Before Christmas, we thought we'd encourage the children to purge their rooms of clutter by offering them a dollar per pound of old toys, books, and clothes that they could load into trash bags for donation or to discard. Each of our four children headed off to his or her own bedroom to begin the process of bankrupting us, and eventually three of the kids returned with bulging sacks, eagerly awaiting their payday. Ben, however, did not fill any trash bags and eventually slinked downstairs to watch television.
Later in the day, I asked Ben to join me in his room while I helped him earn some Christmas money by getting rid of old, unused things. First I picked up a small plastic Happy Meal toy from his floor. I said, "Look, Ben--you don't need this old McDonald's toy--let's put it into the bag!"
Ben shrieked. "No! I like that toy! I don't want to get rid of that!"
So, I rummaged around in Ben's overflowing toy basket and found some small plastic pieces in the bottom. I was certain that Ben hadn't even seen these pieces for many, many months. I said, "OK. How about these. Let's just put these into the bag..."
Another shriek, and now Ben was in tears. He cried, "I need those things--I love them! Don't throw them away!"
And so it went a few more times, as I'd find something I was sure Ben no longer used or needed, and he'd insist that the piece was very special to him and he could not part with it.
I tried to reason with him that Christmas was coming, and that he was going to get all kinds of new toys to play with, and then I thought I'd just see what happened if I dropped something into the trash bag--maybe once the deed was done, Ben would see that it wasn't such a big deal.
I was wrong. As I tossed the first Happy Meal toy into the trash bag, Ben went berserk. Sobbing uncontrollably, he picked up the nearest object (a plastic tube from a trophy he had recently disassembled) and hurled it at me. I shielded my face from the blow and ended up with a nasty cut on my wrist as the edge of the tube bounced against my arm. And that was the end of my interest in helping Ben earn some Christmas money. I left the room for a quick time out while he sat on his bed sobbing.
After a few minutes I returned and took Ben onto my lap. He pushed me away and curled into a ball at the foot of his bed. "Ben, what happened?" I asked.
"I had to throw that at you because it was the only way to make you stop putting my things in the trash bag!" he yelled.
My first response was to be glad that he had the insight to explain his behavior--that was a significant milestone for him! My second response, though, was a sudden realization that Ben's objects provide him with an immense sense of safety and control. Throwing away his things--even the ones that he never plays with or even sees--felt to him like I was throwing away the underpinnings of his environment.
This is the child who walks into a home he hasn't been inside for three months, and immediately notices that a light fixture has been changed, or a piece of furniture has been relocated. I don't know how he "sees" things around him, but certainly every object has a place and a purpose, and throwing away some of his things must have felt very frightening and confusing for him. When I realized what the process was like for him, I felt terrible that I had forged ahead so callously.
I'm glad to report that eventually, Ben and I together did find some books and clothes that he decided he no longer needed, and we even identified just a few toys that he agreed were no longer necessary to his schema.
But what I learned most of all is just how important physical objects are to Ben's sense of control and peace.
"In with the new"...absolutely.
"Out with the old"...not so much.