Put Your Toys Away!

To gain power and control, you have to relinquish both.

Posted Mar 01, 2019

The other morning, our house was strewn with toys. Two of us wanted them cleaned up. Unfortunately, the third member of our family, our 5 year-old-son, did not.

I don’t mind toys being out if Lucas is playing with them. And by that, I don’t necessarily mean hands on at that moment; play is not only in the here and now, but in the memory and imagination as well. It has longevity.  

To that end, we often have complex train systems running through our main floor. Lucas may leave them for a time to work on other things or to play outside. But he’ll return to expand the track and elaborate on the game. His mind has stayed with it, and I want to encourage that ongoing connection. 

Other times though, things are just a plain old forgotten mess. And I want it cleaned up.

I’ve been lucky to receive some great parenting coaching and advice over the years from friends, Lucas’s Waldorf teachers, as well as the writings of Meghan Leahy, Janet Lansbury, and others. As a result, I handle these types of situations very differently than I was inclined to before and at the beginning of my parenting journey.

For example, when challenges arise, I now start with the question: 'How do I want Lucas to feel about this experience, now and in the long term?' Which often doesn’t coincide with: 'How do I get Lucas to do what I want?'  

The latter leads to ultimatums that cause resistance rather than acquiescence, a la ‘put your toys away or they’ll go to the Salvation Army!’ And while that approach may occasionally result in a clean living room, it won’t promote Lucas’s, or any child’s desire to put his toys away or good feelings about himself doing it. It also won’t help the desired behavior to take root and become natural and intrinsically motivated.

I also know that our toy issue isn’t about toys; rarely is the parenting minutiae ever about the matter at hand. It’s about the long game. Which for John and me is encouraging Lucas’s appreciation of and respect for himself, people and things—in this specific case, his toys. 

To do this, I’ve learned that we have to be willing to put aside our own inherited beliefs and fears—about being manipulated, about not doing things correctly as parents, about our kid becoming a lazy jerk or whatever else is going on in our heads—and focus on trusting our children. To know that they will, with our patience and grace, become self-motivated for good, right action.

This may seem counterintuitive to many of you. It sure as heck did to me when I first heard this advice.

But it works. When we’ve pushed Lucas, we’ve always met resistance. When we’ve instead focused on and prioritized right feelings, Lucas not only has done what we’ve wanted him to do. He’s done it gladly and on his own terms.

Here’s an example that plays out every day in our house. I learned years ago that Lucas needs time to transition between activities. Unlike me, who is always (and I mean ALWAYS) on time, no matter what, Lucas would miss his own birthday party if it meant being able to finish his game or drawing ‘just so’. 

And so I’ve learned, rather than resist his inclination to take time, to create more of it. I start the ‘we need to head out soon’ transition 30 minutes earlier than I normally would. So that by the time we need to walk out the door, he’s ready to go. On his own, happy, and ready for the next adventure. 

Prioritizing Lucas's feelings also grants a space for me as a parent to step back from my in-the-moment frustrations and see things with a bit more perspective. And curiosity. 

Back to his toys, the same morning Lucas didn’t want to load up his large living room toy baskets, he was happily (and on his own) placing his smaller toys in his dedicated ‘activity cabinet’ in the kitchen… a cabinet he loves and loves to organize.

And so, my wondering began…

Perhaps Lucas was lost in the world of his cabinet, and patience would best serve the situation. Perhaps Lucas has recently heard friends say "I don’t want to put away toys" and is, as is common, trying on the new behavior. Perhaps he’s tired. Perhaps he’s hungry. Perhaps he needs some attention.

And perhaps, turning the spotlight onto myself… perhaps he has too many toys. Perhaps his eagerness to organize his small toys and his resistance to dealing with the huge baskets mean we’re on toy overload. Kim John Payne, in his Simplicity Parenting, says that people these days have about 150 toys, an obscene amount. We're probably close to that, in baskets strewn about the house. My tendency to organize hides it well, but we’re definitely bursting at the seams. 

And so that morning I sat down with Lucas and asked him. Could this be why you enjoy your cabinet and resist the big baskets? If so, which things have you outgrown, my love? Which things can we share with our younger neighbors and friends?

Immediately, there was a change in my son. With excitement, he grabbed some grocery bags and started to go through the baskets he’d long been avoiding, filling them with the toys he no longer wanted (the train paraphernalia all stayed). He seemed to love the sorting, watching the bags we’d soon share with others grow and grow.

Watching my little guy that morning, with rapidly filling bags all around us, brought tears to my eyes. I had learned, yet again, to trust my son. And that by doing so, I was helping—not making—him do the things that matter to me, to us as a family, and ultimately, to him. To take care of himself, his home, and his community. To treat his toys and others with respect. To carry a heart of generosity and thanksgiving with him in every moment.