In accordance with Marie Kondo’s KonMari Method, my wife, my two little boys and I had created a pile of toys in the family room that was at least knee deep. There were building toys, games, action figures, puzzles, baby toys, costumes, balls and stuffed animals mounded up. They had been pulled from closets, nooks, crannies, and shelves and assembled to face judgment. The life-changing magic of tidying up is not, it turns out, so different from the judging of the living and the dead.
My boys, aged 5 and 7-years-old, were having the time of their young lives. They poured their toys on the pile from storage bins and indulged in the clatter of plastic and spreading mess. Destroying the family room is their hobby and they are very good at it. And here was the pinnacle of chaos. The only way it could have been better is if we let them pull the cushions off the couch and knock each other around.
What they were failing to understand was that the fun would soon stop. They didn’t see the reaping coming. They didn’t see loss waiting in the wings. I did. I’ve watched that Marie Kondo show on Netflix with my wife. I knew that Tidying Up was likely to end in tears.
I was the one who introduced my wife Marie Kondo. I should have known better. My wife loves cleaning. And that’s not some chauvinist statement. When she was a little girl, she demanded her mother make her a patched rag skirt as the one pre-princess Cinderella wore. In her version of the story, the pumpkin carriage never departed for the castle, but the evil stepmother’s hovel was spotless. As an adult, she watches Hoarders a lot. It’s her pump-up music.
For those unfamiliar, Tidying Up features the otherworldly and polite Kondo helping families organize sloppy and cluttered homes with her patented and profitable KonMari method. Normal folks are told to gather their things, hold them thoughtfully and ask, “Does this spark joy?” If it doesn’t, the object is thanked for its service and removed from the home. That’s the core of KonMari. Thanking and joy. Clothes are thanked as they are folded. Rooms are thanked as they are decluttered. Utensils are thanked as they are organized into boxes.
It was inevitable that my wife would love Marie Kondo. I just did not expect the whirlwind romance. Days after the first binger, we were folding laundry like Origami and purging stuff. And, in truth, It actually felt kind of nice. So when she said the boys should join in on tackling their toys, I was skeptical but unable to resist.
Kondoing, as I’ve come to call it, stopped being nice in the family room. And I can mark the exact moment the joyful tide shifted. My wife, looking for an easy win to start the process pulled a broken baby toy from the pile. It was a cracked hammer-shaped rattle that had somehow survived previous purges. It had not been played with in years.
“Okay,” my wife said softly, steeling herself. This is a broken toy for babies. Take a moment to look at it. Now, I want you to ask yourself, honestly, if it brings you joy.”
“Yes,” the boys replied, almost in unison.
“Really? I haven’t seen either of you play with it in years. Are you sure.”
“Momma,” intoned my 5-year-old, “Meber when I was a baby and I used to shake it and hit the ground and stuff? It’s my favorite.”
“I did that too,” my 7-year-old said.
“You don’t understand,” my wife (always a good sign). “It did bring you joy once, but does it bring you joy now? The point is to get rid of stuff. Look at all this stuff! Are you sure it brings you joy?”
“Yes,” they said.
My wife took a deep breath. She slowly set the rattle aside. Then, she spotted a mangled accessory for a long lost action figure.
“We don’t even have the guy that this goes to,” she told the boys. “Now, does this bring you joy?”
“Yes,” they said. I locked eyes with my wife. The color was draining from her face. We studied the monument to our excess, made of toys, hulking in the center of the family room. This was going to suck.
The next four hours were brutal. It quickly became clear that the children wanted no part of mindfulness. They insisted that everything brought them joy and we, their parents, were left in the position of trying to dismantle that joy and explain it away. It was a process that ran completely counter to the instincts of a parent. We want our kids to feel joy. That’s basically the whole thing.
As time passed, the quiet, thoughtful simplicity of the KonMari was slowly polluted with amendments, negotiations and caveats. Suddenly, the question “does it spark joy?” became “does it spark joy and has it been played within the last year”. Then it became, “Does it spark joy, is it in good repair, has it been played within the last year and does it not annoy your parents?”
There were tears. The boys cried too.
But something very odd happened as we approached the third hour. The 5-year-old after some discussion and pointed questions seemed to grasp the idea that if we have too much stuff, it becomes less likely to get more stuff. Suddenly, he became ruthless in his estimation of what brought him joy. His standard answer shifted to “Get rid of it.”
The problem was that he was tossing toys that we knew he liked and played with a lot. We had to reign him in. But his sudden desire to purge was also complicated by his brother’s response: “If you don’t want it, I’ll take it.”
Still, the process had been sped up, and by dinner time the pile had largely dispersed. Toys were now grouped by kind. Games were reunited with missing pieces. All the Legos found a common home and four massive trash bags sat in the garage, ready for donation. And then I realized that my prized Wonder Woman action figure was missing. Diana, caught up in the purge, was retrieved and the donation bags were repacked. She now stands on a less cluttered shelf, surveying a more organized home.
Still, while we managed to tidy up, it’s clear to me that the KonMari method isn’t for little kids. At least not American kids. But our modified version seemed to work. We found that it’s easier for adults to understand the concept of “sparking joy” in the context of downsizing. Kids don’t get that. So we had to negotiate their joy and build a context that made sense. That meant helping them understand to have stuff, you need to let stuff go. And to have joy means showing joy by playing with your toys and respecting them. That’s how we got it to stick.
And in the end, I’m happy that what my children have sparks so much joy for them. And I’m happy that they are willing to let go. That can be hard. Just ask me and Wonder Woman.