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The One Question You Should Never Ask Children

Or the life-changing madness of tidying up after children.

Our Summer of Simplification began in June, and we were off running. Sprinting, really, and I didn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. I moved from category to category, just like those tidying experts recommend.

But there was a hurdle waiting that I didn’t expect.

Stuffed animals.

My kids have thousands of them. I’m not really sure how it happened. I know we didn’t buy them all. I know the boys get a small allowance every month, and they’re usually spending that allowance on these little wide-eyed animals called Beanie Boos, from the local Hobby Lobby store.

I know that they have no concept of having too many or whether or not they should stop buying. I know kids are always drawn to “stuffies” that can seem like real friends.

For a while, we tried to encourage them all to pick different Beanie Boos, because there’s a whole collection of them—owls, foxes, dogs, cats, penguins, tigers, every animal you could possibly imagine, and they all wanted them all.

Problem is, that means we currently have 10,000 stuffed animals, and now we have to give away 9,900 of them, because there’s nowhere to sleep anymore, unless we’re talking about a mattress made of fluffy animals who stare at you without blinking.

So we thought we’d go through each and every stuffed animal, asking the owner of it, “Does he bring you joy?”

I picked up a raggedy dog with an ear missing.

“Who does this belong to?” I said.

“Me, me, me!” said my 5-year-old. “That’s Little Valentino.”

“Does he bring you joy?” I said, thinking the masculine ending on Valentino meant he was a boy.

The 5-year-old giggled. “Little Valentino’s a girl,” he said.

“OK,” I said. “Does she bring you joy?” I already knew what the answer would be.

“Yes!” he said, grabbing Valentino away from me.

“Even with a missing ear?” I said.

“Yes!” he said again, and gave the dog a big kiss. “I love Little Valentino.”

“Where’s his other ear?” I said.

My boy shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said.

I managed not to shake my head, though, to be honest, it bothers me immensely that my son wants to keep an old raggedy stuffed animal with a missing ear and a gaping hole where you can see the fluff inside, because I know that fluff is, one day, going to end up on the floor. I’m guessing it will happen in the 3-year-old twins’ room.

But what can you do when a boy loves a stuffed animal?

I held up another dog that only had stuffing in its bottom half now, because she’d been well loved. I hadn’t seen her around for a while.

“Huh. Where did Sissy come from?” I said.

“I found her in the garage,” the 8-year-old said. “I don’t know why she was there.”

In the garage, meaning she must have been cleaned out in the last stuffed-animal reduction six months ago. Which means there were probably others that had been in that trash bag. Which also means these were stuffed animals that weren’t missed until they were found.

I went through the motions, my voice a tad less excited. “Does Sissy bring you joy?” I said. (A word to the novices: Stuffed animals with names are always going to bring joy.)

“Yes,” the 8-year-old said. “That’s the stuffed animal I slept with when I was 2. Remember?”

Of course I remember. But I don’t like to remember, because that makes me want to keep it, too, and we’re trying to reduce here.

“Are you going to sleep with her?” I said. “Would you even miss her?”

“Yes!” he said, and tossed her up to his bed.

I sighed.

“OK,” I said, hoping I’d have a little luck with the next one. “Whose is this?” I held up a snake that didn’t even have any stuffing left. It looked like a furry green tie. It was missing an eye and the tail had a giant hole in it.

“Mine!” the 6-year-old said.

“I’ve never even seen this before,” I said. “Where did it come from?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I love it.” Of course he does.

He took it from me and wrapped his arms around it in a hard squeeze, except there was nothing to hug but himself. It was just a piece of material, draped over his arms.

We were getting nowhere.

We ended that exercise without getting rid of a single stuffed animal. The boys piled up all those dogs and snakes and owls on their beds like long-lost friends, and I was no closer to reducing them than I had been when I started. I’d wasted two hours keeping what I’d set out to get rid of.

This experience taught me that kids probably shouldn’t be involved in the tidying-up process, especially during the throwing-out step. Because everything brings joy. The markers that don’t work anymore bring joy. The roller skates with a missing wheel bring joy. Even the piece of paper with one scribble on it brings joy.

“But it’s a drawing the twins did, Mama,” the 8-year-old said, when he saw me walking this particular drawing toward the trash bag. “Do you really want to throw away a drawing that one of the twins did?”

Why, yes. Yes I do, when it’s a drawing of absolutely NOTHING.

“If you don’t want to keep it, then I will,” he said. He looked angry that I could even suggest throwing some piece of art away.

Well, he’s not drowning in the papers, so…

The toys that are all mildewed because they’ve been hiding underneath the cabinet since the first one was born in 2006 bring joy. The paper airplane he made out of an old report card brings joy, even though it’s been crumpled and re-made and doesn’t fly anymore. Those socks with the heel-sized hole in them bring joy, because “I wore these that time I learned how to ride the scooter.”

(And how do they remember these things? I can’t even remember what I wore yesterday. I’m just kidding. Black workout pants, like I wear every other day.)

So the moral of this story is “Don’t involve the kids.”

Two months later, when the kids started school, I snuck into their rooms the first day and bagged up some of the looking-worse-for-wear stuffed animals that I never see them carry around or hear them mention.

It’s been 10 days, and they haven’t said a thing about missing them. This could be because their room looks like a clothes volcano erupted inside it, but that’s neither here nor there. I think we’re mostly good.

Bye bye, stuffed animals. I win.

This is an excerpt from The Life-Changing Madness of Tidying Up After Children, the second book in the Crash Test Parents series. For more of Rachel’s writings, visit her web site.