Order in the playroom!
I suppose it sounds oxymoronic to call for order in a playroom, something akin to witnessing the disorder of a basketball court in a courtroom (though considering the games sometimes played in a secular court, they might as well add that!). Nevertheless, during my young married life in suburbia, I wielded the gavel in the playroom when my children’s friends came to frolic.
In case you’re wondering, my kids regularly had many playmates over at our house. In fact, our playroom was one of the most popular spots in town, despite the despotic mom who laid down the law. Maybe it was my progeny’s charming personalities that won them over, or the cornucopia of homemade treats we offered that attracted them, but I think that in some subliminal way, it might actually have been our orderly play area that propelled the neighborhood children to us with magnetic force.
At our house, Scrabble tiles weren’t flung into a basket of wooden building blocks or Legos, and Chutes and Ladders cards weren’t thrown into a memory card game box because, after all, how would we remember where they were when we needed them? Improvisation skills to compensate for missing pieces of toys, puzzles or games were sufficiently practiced in other playrooms; in ours, the neighborhood kids learned about responsibility because they were expected to clean up after themselves. There was a cheerful poster on the wall, designed by me, to remind them:
A playroom that is clean and neat
makes playing fun; it can’t be beat.
Just learn this song and you can’t go wrong:
Please PUT THINGS BACK WHERE THEY BELONG!
Amazingly, the kids would often chant the last two lines as they returned everything to its proper place, more or less, before heading for home. Some eager ones would ask me to check their “perfect” jobs, and occasionally a happy mother would call to credit me for instilling an unexpected “neat freak” habit in her child.
But it wasn’t always this way. When my children were very young, the mantra of the times challenged mothers to choose between contented kids or a tidy home, as if the two are mutually exclusive. I used to get nervous about being caught in the shameful, non-motherly act of housecleaning during daylight hours, when my little darlings were creating monumental masterpieces of MESS (Major Environmental Sacrifice Statistics) from the basement to the attic, in the front yard and the backyard, and every cranny or corner, nook or niche thereof. If the regular frequency of their mess-making is any gauge, I can confidently report that I didn’t stifle their natural instincts; let’s just say I tried to gently re-channel them.
As furtively as possible, I’d brandish a broom or mop, not a noisy vacuum cleaner, to the current disaster site, but never when the kids’ playmates were over. Though artless, even a two or three-year-old squealer could ruin a woman’s good standing among the playgroup moms, and I dare not risk my little ones’ social status. So for the most part, when the group met at my house, I suffered in silence until pickup time. Sadly, this did not refer to letting the little guests pick up the toys they had scattered across every surface of our large playroom; rather, “pickup time” was the blessed hour that the carpool mom on duty beeped her horn as a signal for me to bring the kids to the front door.
Lest you mistakenly think I value neatness more than cheerful children, I assure you that is most certainly not the case. But I still do not, never did and never will subscribe to the belief that bedlam equals bliss, havoc is heavenly, or that kids creating chaos beyond control indicates they’re thriving.
In retrospect, though, I was too inexperienced and insecure to voice my view during my children’s toddlerhood; it was easier to pretend I went along with the notion (probably initiated by a disorganized mom to quash her guilt) that a laissez-faire attitude toward housework when children were awake was as important as vaccinating them against childhood diseases, and the principle could brook no compromises.
As even a superficial study of human psychology shows us, however, a person’s natural inclinations cannot be completely suppressed indefinitely. So sure enough, before too long, my habitual need for uncluttered space manifested itself (gasp!) during playgroup hours, which lasted from ninety to one hundred and five minutes. (I didn’t count the minutes until the kids left, only how long it would take until I could clean up.)
At first, I would perform perfunctory tasks that I thought went largely unnoticed. During a “busy hands” activity to promote fine motor skills, for example, my hands were busy picking up a dropped toy here, a snack bag there. Meanwhile, the kids were engaged in cutting and pasting colorful paper shapes (mostly onto anything except the construction paper provided for that purpose), and so my mini-cleanup activity continued without comment from the little ones. Until the day my very own Yossi told all.
It happened when playgroup was at the home of a mother who had a PhD in child psychology. I had always been careful not to express disdain for current trends in childrearing, her area of expertise. But a three-year-old has no such concerns; he speaks freely. So when she asked the little boys to name their favorite character in The Cat and the Hat, Yossi’s response was “My mommy.”
“But your mommy is not in the story, dear,” she told him.
“Mommy cleans up like the cat in the hat,” my son insisted, and turned to his twin for confirmation.
It was Daniel, the psychologist’s son, whose verification convinced his mother of my dual identity as playgroup leader cum cleaning lady. “She can do it faster than the cat!” he said in an admiring tone.
I got the report via telephone.
“Your secret is out, Bashie,” Daniel’s mother chuckled. “I suspected but didn’t let on, and now I’ll confess: I too am an order hoarder, though it seems I can learn a trick or two from you!”
In celebration of finding a soul mate, I designed the poster I’ve described and made a copy as a present for her, even though our kids were too young to read it then. In pre-PC days, this was a labor of love, but a small price to pay for the liberating feeling accompanied by my declaration, now available for all to see when they visited my playroom or hers. To be “punny,” I came clean about my hang-up, and it was a lather-luscious sensation that even a pop psychology label like OCD couldn’t diminish.
Times have changed; today numerous people make a profession out of their organizational abilities and tidy habits, not just pre-Pesach but all year long. You can hire someone to organize your closets or kitchen cabinets, your desk, workroom or even your PC files. This usually requires further expenditure in the form of custom carpentry, the purchase of various knickknacks, etc. But in order to make your investment a permanent benefit, I offer you this elementary tip at no charge: JUST PUT THINGS BACK WHERE THEY BELONG!
This article first appeared in The Jewish Press.