20 August 2007

Coping with Apocalyptic Chaos

There are two ways in which I sometimes feel incredibly inadequate as a mother. One is that I frequently lose patience with my children and snap at them, realizing only moments later that it has far more to do with me than with anything they may have done. The other is the playroom and its constant state of disarray.

I have tried everything that I can think of to keep the toys organized. We have plastic bins for each kind of toy - doll clothes, Playmobil, Legos, animals and figures, dress-up clothes - but still they get all mixed up. There are baskets for the miscellaneous toys that don't belong with a group - the etch-a-sketch, the cow pull-toy, the handful of cardboard nesting blocks. There is a single long shelf for books, almost full, and a closet with shelves at the back for the less-played-with toys like the lincoln logs, bristle blocks, and cardboard puzzles.

I have also tried everything I can think of to encourage the children to clean up after themselves. I have bribed them with candy and trips to the playground, threatened starvation and the End of Toys, made lists, and created elaborate chart and point systems. I have even tried that which is completely against my own parenting nature: Making it into a Fun! Game! Nothing works with any kind of consistency - in fact, most of it doesn't work at all.

When everything is actually where it is supposed to go, the playroom is nice: bright and sunny, open floor space for playing, the wooden kitchen in the corner, ready to cook up some bat stew or chocolate smooze, the wide table is great for projects, and the doll house always seems to be home to a fabulous party or Playmobil head boutique.

But the room seems more comfortable in a near-apocalyptic state: toys everywhere, plastic bins full of things that don't belong, dress-up clothes mixed with actual clothes, crayon masterpieces on paper strewn across the floor, chairs overturned, teddy bears tied to the hooks for the clothes, clothes tied to the chairs chairs tied to each other, Barbie dolls in various states of being, makeshift tents for homeless Calico Critters, and small, sharp plastic pieces of things constantly underfoot.

A few months ago I bought a lock. Nothing big or brassy, just a little latch that I installed on the toy closet out of reach of small hands. I spent an entire day and a half organizing, sorting and cleaning the playroom until it looked like it could belong in a mildly classy home magazine (maybe one for do-it-yourself-ers on a budget). I passed a house-wide decree that only one bin of toys could be removed from the closet at a time and that bin must be put away neatly before another could take its place. And this worked... for a while.

But before we even knew what was happening up there, Matilda had figured out how to unlock the closet and the toys were everywhere again. I was not particularly surprised by this development - after all, she is a smart girl, and it was not a difficult lock - but I admit that I was mildly disappointed.

Fast-forward to this past Saturday: While I was out running errands, Steve and the girls did a wonderful job cleaning all of the toys that had accumulated to the point where I'm pretty sure they had been breeding in the corners of the room. I was very pleased and grateful not to have to deal with the mess, and was looking forward to not having to deal with it again for at least a couple of days (at least not on the scale it had been at before Saturday).

Yesterday: In a little less than two hours, the girls had completely transformed the room back into its natural chaotic state. At four o'clock, we asked them nicely to clean it up. A royal battle ensued. Steve and I were on the losing side by a long shot, and in the end, we admitted defeat and I negotiated a settlement with the children in which they agreed to clean up the playroom the following morning if Steve and I would feed them before sending them off to bed.

This morning: After breakfast, and what I considered a reasonable waking up time (an hour or so) I reminded the children of the bargain they had made the night before and told them to go upstairs, which they did without too much fuss.

Now (4:55 pm): They are still cleaning. It is the most tedious process I have ever seen. But they are making progress. Sometimes it is imperceptible, but they can see it, and if I wait long enough between surprise inspections, I can tell that they are trying.

I know that full 8 or 9 hour days of picking up are not the answer in my quest to find an easy, no-screaming-required way to get the children to clean up their toys, but for today it's what I have, and it is good (enough) for now. And so my quest continues. If, by some miracle, I do find the Holy Grail of playroom cleaning, I solemnly swear to share my secret with the world.

The Playroom (in a mild state of confusion):


Annika said...

This might be total assvice. Just so you know.

I was thinking about something I read about toddlers, which I know doesn't apply but maybe it would work with older kids too. What I read (and I wish I could remember where so I could just link - it was probably Ask Moxie) was that directions like "clean up your room" just don't mean anything to little brains, but if you break it up into smaller tasks they can process it. Like, "Pick up the playmobil and put it in the basket." I am pretty sure your girls can understand a more general order to clean up, but I wonder if the results would be better (and faster!) if you broke it up for them.

Thus concludes the talking out of my ass portion of our evening.

andi said...

I so could have written the first paragraph of this post. And I have raised the white flag when it comes to the toy room. Its evil spirit of untidiness will not possess me anymore. I simply have too many other important things to do (Ha! If only this were true and I didn't break out in a cold sweat every time I walked in. One day I will really be this zen, I swear).

Jen said...

Gosh, I feel your frustration. You've got this awesome space for them to play in but you feel like they can't even use it to it's potential in it's current state? One thing that my mom always did that seemed to work was that she picked up everything that was left out at night and put it in a laundry basket. We coulnd't have anything in the basketback for a week. Once she did that a couple of times we got a lot better about cleaning up for ourselves. Of course I dispense all this advice but the fact is I'm in the same boat as you. My son's room is often so messy that I have hard time walking across it. And I don't know what the heck to do about it.

Cathy said...

Thank you! You have just perfectly described my daughter's bedroom. I feel less alone.

Every weekend, we sort, we organize, we clean ... and in a matter of hours, you would never know such effort had been put into that room.

Let me know if you stumble across any miracle solutions. Because right now, we're stumbling through her room ... constantly.

Jennifer aka Binky Bitch said...

I like annika's answer, as it made me giggle!

anyway, I don't have advice, just sympathy. Toys have taken over my once well kept home. I surrender with my white flag. I'd call in reinforcements, but there are none. There's only me. Alone in the sea of toys.

Good luck.

Jessica said...

I have found that with my 3 y.o., it does help to say, "ok, now clean up all the kitchen stuff and tell me when that's done."..."ok, now clean up all the dress up clothes." But that's a pain in the butt too. And we have put toys that don't get put away on "time-out" for the whole next day. Which sort of worked, for a few days.
But I am hoping we had a breakthrough--the other day she told me that she didn't know what she wanted to play with because there was so much stuff. I am thinking that maybe she is just overwhelmed by choices so she takes it all out for a few minutes then moves to the next bin.

So we are going through the room this weekend and taking a bunch of toys out, putting them in the basement to store, and maybe rotating them back and switching out with other stuff in a few months.

I'll let you know how it goes--at the very least, there will be less to clean up!