Chaos Theory for Parents: Kids, Toys, and Messes

If the flap of a butterfly wing can change global weather patterns, how does a mom or dad stepping on another broken action figure affect the communal pool of parental angst?

One of my moral battles has to do with cleaning up my son’s toys. I ask him to do it nicely; he doesn’t listen. I press him; he balks. Then my inner-demon button gets pushed, and I’m lecturing him about personal responsibility and “fairness” and “being a team player.”

Meanwhile, I’m churning inside: What am I doing wrong? Why doesn’t anybody listen to me? Why does everything around me dissolve into chaos?

I think every parent has an Achilles heel. You can be calm through all sorts of wild and woolly altercations, until that one ugly thing raises its head, and you’re yelling like your worst nightmare of a banshee Joan Crawford.

I told you to clean up, didn’t I? What’s wrong with you? Can’t you see the mess? I hate all this crap—why do we have all this crap?

Ugh. Shoot me now. Rarely do I sound like that, but the script rolls through my head, as I’m glowering and pointing at my red-faced son, stamping around as if the end of the world has come—which of course it has, for me, if you factor in not just my anger but the guilt I’m grappling in both arms like a stuffed snake that can’t possibly be crammed back into its original box.

The irony is that I’m messy myself. That’s part of the problem. It already feels like the chaos of my life—my disorderly desk of post-it notes and piled papers and books, our stacks of unread magazines, our unpaid bills, our elderly parents—is barely contained.

Let’s be frank: It’s not contained. At all. I consider it a major triumph if I get our bed made in the morning. In terms of disorganization, both physical and emotional, this has been one of the most difficult years of my life, as my father slowly, and messily, leaves this earth.

My rage against chaos is not a new problem, however. For years, my son has dumped his socks and sweatshirts where he stands—or stashed those socks under random chair cushions. He has never been a child who cares about organizing his toys, putting all the red Lego part together (for example), all the Bionicle heads, all the Gormiti cards, all the wizard wands.

The other night, after he was in bed, I bent down to replace all the DVDs from his much-prized “Book 3” set of Avatar: The Last Airbender. The discs had been tossed willy-nilly across the rug. I’ve told him many times this can scratch the DVDs. He earnestly nods. It’s not even a matter of him expecting me to clean up for him, because quite often I don’t.

He’s not a discipline problem, far from it, so what amazes me is how distracted he can be. My son doesn’t yet feel a need to plan and protect. He lives in the moment, and is it possible his lack of anxiety about chaos is a good thing?

He is, in fact, like us in this way—a creator, a fast-thinker, a scatterer of ideas and plans. I’m the type who piles books beside my bed or crams unsorted receipts into envelopes.

So he sees my cluttered desk and that’s what I model and mostly that’s fine—every family has their own household rules and style—until I get triggered, usually by exhaustion or some other irritation, by the sight of toys strewn in great spiral galaxy arms across every common area of our house.

The anger is mine, no question. How I deal with it has ebbed and flowed over the years, as I’ve tried to get a handle on what pushes me over the edge.

In part, my husband has stepped up and often helps with the nightly toy sort. In part, my son is older (he’s now eight) and I catch him, occasionally, actually sorting different trading cards into piles. In part, it’s because we now have a huge cupboard in the play area off the kitchen that hides all the plastic bins of ribbons and action figures and building blocks.

But I had one real light-bulb moment more than a year ago, when we’d gathered up a car-full of old toys and clothes to give away. I’d asked my son if he could part with them. At the time, he’d seemed to agree. But once I’d donated them to a local nonprofit, he sobbed as if his best friend had vanished.

He even left a post-it note on a much-loved red plastic wagon: I hate it when we give stuff away can we keep this! Pleas.

I saw then that he wasn’t selfishly clinging to his belongings but struggling with loss. My son is an adoptee, and letting go of familiar items may be especially hard for him. The anxiety he feels is not about cleanliness but about disappearance. Or maybe he’s just like most children, caught between toddlerdom and tweendom, trying to hold on to who he is.

Recently, we were going to donate a bookcase from his play area—a fixture since he came home with us at seven months—to his old preschool.

“No, no, no!” he wailed when he heard. “If we give it to them, can we buy another one exactly like it?”

The old bookcase has since been stashed in our storage room, where my son rarely looks at it. But he knows it’s there.

Is he just being a “dog in the manger,” as my father used to roar at me? Is my son, in a middle-class American family, just used to mountains of toys? Perhaps. But one of his beloved teachers at the preschool, on hearing he didn’t want to give away the bookcase, said to me: “You tell him I understand. I’m happy to wait until he’s ready. If he’s never ready, that’s OK, too.”

I think she’s right. The idea of never having to be ready—to be a big boy, to be a chapter-book reader, to be a daughter who no longer has a father—is liberating. There are some things in this life that you just can’t prepare for. I’ll never embrace chaos, yet I’m beginning to have a healthier respect for it.

We’ve started a memory box for my son, in which we can put photos of any items we’re giving away. This works. He has a scrapbook for storing goofy notes from friends and fortunes from fortune cookies and cartoon characters ripped out of magazines—all the paper detritus that used to wreak havoc. He’s a wonderful artist, so we go through the piles of his drawings every few months, sorting with him what to keep and what to recycle. He has a “baby box” for storing special clothes and toys to “give to my son,” as he puts it.

But sometimes there’s no practical parenting technique that helps beyond acknowledging loss. More than two years ago, for instance, after we had returned from his fifth birthday party and were unpacking all the supplies from our car, my son let go of a special helium balloon he’d chosen. It had a picture of a black horse. At the time, he loved knights and jousting tournaments, and this balloon had been one of his favorite gifts.

Yet there it was, floating high up and away in a cloudy gray sky.

“It’s OK,” he said too fast.

I felt my own sharp longing as I watched his balloon-horse disappear. I was also a little awed, as I craned my head to follow it’s progress, to try to capture the exact moment it was gone.

I wasn’t surprised that my boy burst into tears as soon as we went inside. I held his hand. Chaos and loss—we are always riding that horse at a gallop.