Thrift stores are booming thanks to the “Marie Kondo effect,” as Americans watch the Japanese lifestyle guru’s Netflix show Tidying Up With Marie Kondo and follow her decluttering method, KonMari. I, too, love the idea of asking myself if the items cluttering my house “spark joy” and, if not, sending them on their way. I can imagine that having a pristine and organized home would be, as Kondo promises, life-changing. But I’d like to register a complaint. The premiere of Tidying Up is called “Tidying With Toddlers,” and in fact Marie Kondo has toddlers herself. But the idea of KonMari-ing a house with toddlers is totally absurd, and to attempt the task is either to drive yourself crazy or to end up spending your way out of a purging disaster.
The opening of “Tidying With Toddlers” indicates that the family’s cluttered spaces, among others, include a playroom and the children’s closet. The show follows the expected reality television arc; at the end of the episode, the whole family is happier, clutter-free—generally, better people. But while there are toddlers on screen doing toddler things (whining, napping, etc.), the actual nitty-gritty of organizing their stuff never comes up as part of the show. Kondo advises as the family weeds out and folds Mom’s jeans and Dad’s shirts and cries about how much they love their wedding memorabilia, but the mountains of crap that come with children are never addressed.
Why does the episode elide this important part of the family’s material life? Because small children and KonMari are compatible only if the children are imaginary rather than actual beings. Actual children are antithetical to minimalism. Minimalism espouses that you need fewer items, but the ones you keep should be precious. While children are precious, most of what comes along with them is not. One hand-stitched, organic silk onesie is going to do you a fat lot of good when your child pees all over it. You don’t need that onesie to last for 10 years: It may not even fit for 10 weeks! In fact, the kid may only wear it for 10 minutes! Any parent worth her salt knows that far better than one amazing onesie is 10 cheap onesies, because at least there is the possibility that one that fits will be clean at any given time.
Hand-me-downs are a minimalist’s nightmare. I have a 4-year-old girl and a 11-month-old girl. Does this 2T watermelon shirt spark joy? Of course not. Not unless your interpretation of “joy” is a vague memory of popsicle-induced stickiness. I would love to get rid of the 2T watermelon shirt, but I cannot because at some point my baby will grow into the 2T watermelon shirt and I will need it, along with all the other shirts: the weird bird shirt, the polka-dot shirt, the vaguely poison ivy–esque shirt. My ability to purge is thwarted by the three-year age gap between my children, since at any given moment I need to store three years of clothing that no one wears in addition to the clothing that the children are currently wearing. Otherwise I’m dropping a hundred bucks at Target each time my baby sizes up, which is to say, quarterly.
As a promo for the show, Netflix released a one-minute clip, “How to Store Toys.” Kondo suggests asking children which toys “spark joy” and suggests she has encountered an actual child by admitting that the child may say that all the toys fit that definition. Her solution? Ask the child to rank the toys. Perhaps there is a second-grader who can successfully rank her toys in order of joydom from 1 to 8 and decide which ones they no longer play with and are willing to donate. But who in their right mind would expect a 3-year-old to do the same? And who would expect that 3-year-old to maintain that same ranking two days later? Should you purge on the basis of the Saturday 8 a.m. ranking or the Monday 4 p.m. ranking? Ranking is rational, and small children are not rational; they’re hoarders who throw tantrums. What is the protocol when Item 6 suddenly ascends to the top of the ranking, but you’ve already Goodwilled it? Or when Item 8 is desperately needed because Queen Elsa doesn’t have a lightsaber? Is Kondo going to field that meltdown? I think not.
And yet, apparently, Kondo has actual small children. (According to the Wall Street Journal, her experience having her own children led her to slightly modify KonMari for time-crunched parents of young kids: “She now suggests busy parents start organizing in stages by tackling, say, just shirts at first instead of the entire closet.”) Kondo says that her kids love to fold clothes, because they always see her having so much fun doing so. She folds with love and care and gratitude and so they want to do it too. I don’t buy it. I have been folding laundry in front of my children for their entire lives and not once have they ever been moved to spontaneously fold anything. I try to sort their toys in category-specific bins and explain the rationale behind each bin: outdoor toys, costumes, imaginary domestic service items. Left to their own devices, they stuff the toy coffee maker in the Iron Man helmet and call it a day. Getting a 1-year-old to imitate Mom folding clothes is a party trick. Get a 6-year-old to willingly fold his pajamas, Marie Kondo, and then we’ll talk.
Many readers, I’m sure, will tell me that KonMari offers solutions for all these problems and that I’m just not embracing the joy of tidying. Like most parents of young children, I’m still reeling from all the life-changing magic that turned me into a mother. In our house, we have plenty of joy. But for the next few years, at least, we just also have a ton of stuff.