Suzanne Tobias

Suzanne Tobias: Time to declutter – but don’t throw those toys away

There are only so many episodes of “Clean House” or “Hoarders” a person can watch before she grabs a few trash bags and heads into her son’s bedroom.

The built-in desk and shelves on one side of Jack’s room had become so covered in papers, school supplies, books, games and gadgetry that there wasn’t room for him to spread out his homework.

“How do you work like this?” I asked him recently.

“I manage,” he shrugged.

He does, if his grades are any indication, so I couldn’t really argue. Had Jack pointed to any of our kitchen counters or the pile of clean laundry on the chair in my bedroom – a teetering stack I affectionately call Mount Clothesmore – he could have made the point that people who live in cluttered houses shouldn’t throw edicts.

But I’m the mom. And when I spotted pieces of sticky, leftover Christmas-stocking candy in that pile on his desk – I think it was red Tootsie Pop, but we can’t be sure – I declared Cleanup Day and fetched the trash bags.

We established one bag for trash and one for giveaway/yard-sale items, then started a pile in the middle of the floor for desktop things that should go elsewhere.

We dived right in, tossing out the candy wrappers first, then some sixth-grade math papers, then the packaging from a video game. We moved on to some shelves on either side of the desk, and then that thing happened that always happens when we declutter the kids’ rooms:

“Oh!” Jack said. “My Hot Wheels cars!”

He opened a plastic tub and started grasping the cars one by one, spinning tiny wheels and opening little hoods and trunks.

“Remember this one?”

It was shaped like a shark, its silver hood a smiling row of great white teeth, a dorsal fin sticking up from the roof.

Of course I remembered. Not so long ago, he loved that car and played with it constantly. I recall being nervous when he slept with it grasped in his tiny hands, afraid one of the wheels could come off and choke him in the night.

“You have to save those,” I told Jack.

He nodded. “They don’t take up much room,” he said, as if that would matter. Had my children’s favorite toys been a collection of enormous stuffed elephants, I’d manage to find room. I’d have to.

Thankfully, Hannah tended toward dolls, doll clothes and craft supplies. Jack’s obsessions were Hot Wheels and Thomas the Tank Engine trains.

We’ve unloaded some of the trains but saved a small box of favorites: Gordon, his first one; Diesel, his favorite; and Jack the front-loader, star of a video titled “Jack Jumps In” that my son, at age 4, memorized, recited and re-enacted with his own little trains, even mimicking the narrator’s British accent:

“ ‘I’m Jack the front-loader!’ he whirred proudly. ‘I can load and unload and carry lots of things!’

“ ‘I can haul and shunt,’ boasted Thomas.

“ ‘And I can get you two chatterboxes off to the quarry,’ laughed Miss Jenny …”

We’re not throwing out those trains.

After about an hour of work, Jack’s desk looked clean enough. Fabulous, in fact. Plenty of open space to spread out his laptop, highlighters, algebra books and stacks of graph paper. Plenty of space for a hard-working 12-year-old.

And on the windowsill, happily looking on: a smiling shark car and a miniature front-loader.