Why stuff-management matters

“Rather than shutting the door for fear of coercing, rather than waiting for the kids to ask for help, sometimes it’s better to find new good ways of helping and offer them with generous enthusiasm.”
– Alice Bachini


From the archives: 2003

These days, we all have lots and lots more Stuff than we ever had before. One only has to flick through the IKEA catalogue to see just how many new and wonderful clever storage devices people are buying to protect and organise their incredibly vast shoe collections, diverse kitchen crockery and CD treasure-troves. Clever storage is a skill our parents had far less use for. Mine, for example, were small children during and after WWII: if you had more than one pair of shoes then, you were lucky. Whereas the crates of female shoes in my house now are rivalled only by the crates of male ones. Capitalism hadn’t gone wild yet. The world wasn’t overflowing with bargains. Good Stuff is good: it aids our creativity, it helps us pursue our ideas, it inspires and pleases us. Having lots of it is a rational preference, and one which smaller children in particular often seem have.

But Stuff needs caring for. Anyone ever tried to make a Lego plane out of miniature Lego pieces mixed with Playmobil pieces mixed with Connect Four chips mixed with breakfast cereal mixed with a packet of chocolate chip cookies? Attempted helping a child find their favourite purple shoe, which they want to wear to the party and only remembered the existence of five minutes before leaving, and the door won’t even open on the room due to piled-up belongings everywhere? Have you ever attempted living in the middle of a whole house that was never tidied, where things had no logical storage place that people respected, where to eat breakfast one had to rummage under a bed to find a bowl and spoon then wash off the mould before liberating them for personal use?

I’m exaggerating only slightly. And I don’t mean to imply that everyone genuinely prefers the same degree of stuff-organisation. Some people actively enjoy hunting for colouring pencils underneath the sink, no doubt. Some people organise the things they love, keep their colouring pencils in an antique box on the mantelpiece, and disorganise the things they don’t care about, never getting round to mending the stairs with the missing treads. Some people enjoy being surrounded by clutter, they prefer the aesthetic impact of that, find it enjoyable, comforting. Some people can find you a pin in the midst of what looks like clutter because actually, it is a carefully organised system that only looks like clutter. Other people’s homes are flawlessly tidy, yet they don’t know where they left the kettle.

However, I would like to point out that the cliche of teenagers and messy rooms may not always be what it seems: there are teenagers living in flea-pits who would actually really like some of the right kind of sensitive, kind, positive, enthusiastic, generous support in re-organising and re-decorating and re-beautifying their rooms. But they either don’t trust their adults enough to want to go anywhere near them in such a project, or they can’t see the point in asking. “She doesn’t want to know,” they think. “Otherwise, why doesn’t she offer?” Shutting the door on these people’s rooms might seem a good idea, while actually only adding insult to injury.

Do you prefer mess? Would you like never to lose things in your home again? Do you enjoy walking across a floor strewn with things that crack disconcertingly underneath your feet? Those parents with toddlers who need to be got to hundreds of times a day across floors and up stairs may well appreciate the amount of extra work created just by having to negotiate belongings strewn everywhere in the house every single time. Tidying is work. Picking your way rather than striding across a floor is work. Putting things in boxes is work. Sorting out mixed-up toys so they can be played with easier is work. Inventing great storage systems is work. So is searching the whole house for a precious lost bunny-rabbit. The point is to find the most efficient kind of work out of the available choices: never to tidy creates work, as well as avoiding it. Well organised (in ways suited to the inhabitants unique problem-sets) houses are easier to live in, and this is good.

And tidiness helps with creativity, too. I feel more like cooking when there are work surfaces already freely available for doing it on. “Aha! The store cupboard is full, and there’s sun in the kitchen! Cookies!” Whereas, if there’s smelly washing-up everywhere, chances are I’ll go sit in the garden instead. Nothing wrong with sitting in the garden: but my choices were reduced, my creativity squashed instead of opened up. Whereas, what we all need to be doing in the great Taking Children Seriously fight against creativity-compromise is finding ever more and better ways of surrounding ourselves with inspiration and quantities of inspiring enjoyable activities that genuinely appeal. And I’m not just talking about the children here: that applies to all of us!

The right kind of tidiness consists of nothing other than: caring for and organising our belongings, which we do and should value because they are one of the most important means by which we are creative. This knowledge is important and growing, and we can and should share it with our children without having to invade their privacy, coerce them or make them feel pressured or annoyed. As long as they are in control of any help we offer, and as long as all our tidying and organisation ideas are open to discussion and criticism, and as long as we help sensitively at times which suit them and without disrupting their space, and as long as we find ways of helping them care for their belongings which enable them better to find and have access to and be inspired by those belongings, then we are probably doing it right. Rather than shutting the door for fear of coercing, rather than waiting for the kids to ask for help, sometimes it’s better to find new good ways of helping and offer them with generous enthusiasm.

See also:

Alice Bachini, 2003, ‘Why stuff-management matters’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/why-stuff-management-matters/