The subject was rooms, specifically those inhabited by children. The father was adamant -- after all, this was a man with standards. He was also a man with an 11-year-old. "My rule," he announced firmly, "is that the room has to be clean enough for me to be able to walk from the door to the bed." As I said, this was a man with standards.
As it happens, they are rather like my own. He was speaking, at least at that moment, in the clear light of day. He was being calm and rational on the subject of rooms. Not many evenings before, however, I expressed the same thought in a somewhat less calm and rational manner when I slid across a collection of baseball cards spread out in my son's room and nearly landed, bottom first, at the head of his bed. He was expecting a motherly goodnight. Instead he got a holler: "I nearly killed myself! You've got to clean this room. I have to be able to at least walk across the floor to your bed!"
One might conclude that the father and I both have been blessed with singularly messy children, and perhaps this is true: My survey of children's rooms has been, I'll admit, limited, and the in-depth portions of the survey have been limited to the rooms inhabited primarily by my three children and those of my nearest relatives. I do not, however, recall any of them ever having particularly tidy children, so perhaps we're dealing with a genetic trait that runs in our family. I think, however, there is something more afoot here.
Sunday newspapers are full of glossy, full-color inserts for furniture advertisements these days, and I have been looking at the pictures of furniture for children's rooms. Somebody, I'd decided, must have figured out a decent storage arrangement for children's toys. I came across a picture of one room that was absolutely lovely: nice, modern furniture; a bunk bed; a dresser; a tidy desk and an attractive rug. There was only one problem: no toys. This was not a child's room: this was a mother's fantasy.
The problem with children's rooms, these days at least, is not that the children are inherently messy, although that plays a part. The problem is that children have more possessions than they know what to do with. Teen-agers come complete with everything from their own stereos; skis; lacrosse equipment (or fill in the sport in your household); weights; radios, hair-grooming equipment; wardrobes that are not to be believed; perhaps a typewriter or television, or both; books and school papers; revolting posters; trophies; medals and other artifacts documenting the triumphs of a lifetime. All of it hoarded into a room that also has a bed and dresser, a chair and perhaps even a desk -- and is occasionally visited by the owner himself.
The preteen-age set may not yet have skis, but skis are nothing compared to tracks for racing cars (which never work, but cost too much to throw away); soccer and baseball equipment; team photos and trophies; large boxes of puzzles and games; collections of cars and trucks; a record player; records; Walkman and tapes; art supplies; books; pennants and other memorabilia from various athletic events they have attended and clothes. Preteen-agers are a particular problem: They don't want to give up the toys of childhood, they are already getting the toys of adolescence, and they aren't really big enough to know how to organize their rooms.
In large families, at least, the littlest kid may have the biggest problem. In my house, for example, the littlest kid got the smallest room. She has also inherited most of her brothers' stuffed animals and other childhood possessions he could bear to part with. Various relatives and friends have been moved to add to her stuffed animal collection over the years, so that it is now impossible to put another stuffed animal into her room without moving her to a larger location. Try to get her to give one away.
I do not recall my childhood as being one of stark deprivation, but I do not recollect any vast toy collection or stuffed animal collection, and I know for sure that there were no skis, stereos, TVs, phones and expensive electronic toys in my room. I'm told I had a messy room, so it is probably a good thing that I was born before children came as fully equipped as they do today.
The father mentioned at the beginning of this column has decided to confront the messy room problem by rewarding a tidy room for the next few weeks with an increase in his son's allowance. Perhaps that will work, and I wish him well.
If the kid banks it instead of spending it, he might actually make it across the bedroom floor.