“Jeremy, why is there a kid’s bath toy in the closet?” my wife asked me this morning.
“I’m trying to get rid of it,” I answered.
No further explanation needed. My wife knew exactly what I was up to.
The item in question was a Dora Swimming Mermaid toy. It was a gift a bath time gift at Grandma and Grandpa’s house from six months ago, and at the time it was a much treasured possession by our kids. It “needed” to come home with us, and for several weeks thereafter was the focal point of evening baths.
But… times change. The swimming dora mermaid, with its wind-up arms, spring loaded tail and brushable hair eventually lost its luster, and it ended up just taking up 70% of the space in the basket of bath toys. I decided that this space could be better used and it was time to get rid of it.
But, I have learned from hard experience not to just throw things like this away.
We have made this mistake before. My wife in particular likes to keep the house orderly and often gets rid of items the kids no longer use. But every now and agian, we hear the dreaded words from ouyr daughter, “Hey! Where is the <insert item not used in ages>?”
When it comes out that it was disposed of, the tears, screams and yells come out.
“But I loved that!”
“I needed it!”
“I worked really hard on it!”
“Why would you do that?!”
“You can’t ever do that again!!!”
This problem is particularly acute with the kids’ artwork. Every week, a plethora of projects come home. Coloring sheets, paintings, ceramics, whatever the kids were doing that week. At first, we kept a lot of it, but it just started piling up. Now, we have a system. The very best, truly unique items we keep. The very good items we will photograph for future posterity. The rest we recycle.
But, oh, the tears when my daughter has looked in the recycling bin to discover some treasured piece of artwork sitting at the bottom. I certainly get it – she worked hard on that project at school, and the idea that this would not be a highly valued possession is disturbing.
So, we dispose of them carefully. Items are shoved into the bottom of the recycling bin. We never, ever, empty the recycling bin in front of the kids, since they might see one of their pieces of artwork getting dumped out.
Michael Chabon wrote a wonderful essay on this very topic in his brilliant book Manhood for Amateurs. I highly recommend this essay collection for any parent. It perfectly captures much of the awkwardness and challenge of raising kids.
The problem is that even if we dispose of the artwork secretly, sometimes my daughter shows surprising feats of memory. She will suddenly ask about the whereabouts of some treasured item that she hasn’t touched in weeks. So, when is it ever safe to get rid of something?
To solve this problem, we have introduced our own “phantom zone”. The phantom zone comes from Superman, where Krypton would permanently exile their worst criminals. They had no death penalty, so instead they were sent off to another dimension from which they could never escape. Of course, it’s a comic book, and sometimes they did escape – otherwise it would be a boring story.
In our house, when we decided that a toy or piece of artwork is ready to go, we banish it to the phantom zone. There are a couple around the house… artwork goes in a drawer in the kitchen, clothing and larger toys go in a box in the basement. If no one asks for them after a couple of weeks, then we dispose of them. But, if by surprise they are remembered, there is a rare phantom zone escape and they are returned.
The phantom zone in the closet is reserved for some of the most dangerous criminals… er, I mean, the once most precious items we are eager to get rid of. Rafael’s infamous yellow-and-green spoon is stored away here, now joined by Dora the swimming mermaid.
Now we wait.