Boxed in, wanting out
A new study of American families reveals troubling trends: Too much stuff, too little time
Tell me about it. That sums up Boston parents’ reaction to new research by UCLA-affiliated social scientists concluding that American families are overwhelmed by clutter, too busy to go in their own backyards, rarely eat dinner together even though they claim family meals as a goal, and can’t park their cars in the garage because they’re crammed with non-vehicular stuff.
The team of anthropologists and archeologists spent four years studying 32 middle-class Los Angeles families in their natural habitat — their toy-littered homes — and came to conclusions so grim that the lead researcher used the word “disheartening” to describe the situation we have gotten ourselves into.
At first glance, the just-published, 171-page “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century” looks like a coffee table book. But it contains very real-life photos of pantries, offices, and backyards, and details a generally Zen-free existence. Architectural Digest or Real Simple this is not. Among the findings detailed within:
The rise of Costco and similar stores has prompted so much stockpiling — you never know when you’ll need 600 Dixie cups or a 50-pound bag of sugar — that three out of four garages are too full to hold cars.
Managing the volume of possessions is such a crushing problem in many homes that it elevates levels of stress hormones for mothers.
Even families who invested in outdoor décor and improvements were too busy to go outside and enjoy their new decks.
Most families rely heavily on convenience foods even though all those frozen stir-frys and pot stickers saved them only about 11 minutes per meal.
A refrigerator door cluttered with magnets, calendars, family photos, phone numbers, and sports schedules generally indicates the rest of the home will be in a similarly chaotic state.
The scientists working with UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families studied the dual-income families the same way they would animal subjects. They videotaped the activities of family members, tracked their moves with position-locating devices, and documented their homes, yards, and activities with thousands of photographs. They even took saliva samples to measure stress hormones.
The goal, said Jeanne E. Arnold, lead author and a professor of anthropology at UCLA, was to document what is right in front of us, yet invisible.
“What we have is a time capsule of America,” she said. “No other study has been done like this. Imagine how exciting it would be if we could go back to 1912 and see how people were living in their homes. That’s the core of any society.”
Arnold said she admired the way the families coped with their busy lives, but even so, the $24.95 book (available on Amazon) presents a frightening picture of life in a consumer-driven society, with researchers documenting expensive but virtually unused “master suites,” children who rarely go outside, stacks of clutter, and entire walls devoted to displays of Beanie Babies and other toys.
Arnold said she was bothered most by the lack of time study subjects spent enjoying the outdoors.
“Something like 50 of the 64 parents in our study never stepped outside in the course of about a week,” she said. “When they gave us tours of their house they’d say, ‘Here’s the backyard, I don’t have time to go there.’ They were working a lot at home. Leisure time was spent in front of the TV or at the computer.”
The researchers studied families in Southern California, but Boston-area families report the same challenges.
Let’s let Katy Colthart, a social worker from Watertown, take it from here. Shopping at Target on a recent Sunday afternoon, she said with some remorse that she finds herself popping frozen chicken nuggets into the oven for dinner — even though she knows they don’t save her much time. But with a job and two young children to pick up from day care, things get hectic at the end of the day, and prepared foods give her a much-needed mental break.
“They give me the illusion of saving time and energy,” she said, as her preschooler chatted very enthusiastically from his perch in the shopping cart, “and that’s almost as important.”
The researchers, working with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, were struck by the number of toys American children have managed to score from parents, grandparents, and friends. In the “Material Saturation: Mountains of Possessions” chapter, they report that our country has 3.1 percent of the world’s kids — and 40 percent of its Little Tikes EasyScore basketball hoops and other toys.
Many of them belong to 2-year-old Anjellisa Redfern. Her Newton bedroom is full of Dora-themed puzzles and dolls, and a kitchen set with 400 accessories. “But she doesn’t want to play with them,” said her mother, Anjelica . “She wants to be on the couch watching TV,” where she sees commercials for more toys to eventually ignore.
But sometimes the little girl does play with her toys, her mom added with a smile. “When I put her in a time out and send her to her room.”
In Weston, Jessica Pohl, a stay-at-home mother, is also being overtaken by inanimate objects.
“Somehow the Barbies multiply,” she explained as she shopped at a big box store in Waltham. “One turns into 10 turns into 100.” The doll is not her only tiny tormentor. “Playmobil,” she said as if it were a bad word. “I’ve got bins and bins of Playmobil.”
Her children, ages 9, 13, and 17, have largely outgrown the toys, but she can’t bring herself to give them away. “I’m saving them for my grandchildren.” She acknowledged that she was looking potentially at decades of storage, and then imagined herself forcing a toy on a future grandchild. “Play with that Melissa & Doug puzzle,” she said. “It was expensive.”
Pohl’s possessions do bring some joy, of course, albeit in some cases it’s when they’re being tossed out. “It’s cathartic,” she said, happily recalling the dumpster outside her home when she moved a few years ago. “I felt so light.”
With that, she pushed her bulging cart toward the store’s cash register. The circle of life continued.