An 8-track treasure from our mini-storage. I love the 8s.
I recently came to Marie Kondo’s quirky bestseller on decluttering, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The subject called to me, as my husband and I are slowly going through our storage space. Plus, I was interested to hear if Kondo had any advice for parents: what would she advise one to do with a child’s rapidly-growing collection of empty tic-tac boxes, I wondered?
Having now read the book, I can tell you that she wrote it when she was childless. (She is now married and has a daughter). Her advice for families is limited. She owns up to the fact that when she lived with her parents and siblings, she used to throw away their things on the down-low, and then pretend not to know where any of it was. (To her credit, she points out that this is not the way to go).
Her advice for people living in families is essentially to model: focus on tidying your own space in the hope that your family members will be similarly inspired. I will be curious to see if she elaborates on this aspect of her system and updates her approach, especially if her family grows.
I do think Kondo has an interesting message for parents, however, it’s not the one that’s stated explicitly in her system for anthropomorphizing, and then responding to, your stuff. If you don’t know anyone who has spent a weekend “Kondo-ing,” let me lay out the general principles for you: you are supposed to go through every object you live with, touch it to see if it “sparks joy,” and then if it does, keep it; if it doesn’t, thank it before discarding. (There are also many sub-rules—about how to fold your clothes, for instance—but these are offshoots which just make the whole approach more gloriously intricate).
Are you rolling your eyes at this? My husband is, especially as he opens long-closed boxes from our mini (“mini,” my ass) storage space to discover, among other things, a lovely trove of 8-track tapes. The fact remains, however, that by bookselling standards, Kondo is a star. Her bestseller now has two companion books, she has a tidying-up app, and she is reportedly getting a TV show.
If it’s not yet clear, I am an admirer of Kondo, if not entirely for her decluttering advice. I am more interested in how open she is in stating that she put down the roots of this system during her childhood. Noting that her interest in tidying began at about age five, she writes: “I have come to the conclusion that my passion for tidying was motivated by a desire for recognition from my parents and a complex concerning my mother.” As the middle of three children, she says, “I did not get much attention from my parents after the age of three.”
Though Kondo allows that, during her childhood, “of course, I wanted my parents to praise and notice me,” she doesn’t overtly draw the line between between being a child who seemingly felt neglected and the creation of a world where nothing is ever merely ignored, where everything is touched and thanked.
The core of her book is less about tidying, in my view, than the power of imaginary play: to take an object, feel it, and then decide its fate, is to become the all-powerful parent who can disregard, or even “discard” a child—(for a newer model, perhaps)—or not. Kondo’s brilliance is in creating a ritual in which the “parent” who has this terrible power—and mind you, this is every parent—is imbued, via her script, with only a loving consciousness.
As the parent of three kids myself, I think that the world as Kondo envisions it —i.e., a world in which one lives with a few carefully-chosen objects that are attended to as if they were friends— is a beautiful idea. But when children arrive, things change.
For one thing, children more than take over the job of interacting with every single thing in their orbit as object-friends. Adults, then, assume a different pose: having created a life, they have to be concerned, 24/7, with the often-arduous business of sustaining it. They are less likely to take the time to thank their objects for all their hard work—a Kondo suggestion–and less apt to see what might be redeeming about a child’s treasured pile of empty candy boxes.
Ok, not an 8-track. But it sparks joy.
This is the place I think Kondo could ultimately be a great help to families. I would love to see her write another bestseller advocating for children’s dominion over their often little-valued world. A woman who wrote with such ferocity from her own childhood’s vantage point would surely be a powerful champion for kids.
Of course, the problem is that it is parents, not children, who buy books. The question is if parents would be interested in reading a book about their children’s relationship to their things if the message is not one that ultimately supports their position as the primary curators of all the objects—anthropomorphized or not—in their households.
Amy Fusselman‘s most recent book is Savage Park. She is the editor of Ohio Edit.