but I can tell you that the last thing I wanted to see at that moment was a show about hoarding--especially this episode. We did watch an episode together several days later, and it was sad and enlightening at the same, seeing the fallout of personal tragedies so tangibly represented in the disorder.
I'm not a hoarder. I don't think I've ever been a hoarder. I do like to save sentimental scraps of things, tokens of my past, or from my children's infancies, or just from special times in my life. But after watching the show I could see how people become hoarders, how they are driven to stuff every crevice in their lives with odds and ends, piling it all so high they are literally burying the problems they can't face, building walls between themselves and the reality they are trying so hard to forget.
L., like many nine-year old boys, I suspect, is a hoarder. He's also a collector of things. While he seems nonchalant about many attachments to animate objects, he will fiercely fight for the right to keep a beloved piece of plastic packaging.
And every single catalog he's ordered since 2008.
And the wrappers to cough drops.
And socks you're trying to throw out.
We have always tried to respect L.'s space, and to respect how important all his collections are to him. Yet at the same time there are only so many times you can step on a pile of Legos at night with your bare feet, or slide ungraciously to the floor because you slipped on the torn cover of an Overton's catalog, before you lose your cool. Even though hoarding is much more socially acceptable in a nine-year old boy then it is in a forty-nine year old woman, it can still rapidly balloon out of control. Lately, negotiating L.'s room has been like walking across a minefield: books open and strewn across his floor, piles of metal samples he got from a steel factory (don't ask), tiny Lego pieces spread like a colorful carpet everywhere you look. Every so often things come to a head and I go on a cleaning binge. So far we've been unable to do this while L. is present, so I seize the moments when he's out of the house and I'm home to do a major purging of wrappers and plastic containers and catalogs that are too ripped to even read. This sneaky approach to organizing the mess is all well and good, but how do you make the reluctant hoarder a valuable contributor in the cleaning-up and decluttering?
Here are some tricks we've tried to help L. stay invested in the organization process:
Buy plastic bins or baskets from the dollar store and have your child help decide how to organize his collections in ways he understands. While we do the purging without L., we try to involve him in the reorganization process. One of his chief complaints about the cleaning process is that he can't find anything when we're done.
Invest in a label maker! We bought one for only $15 a few years ago and we love it. We label almost everything in L.'s room for him (now he will often type up the labels himself with help/prodding from us), and this especially helps kids who have trouble remember the organizational system you worked so hard to put into place. We label the bins for his Legos, and the bins for his Playmobil figures, as well as the drawer dividers for his dresser.
In encouraging your child to help organize, think small scale. Start with a specific corner or section of the room, and then go from there. Some kids, particularly those with information processing challenges do better when consistently starting from the left side of the room, and moving right; others prefer taking a top to bottom approach. Find out what works best for your own child.
Don't over organize. One time I got over-ambitious and tried to organize L.'s Legos by size/color, etc. This not only resulted in a huge headache for myself (L. had no interest in this undertaking) but I hadn't thought ahead to the fact that L. would never be able to stay on top of that system himself. What child takes the time out of playing to sort his/her Legos by color, anyway? (Not mine, I can tell you!)
If your child insists on holding onto the packaging for everything, make a rule that it must be placed in a plastic or paper bag. We keep one on hand in L.'s closet for this very purpose. All packaging makes its way (willingly or unwillingly) into the bag, which must then stay inside the closet. Every so often I do whisk the bag away for emptying, but at least L. is getting the point (we hope) that packaging and trash must be contained.
When all else fails, threaten to do the cleaning yourself. I'm not proud of this, but I have been known to vacuum up a Lego piece or two (or three or four or...okay, maybe a half dozen). Honestly, if I bent down to pick up every single teeny tiny Lego piece I find lying between myself and a clean floor I'd never stand straight again. L. knows this happens sometimes, especially when I'm on a cleaning tear through the house. Nothing gets him moving quicker to round up his Legos then the sight of the canister cleaner heading into his room.
It's all still a work in process, and maybe an exercise in futility in the long run. But I'm hoping that we can help L. learn that staying organized is the best way to protect the things he values so much. I'm also hoping this hoarding business will get better over time, not worse.
Somebody tell me it will, please?