This is a two part response. This post is more about dealing with the emotions and personalities related to the stuff in our houses. The next post is about storage solutions.
Dear Cherri has been asked by more than one person about how to deal with kids’ stuff. Concerns include:
- What should we do with the stuff kids are gifted, collect, and want to keep?
- Where should we put all that stuff when space is tight?
- How do we get our kids to part with stuff that is no longer needed or too big to store?
- What do we do when our kids are pack-rats or have strong emotional attachments to stuff we don’t have space for?
Half of the reason parents are so tired is the time and energy spent managing stuff—lunch containers to backpacks to clothes to toys all suck away at our life force . Simplifying and organizing can go a long way to lightening the load. The process, however, is not always as easy as cleaning away the junk.
Even when we try to be modest and frugal, it’s nearly impossible not to collect gobs and gobs of stuff in 21st century America—and our kids are doing it too. Complicating matters more, we all have different relationships with the stuff we gather around us, and different reasons for doing so. The same item in one household has a completely different value or meaning in another. Stuff might feel like junk to you, but it’s often a lot more to another person.
For instance, although I like to collect random vintage and decorative things, I am often willing to part with those same things a few months or years down the road. I enjoy them while I have them, and like to see them move on to a useful home when I’m done. My husband and son, however, are more likely to keep all of the things they acquire, storing for possible future use or sentimental value. Our different relationships to stuff are part personality, part family of origin, and part cultural values. Knowing which clutter collecting personality applies to which family member can go a long way to increasing our compassion when dealing with all that stuff.
Below are a few concepts for dealing with the stuff and clearing the clutter. You always want to purge and sort before you attempt to organize and store.
Set limits and create boundaries
These will depend on your family and your space, but possibilities include:
- One in, one out. If a new toy comes into the house, a toy is gifted or donated out. If you plan to do this, having a box or bag in the closet or garage for outgoing items can make this process easier.
- Everything has a place or container, and we don’t bring in more than will fit in that place or container. These places and containers should be labeled.
- If an item is being stored in the attic or garage, limit the amount of space it can take up, like one box, one shelf, one area, and keep those spaces are labeled.
- Exclusion zones. For instance, Legos don’t go in the kitchen, or clothes don’t belong on the floor.
- Broken stuff is recycled or thrown out. (We have a catchall box in the garage we call the robot kit. In it we put any random or broken plastic and metal parts we can’t recycle or that don’t have an immediate use. The idea is that if someone is building a robot or sculpture they could use all these random bits as raw material, and someday I’ll probably list it on craigslist. But, you’d be surprised how often we’ve dug into the robot kit looking for something that would work for some project we’re working on. I know, though, that not everyone has a place to keep this kind of junk, so just get rid of the broken crap.)
- The holding zone. If there is stuff you want to part with but a family member is unwilling to do so right now, put it in a holding zone to revisit at a later date. They might be more willing to part with it after it sits in box in the garage for six months.
- Decide how often you’ll go through your kids stuff and do it with them. I know, cleaning with kids is a pain in the rear, but getting them involved is necessary for a lot of reasons. At my house we usually attack the kid’s room once in the summer and once over the winter break. My kid’s main organization strategy is to pile things on the floor, so I don’t necessarily need his help putting stuff away, but I do need his help to sort trough things and decide what to keep and what to get rid of.
Don’t punish; respect emotional attachments to stuff
Respecting a child’s autonomy can be challenging when that autonomy is spread in 1000 pieces throughout the house, but if we want kids to grow up into adults who can manage their own stuff, we need to let them practice this as children. Throwing out their stuff or telling them they absolutely cannot keep things they want is a recipe for disaster for so many reasons. Many of us have learned this the hard way. My teenager is still mourning the loss of a marble I got rid of years ago. I did not know the marble had value to him, and it was mixed in with a bunch of other stuff he never played with. Had I known of his attachment, I would have kept it, but this situation could have been avoided if I had let him make the decisions with me rather than clearing things out while he was out of the house.
Give kids tools for making choices and a chance to make them
When helping someone clean out their clutter, questions about why they want to keep something, what it means to them, and what they want to do with it. The questions can help clarify what to do with something. If you repeat this process often enough, and respect the answers, children have a better chance of internalizing these concepts and putting them into practice as they are grown.
Questions that might apply are:
- Why do I want to keep this? What does it mean to me?
- What will I do with it? Where will I put it?
- Will I still want this in a month? Next year? (This is similar to the 10/10/10 rule.)
- Am I willing to part with something else so I can keep this?
- Is this item a place holder for something else I’d rather have?
- I like the 20/20 question as well: if I can find this for less than 20 dollars within 20 minutes from home, do I need to hang onto it? This question is helpful for those of us who like to keep things “just in case.”
If a toy or item is sentimental to someone, take a photo of the item, or take a photo of them with the item, and then have them write down (or dictate to you) why they value it. You can do this in a scrapbook or journal if you have those, or in the digital notes area of the photo. There are lots of ideas for this kind of record keeping online, but the core concept is if something has meaning or value to a person, respect that by recording that value. Putting those photos together in a little book or collage is a great way to organize them. This strategy works for the plethora of kids art projects and paper ephemera that builds up around the house.
Another idea is to have one box or shelf that contains sentimental items to keep—things they might want to have as adults or share with their own kids some day. Label the box or shelf and then they know the items in there are safe and you know not to get rid of them without your kid’s permission. You can even make the kid be in charge of that area—they decide what goes in and out.
Give to friends and neighbors
Letting kids pick friends, family, or neighbors to pass on gently-used or outgrown items to is not only a good habit to develop, but knowing someone else is enjoying an item we no longer need is a good feeling. This helps create a sense of community, as well. The shared economy is the future.
Keep a sense of humor about the mess, and a sense of affection for the messer
For everything there is a season; small kids is the season of stuff everywhere. Although it might annoy us, a child keeping something bulky or something we hate isn’t really that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.
Sort and delete first, then organize
#protip: When I’m sorting out and clearing clutter, I get a few empty boxes or laundry baskets and label them donate, regift, store. Then I sort right into the basket as I’m taking things out of closets or pulling things from under the bed. This is a helpful technique for when the clutter clearing project you’re working on will take more than one day, or if you’ll be interrupted during it.
After you’ve sorted all the clutter and have decided what to keep, then you can move on to organizing it. Don’t try to organize the clutter; purge first and then organize what’s left. Even when the clutter is mostly junk you don’t want or need, there is an emotional weight to it that keeps us from spending our energy elsewhere. As we speak I feel the weight of the messy hall closets, the boxes of kid art and papers in the bedroom, and the tubs of vintage stuff I need to sort in the garage. Clutter, even when we do nothing with it, takes our energy, so keeping the clutter at a minimum is good for our mental health.
Check out Part Two of this post about what to do with the stuff you decide to keep.
Do you have tips or tricks to add? What is your best organizational hack? Please share those or any other resources that might be helpful for decluttering in the comments below.
If you have a question for Ask Cherri, send an email to wordyporter @ gmail.com or or use the google form.