The Radical Hospitality of Welcoming Children, and Their Stuff

by Ellen Painter Dollar I am taking the week off from writing to dedicate myself to a major fall clean-out of our house. So because I'm not producing any new writing, I pulled out an old blog post from earlier this year, about clutter. What place does a blog post about clutter have on a church blog? While I don't go into this idea explicitly in this particular blog post, for me, practicing Christian hospitality is directly related to the clutter that comes hand in hand with children. We talk at St. James's about "radical hospitality." We tend to think of hospitality in terms of welcoming the stranger, whether saying hello to a newcomer on Sunday morning or supporting ministries that reach out to homeless people and new immigrants. For me, the most radical hospitality I practice is for my children, because, as we all know, children come with their own personalities and desires and priorities. We cannot mold them into the kind of children we would like them to be. One of the hardest things I have had to embrace about my children is their love of stuff. I crave few things more than a "clean, well-lighted room," but what I have are a bunch of rooms with books and papers and Barbie dolls and piano music and plastic jewelry on every possible surface. Every now and then, as I am this week, I clean up and out. But the bottom line is, as long as I live with other people (especially of the small variety) I will also live with their stuff. Learning to embrace the clutter that has come along with my children is one of the most radical acts of hospitality to which I have ever been called. So I will work this week on clearing a few spaces of unnecessary plastic objects, while simultaneously accepting that some of those objects are oh-so-necessary to my children. As I do so, I offer this contemplation of clutter, children, impossible-to-meet cultural standards, and hospitality. (This post was first published on my Patheos blog on March 13, 2013):


Graham Hill's op ed about living well with less in last Sunday's New York Times started like this:
I LIVE in a 420-square-foot studio. I sleep in a bed that folds down from the wall. I have six dress shirts. I have 10 shallow bowls that I use for salads and main dishes. When people come over for dinner, I pull out my extendable dining room table. I don’t have a single CD or DVD and I have 10 percent of the books I once did.
Good for you. Let me hazard a guess: You don't have any kids, do you?
I regularly devour the New York Times real estate section, shelter magazines, and HGTV remodeling shows. I can just imagine Hill's studio apartment, with its clean lines, multipurpose furniture that folds neatly out of the way, open shelving where his 10 bowls and sleek iPod dock take on the aesthetic of sculpture. As a homebody and introvert, I am drawn to the notion of sitting down to read or work in a visually quiet space, free of clutter. As someone who spent my formative 20s in a church that preached, in word and action, the art of simple living (I was one of the most impressively dressed church members merely because I was one of the only people who actually bought new clothes, ever), I am sympathetic to the environmental and psychological arguments for owning less stuff. As a mother of three, however, I have had to learn to thrive in a visually noisy space, full of color and mess and lots and lots of stuff.
Living with less stuff requires control, which is the first thing parents give up when we have children. One of the many things over which we lose control is our home, which is now inhabited by human beings whose notions of what is pretty and what is necessary are radically different than ours. It's not that I don't think children need to learn that more stuff doesn't equal happiness. My kids are very familiar with both handed-down clothes and the word "no" in response to their many requests for new toys and clothes and iPod songs. But in our culture, the battle for less stuff is an uphill one, and it is one I have largely stopped fighting. I have stopped standing in the doors of my children's rooms, feeling guilty and disgusted by the piles of stuffed animals and trinkets. I have stopped winding myself up into a tizzy of cleaning and decluttering, in which I stomp around, muttering nastily about all the junk we own in a way that does not endear me to my family. Monday morning, I looked around at the clutter in the kids' bedrooms and our living room and shrugged, having decided that I would focus my time this week on finishing up a few vital writing projects rather than cleaning and straightening. So far, it has been a good week anyway; we and the clutter are abiding together quite nicely.
Just a a typical day in my living room...
Just a a typical day in my living room...
In all that clutter, I also saw evidence of creativity. While it is true that kids can have more fun with a cardboard box than with the fancy toy it contains, it is also true that children are rarely content with only the box and a trio of primary-colored markers. They decide they also need tape and ribbon and paper. As I write, our basement has been transformed into a restaurant, with dozens of signs taped on the walls and myriad household objects pressed into duty as props and decor. A corner of our living room is a school for dolls, with a letter chart lining the wall and cardboard folded into books. The untrained eye would see a cluttered mess of unnecessary objects. Frankly, my eye sees a cluttered mess of unnecessary objects. How I long for a living room designed for reading by the fire and a basement playroom with a few carefully selected toys piled into color-coordinated labeled baskets and a designated office area where I pen uncluttered thoughts using a laptop that doesn't have sticky fingerprints on it. But wishing for such things is essentially wishing that my children, attached as they are to all of their inconvenient, messy things and rituals, did not exist. The promise of a small home in which every object is useful and chosen is a lovely one. But it is neither easily obtainable nor unequivocally preferable. Before we moved into our current home (just under 2,000 square feet), we lived in a 1,000 square foot ranch house. I spent far more time preoccupied with our stuff, and accumulated far more stress, living in that smaller home, where every object required thought about its use, size, and storage; where every toy, down to every last Lego brick, had to be cleaned up at the end of every day because the playroom was also the living room and the home office; where even our decision to have a third child was preceded by many nights in which I nursed my second daughter while mentally rearranging the furniture in her tiny room, trying to figure out if we could potentially have two babies sleeping in there. No doubt about it: We Americans have and want too much stuff. Our desires and our consuming have serious ramifications for our mental, familial, and planetary health. But the measure of how much is too much has less to do with absolute quantity and more to do with relationship. Does what we own control us, or vice versa? Does it interfere with or enhance how we relate to other people and our environment? Graham Hill's vision of a one-room home with just a few carefully selected possessions is appealing, but it's not for me. For Hill, freedom from the tyranny of stuff required opening his arms to let go of the many possessions that came along with financial success, from the 3,000 square foot home to all the latest technogadgets. For me, freedom from that same tyranny requires opening my arms to receive the mess of clutter and treasures that has come along with my three children. Hill's possessions made his life "unnecessarily complicated." My children and all of their stuff make my life necessarily complicated. Children bring with them more and more and more, of everything, from small plastic objects and reams of artwork to emotional intensity, germs, and joy. I have heard more than one grandparent say that they hesitate to wipe the sticky fingerprints off their windows or clean up the glitter- and glue-based art installations left behind by their grandchildren, because they love the reminders of their homes being filled by these loud, messy, unpredictable little people. I am trying to embrace that gratitude and acceptance now, when the loud, messy, unpredictable little people are permanent residents rather than temporary visitors. Ellen Painter Dollar is a professional writer and member of St. James’s Episcopal Church. She blogs for St. James’s every Monday, offering reflections on current events, family life, and parish life.