Before I adopted my son, I was neat. I had scarves in a drawer, chunky necklaces in a box, pencils in a colorful Mexican guava juice can, shoes neatly lined up in the bottom of the closet. Even my crazy collection of books were somewhat ordered. I knew where to find things.
That was then.
My home once had a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a study. Now I have none of these things. What I have is a toy warehouse. And cleaning it up is a constant work-in-progress.
People tell me to set limits. People tell me to encourage my son to clean up. People tell me to make more effort. And I try. But it doesn’t work.
I set (some) limits early on. We get toys on some holidays and on our birthday—and that’s it, I blithely explained to my 6-year-old. But grandparents, neighbors, friends, uncles and aunts, the dentist, and just about everyone else seemed to have other ideas.
My neighbors gave him boxes of their son’s discarded toys. My mother sent him home with some sort of present every time we visited. Yes, every time we visited. She got creative. She gave him notepads and pencils, a coffee cup, a clean juice bottle filled with M&Ms—always something. And of course stuffed animals, trucks, cars, airplanes, train sets, and packages of markers, paints, crayons, colored pencils, colored papers, and mobiles. My cousin chipped in with board games and puppets. Another neighbor found old costumes, a Playmobil ship complete with seven pirate figures, wigs, colorful glasses, hats, a drum-set, stacks of magazines, and plastic toys.
My son loves toys, needs toys, asks for toys. It is hard to withstand those cute blue eyes asking wistfully for gratification. People are generous and love to surprise him with gifts.
So now the bedroom has a clown wig and crayons decorating the bureau, pictures lipsticked on the wall, paint indelibly smeared on the floor, and broken knick-knacks on the shelves. The bathtub has a pirate ship and plastic shovels and spoons and half-empty bottles and big pots dragged in from the kitchen. The study-turned-bedroom has snakes (scarves) spread in the entrance and toy dragons and a bath mat guarding the bed. The kitchen table is covered with Ninjago LEGO figures. The living room has balls underfoot, a bicycle in front of the TV, Bakugan cards on the sofa, toy cars under the table, books stacked on chairs, drawings crumpled everywhere, shaped clay smashed in pillows, marbles and colored pencils littering every surface.
When I try to get my son to clean, he gets incredibly distressed and distracted. He starts games—the toy he picked up has to be taken to the other side of the apartment, right now. He announces that he will “pick up things” in the other room while I pick up in this room. He announces that I have to help him, then when I bend to pick up toys, he runs out of the room. He complains that I always ask him to do things and never play with him.
Sometimes I lose my temper over how hard it is to get him to clean up even the least little bit. Then he runs out of the room, slams the door, jumps into bed, and cries. He throws things. He overturns chairs. He hits me. He screams and screams.
My son was born in distress. He was not breathing when he was removed from the womb at 31 weeks. The neurologist, who we have been seeing since he was 3 years old, says that he has some delays, and possibly attention deficit disorder. He has been learning the alphabet for several years, and still forgets letters. He hates learning, and he hates feeling stupid.
What does he love? Toys. Toys, toys, everywhere.
What does this all mean? I don’t know. Life is a little out of control. I know that he needs limits, but the incredible resistance that he has to order, limits, and cleanliness is immense.
Every single time I suggest we clean up, we face a struggle. Every single time there are eruptions, there is avoidance—he throws toys, he is defiant, he complains, he runs away. And it is an ever-increasing problem, because he also constantly asks for new toys, big and small, of every kind, more and more and more.
It’s exhausting to deal with this. And there is no instruction manual that says to troubleshoot resistance to cleaning, see page 52. Adoption literature suggests that children try to fill a hole of non-belonging with things—a hole that can never be filled. But is that really what’s going on? Don’t most kids want toys—as many as possible? Don’t most kids hate to clean?
It’s so confusing. And there is no end in sight.
I struggle to find some way to address the situation. Adler techniques, numerous help books—everyone suggests the magic idea of setting limits, but no one tells you how to deal with the upheaval of anger it inspires.
I do not really have a good method yet. But I have come to understand that I must strengthen myself as much as possible to deal with how difficult it is for him to control his feelings, how difficult it is to deal with my attempts to set limits.
I don’t know why getting toys has become so excruciatingly necessary that every day there are negotiations about it—with protracted negotiations on holidays. I don’t know why cleaning up has become the time when eruptions of temper make me wonder how he will manage his future temper and fear for his—and our—future.
But I must be strong enough to deal with this struggle, if I hope to help him find a way to deal with it, too. That is what I have managed to come up with—and I hope it is enough.