Overstuffed: Clutter, consumption and the study that shows how possessions shape us

Published: Monday, Oct. 8 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

In the 24-hour day, the entire family is only together for only about four waking hours, Graesch says. A little bit in the morning and about three and a half hours in the evening.

With so little contact with each other, it isn’t a surprise the study found that even though kids may have a nice desk in their bedroom for doing homework, they still work on it in the kitchen. “So they can stay in connection with their parents,” Graesch says. “They are all cramming into this place.”

Family 27 was no exception. The kids would sit on stools around the small oak table and do their school work or coloring books.

With everybody together, kitchens have become the place where parents socialize and teach their children their values — and, above all, how to coordinate schedules.

Kitchens are like an air traffic control tower. The family coordinates their time with clocks, multiple calendars, whiteboards and bulletin boards. Countertops become staging areas for activity-specific objects. The family synchs up their multiple hyper-busy schedules. They coordinate work, soccer, softball, band, piano lessons, Girl Scouts and more.

Yet the kitchens are still being used for cooking. This is why everything happens there. It is where the food is. “Food is quite central to who we are and how we define ourselves,” Graesch says. “People are congregating where food must be made. There is really no other option in the home.”

Fragmented dinners

How people fill their lives with stuff also affects how they fill their lives with food stuffs.

Elinor Ochs is the head of UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families and, along with Graesch and others, one of the co-authors of “Life at Home.” She is also a co-author on the next book based on the study coming in January 2013 titled “Fast-Forward Family: Home, Work, and Relationships in Middle Class America.”

Half of families in America say they eat dinner together every day, according to a USA Today survey. In reality, the actual observations of real families showed only one family in six (17 percent) consistently eat dinner together.

Instead, 41 percent of families are eating separate from each other — practicing what Ochs says is a “fragmented” dinner. “It is not all around the table Norman Rockwell style,” she says. “Even when all the family is at home, they are not all together for dinner.”

The observations also showed that people are eating a lot of convenience foods — the food equivalent of clutter. They eat pre-prepared foods they can pop in the oven or microwave — such as frozen mini-pizzas. Ochs says those individually portioned foods are very portable — and people eat them throughout the house. She said kids eat so much on their own that by the time dinner time comes they are not hungry.

The videos of the families told the story of dinner time when families do come together. The ideal collapses at the beginning of the meal when the children start unhappy. They don’t want what was made for dinner, they want what is in the freezer. Often the mom jumps up and pops something else in the microwave to end the complaints. But it doesn’t do much. By the end of dinner, the mood would only get slightly above neutral, Ochs says.

Child-centric clutter

When Graesch started the study, he was a graduate student in anthropology at UCLA. “I started this study ‘before children,’” he says, “and after observing these dual-earner families, I didn’t want children. Why would you want to go down that road? It just looked like an incredible amount of work.”

Graesch says just having a baby leads to a 30 percent increase in household possessions.

“We are a very child-centric culture,” he says. “We’ve allowed children’s toys and objects to infuse every part of our homes.”

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