My son’s room looks like it could be on an episode of Hoarders. Every flat surface is piled high with junk. Stacks of papers, boxes of deconstructed household items, electronic cast-offs, and contraptions in various stages of construction cover the floor. His bed is overtaken by books he is reading. Drawers are full of parts of things and walls are covered with calculations, photos, and articles. Going into his room makes my fingers itch to purge and clean. I am a self-admitted neat freak who ruthlessly combs through and eliminates items I deem no longer necessary. I feel weighed down by clutter and have told my children that when I am old, my house will be a Zen retreat with nothing but the necessities inside. My son and I have vastly differing views on clutter and it is a stressor in our relationship. He has forbidden me to throw away anything in his room and has dealt with my “something in-something out” rule by refusing to buy anything new.
I am not alone in this, many of my clients and friends share a cluttered life with their kids. One good friend’s son has a room he calls “electronic death row” where various cast-off appliances and machines wait to be rebuilt into something new. In all fairness, he does build amazing things from these parts, including a working computer and a hover craft that successfully zooms around with his little sister on board. I’m trying hard to emulate her tolerance and willingness to look the other way when walking by the piles, but the specter of obsession lurks in the back of my mind. What if I don’t handle this right and my son ends up one of those old men who dies in his junk-filled home and they can’t find his body? What if his compulsion to collect and keep everything impedes his ability to live a normal life? I know that compulsive behaviors often go hand-in-hand with profound giftedness and that knowledge keeps me fearful.
On the other hand, I am the first to realize that tinkering, deconstructing, building, experimenting, and creating are essential to the well being of my son and others like him. To me the gold foil off his chocolate Easter bunny is something to be wadded up and tossed in the recycle bin; to him it represents a material that can be used in everything from kinetic sculptures to atomic models. I liken profoundly gifted children’s learning style to standing in the eye of a hurricane. This hurricane of information constantly swirls around them, allowing them to pluck out bits and apply them as they learn and create new concepts. So it shouldn’t surprise me that my son’s physical environment reflects his learning methods. I’m just not very good at living happily in the eye of the chaos.
My daughter is also very messy. She is a constant hub of creativity. Wherever she is, whatever she is doing, a mess is being created. She cooks, paints, sculpts, writes, builds, and plays with equal intensity and abandon. While I admire her ability to lose herself in the process, I find it hard not to point out the mess. She is like a hurricane in her own right; moving through her day leaving a trail of clutter in her wake. And I am the nagging regulatory committee that follows along trying to impress upon her the importance of putting things back where they belong.
She is also reluctant to part with materials (garbage) that flows through our house. That plastic box the blueberries came in will make a great green house for starting her guinea pig grass. The box from Costco can be painted and made into a funky doll table. The Halloween candy wrappers become a collage. I feel I am waging a losing battle to de-clutter our house; not only am I trying to find space to store the raw materials, but also the finished products. I have boxes of paintings and drawings, shelves of sculptures, and various other masterpieces on my walls and bookshelves. I envy my daughter’s ability to produce so much art. It takes me months, perhaps even years, to produce one painting; so storage of my work has never been an issue. I have resorted to photographing her work, putting it in an electronic gallery, then asking her to select her favorite pieces to keep. I feel guilty tossing out the originals that she doesn’t select, but I don’t know any other way to manage the volume. Yet every time I throw a pile of work away, I wonder if Van Gogh or Cassatt’s Moms faced the same dilemma. I’m not saying I think my daughter will be a famous artist, but you never know. Can you imagine what a childhood drawing by Renoir would be worth?
Despite my fears, guilt, and misgivings, I continue to wrangle the clutter at my house. I recently cleaned out my art studio and purposefully did it on a day when my kids weren’t home. I knew that nothing would make it to Goodwill if they had grabbing rights. While I fully support my kids’ interests and abilities, I have to draw the line somewhere. After all, I have to live in my house too. In the end, I suppose I will just have to hope and pray that my clean freak tendencies don’t stifle, damage, or otherwise impede my kids’ potential. See you on a future episode of Hoarders!