Our son turned 13 recently – and all he wanted for his birthday was a new room. It’s seems a big ask, but given the circumstances, it’s a reasonable request. Ten years ago, he was allocated the smallest room in the house simply because he the youngest, least assertive member of our family.
Over the years, we had come up with many innovative solutions to make more room in his Harry Potteresk-like broom cupboard: a bunk bed with desk below, stacked storage boxes atop the wardrobe and lots of shelving. But for a boy with many interests (think stamp, coin and vinyl record collecting; metal detecting of which all the proceeds sit in a bucket under his desk, model building etc.) and a resistance to throwing stuff out, his room looked like a well organised garage sale.
He was happy enough, but a recent massive growth spurt that’s seen his feet touching the end of his bed and his head hitting the ceiling meant that it was time to move him into the only other available room in the house -- the living room.
And so began the slow transition. Paint the walls of the new room. Buy a bigger bed, a new desk and a 'racing' office chair. For every piece of furniture that went in, another would go out - even the desk my husband grew up with and that had been passed down to our son. I was quietly determined that not every piece of miscellany that our son owned would simply move into the new room.
But my husband and son were equally determined to part with as few things as possible. It soon became apparent that this was to be a highly charged, passive aggressive battle of the cullers (the women/girls in the house) versus the collectors (the men/boys); the battle of those who feel stressed by stuff, versus those who find it comforting; by those who do the bulk of the cleaning and tidying up after everyone, versus those who blissfully ignore corners that collect dust and various other miscellany. Don’t get me started.
Despite some stiff opposition, I was determined to win the culling battle. It wasn’t going to be easy, but I envisaged a clutter free, easy-to-clean and peaceful space, something I knew that my son would love. Below are some of the more subversive and, at times, sad and desperate strategies* I employed to rid our home of stuff.
Strategy #1 Sit it out
I prepared to sit it out. Literally. I promised I would park myself in our son’s room and help him make the hard decisions about what to keep or what to throw away. Emmanuel was delighted – my full attention for hours on end. Let the show and tell begin.
‘Now mum, let me tell you a story about this transistor radio. It doesn’t work. Probably because I pulled it apart. Three times. Once just to see what was inside. The next time because it was stuck on an Indian station, the third time because it only got AM stations…’
‘It’s broken. So you should throw it out.’ I hold the big yellow garbage bag closer.
‘But nanou gave it to me. What if it’s the only thing I have when, you know, he…’
‘You have lots of things to remember nanou by. And he is still alive. Just take a photo of it if you like, and let’s keep going…’ Impatience has crept into my voice and we're only five minutes into it. I scan the room – there are several boxes of Lego, two boxes of soft toys, a train set, several boxes of cars, books tucked in every nook and cranny, old newspapers …and that's what I can see without looking in his wardrobe. This could take weeks. Finally, he photographs the radio and we put it in the rubbish bag.
We go along like this for the better part of two hours – slowly, painfully, excruciating-bit-by-excruciating bit. We fill one bag for the rubbish bin, and half for the op shop. By the time we hit the coin and stamp collection, I have had it. We’ve hardly made a dint.
Later, I tell my husband about the radio, fishing for sympathy. Instead, he insists on taking the radio from the rubbish bag and taking another photo, just to make sure that it is safely immortalised. One point for the collector's camp.
Culling strategy #II: Bribery
The next day, I suggest we start with the books. I have this fantasy of lining these up in the hallway and getting the measuring tape out to measure how long his collection is. We don't actually get to that point because to lay them out would take up more space than we have. We place then in the study in neat piles until he can decide which will stay and which will go.
‘I’ll give you $1 for every book you cull,’ I urge, knowing full well how pathetic I sound. Still, I'd gladly part with $50 in order to free up space. Later, I hear my husband begrudgingly suggest our son should attempt to give away at least five books. Strategy #II successfully undermined. In the end, I lay out two boxes marked 'op shop' and hope for the best. I'm still waiting. Somehow I think this point will also go to the collector’s camp.
Culling strategy #III: Guerilla tactics
What if I just went in and slowly 'disappeared' a few things? It’s tempting, but I value the relationship with the menfolk in the house too much. Strategy ditched. One point for me for not stooping so low?
Culling strategy # IV: Stepping back (but not giving up)
In coming days, I leave some small filing boxes in the room and our son slowly makes his way through his things. Every time he walks out with a garbage bag, we exchange high fives. I encourage him to give his train set to some other child that will enjoy it as much as he did. I don't even attempt to get him to do something about his precious Lego. Everything stuck on his walls gets binned, apart from a few choice coin posters. And in this way, he makes what feels like slow but steady progress.
As the big day approaches, we help him put everything into the study until the new room is ready. Points go to both camps for good cooperative behaviour.
The new oh-so-much- cleaner and bigger room is finally ready. Over a whole day, I discretely move select special things in while my son tries to sort through miscellaneous desk drawers (a few old textas get binned, homemade ice-cream stick frisbees stay...), while deviating to the x-box for long rest breaks.
I put the new transistor radio that my husband bought to replace the old one on our son's bedside table. Our son is ecstatic. The new room is the best birthday present ever. The battle is over but the war has not yet been won -- what to do with all the stuff from our son's old room that's taking up half our study?
*The irony of worrying about too much stuff, when so many people don't have enough, is not lost on me.