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Cleaning Out Your Kid’s Stuff

Every so many months, I get completely overwhelmed about how much STUFF my kids have accumulated — and proceed to totally freak out about it (aka get the sudden urge to toss everything away).

I’ve noticed there’s a certain rhythm to this, I think (perhaps it’s seasonal?), and I hear the same from so many friends.    

In a perfect world, it would be EASY to pare down our children’s things — we would just go through it all and divest of things as necessary without much of a thought.

But of course, we don’t

I will say up front that I am not the super-sentimental type who has trouble letting go of things — I may or may not be known to occasionally sneak some of my kids’ things into hiding, or even (gasp) into the trash when they are at school — and yet I still really struggle with this on the broader scale. 

Me, when my kids ask what happened to something I already threw out.

The thing is… so many of my kids’ things come from generous family members, and I feel frankly uncomfortable disposing of their gifts. It’s uncomfortable to even complain about this when there are so many others who are less fortunate…  

This all contributes to the guilt factor. 

So what do we do? 

In trying to think through this perennial problem, I spoke with my mom, who raised four young kids in very little living space in Boston and later went on to run her own organizing company, about how we parents can begin to manage The Stuff Problem — without feeling guilty. 

Here are some things to know at the outset: 

  • Your Stuff Problem is not unique — with the seemingly unlimited availability of cheap goods, it’s a definitively first-world problem, and varies by demographics, but SO many parents struggle with it. 
  • The Stuff Problem really IS seasonal — it literally flares up at certain times of the year, namely: birthdays, the holidays, and family visits.
  • Dealing with The Stuff Problem has myriad advantages. In particular, it opens us up and leaves us and our kids better poised for all kinds of beneficial things. For example: 
    • When children don’t have “too much” (whatever that means to you), we stand to help them understand how to respect and appreciate what they do have, as well as be gracious about receiving gifts;
    • When we parents aren’t constantly overwhelmed by our kids’ clutter (again, everyone has a different threshold, which isn’t just based on space, mind you), we can begin to practice letting go of micro-managing their things;
    • With less stuff, toy organization and storage — not to mention daily CLEAN UP — become imminently more manageable. 

Kids playing in a playroom.
We’re going for sustainability, friends, not perfection

The idea that outer order yields inner calm resonates with me (like, a lot), and I find that in my own work and life I often have difficulty concentrating on something until “X” is done/organized/dealt with. In paying closer attention, I’ve realized that my mood is definitely affected when I feel like my kids’ stuff is out of control.

By that I mean: I am quicker to lose my patience and grow frustrated more easily; my stress level surrounding The Stuff Problem has a correlation with how I respond to my children. (Note: I began to tune into this after reading about the importance of identifying what pushes our own buttons as parents, i.e., “what gets in the way of me being the parent I want to be,” as described in Being at Your Best when Your Kids Are at Their Worst, by Kim John Payne.)

Thus, if my own desire to bring The Stuff Problem to heel wasn’t enough of a reason to do so, the fact that I’m able to be a more composed parent if when things spiral out of control is yet another great motivation.

Okay, I’m guessing that if you’re here, you already see some value in this entire ordeal, so let’s discuss HOW to actually go about doing that.

Here are some strategies for getting started in paring down your kids’ stuff, being mentally okay with it, and keeping their stuff at a sustainable level:

Getting things under control: 

  1. Take stock: Take an initial inventory of your children’s things, and get rid of things that are “easy.” (My mom even suggested doing this step sans your younger-aged children — gasp. 🤭 Yes you can!) “Easy” things to clear out at the outset are items that are broken, duplicates, missing parts or pieces, so worn out they aren’t usable anymore, etc. Cheap little plastic toys and party favors? Bye.
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The Island of Misfit Toys… #itsreal
  1. Prune: Go through things again (either with or without your children, depending on age/preference), this time with an eye toward effective organization. Categorize toys and *make sure everything has a home.

    For random items that don’t quite belong anywhere, consider whether they’re needed/used/loved. Keep a special lookout for things that have lots of pieces. If you are constantly sorting puzzles and games with umpteen pieces, consider whether it’s worth your while to keep them. 
Drowning in kid clutter? Here's how to organise their stuff | Life and  style | The Guardian
  1. Donate: Begin a conversation with your child about what it means to value their things, and what donation is. Ask them to think about what they value/care about most, and what they think someone else might value. (Check out our advice on managing toy cleanup for some conversation-starter inspiration.)

    Discuss what donating is, and ask your child to pick some things to donate. **Involving your children is key — make sure to keep it concrete by involving them in the whole process from start to finish. By this I mean, invite them to select items and to bring them to school/Goodwill/a neighbor, or what have you, so they can see and experience the warm fuzzies that come along with making a donation. If you leave them out (a mistake I have made multiple times over), your kids don’t get to really see and understand what donation actually means. 

On Artwork

This is a distinct area where parents often struggle. The first time your child comes home from pre-K with fingerpainting, you swoon over it like Michaelangelo himself made the damn thing. You hang it up, or steel it away somewhere safe, and wait for the next masterpieces… which come home the very next day. And the next, and the next.

By the time you hit kindergarten, much less grade school, it really starts to add up. Often, especially with younger children, the mountains of random scribbles or half-filled coloring pages can go straight to the recycling bin (really, they can).

But a lot of it can be hard to get rid of. It’s sentimental, and we worry about whether we’ll miss it in the future, when they’re all grown up (GAH). 

Here are our favorite tips for handling the inevitable excess of kids’ artwork: 

Create an art box for each of your children

This can be as bare-bones or fancy as you like, ranging from a cardboard shoebox/banker’s box to an oversized rubbermaid container to a handsome leather artist’s case (pick whatever size you like).

As your child brings new things home, save your favorites in the “portfolio” (so fancy, right?). At the end of each school year, you can go through everything and pick your favorites to keep and label by year. This way, you get to keep some special pieces but aren’t overloaded with all of it. After a few years have gone by, you can pare the collection down even more and keep only the best things in this type of folio (yes, you will become less sentimental over time! It’s great.). 

Bigso Containers, The Container Store
Use pictures

Consider taking pictures of your child’s artwork throughout the year and then make a picture book using Shutterfly or any other photobook service. (There are a number of services that even specialize in memorializing children’s artwork in this way, such as Artkive or Keepy.) This is a great space-saving technique that kids also love — they have their own book, wow!

Make a gallery

Designate a special art display area for your children’s favorite projects — kids love helping with this. It’s a source of pride for them, and also encourages them to participate in the “culling” of their own work (because every single thing they do can’t fit). 

It also sets the stage for a fun family activity — let me explain: Our entire living room wall is overrun by my two kids’ “art gallery,” which we collectively decided to limit to paintings and “mixed media” pieces (hah). We periodically hold “Meet the Artist” sessions with our kids where they tell us about their artwork and we ask them questions about it (and yes, have a glass of wine, LOL). Popular titles on display include “Spiky Rainbow,” “Honey,” “Oceanographer,” and “Bunny Crackers.” 

Share it!

Sending your kids’ artwork to family or friends is a great way to de-clutter while also brightening up someone else’s day. (And having some handy to use as thank-you notes is always nice, too.)

Grandparents love receiving artwork, as a rule (right??), and kids also love sending their art in the mail. It’s an opportunity to talk about gifting, thanking, and also… the postal service(!!). Yes, toddlers and young children adore getting everything set in the envelope, and learning about the addressing and stamping and mailing out of things. It’s quite the venture for them.

painting of handprints
Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

Leave the guilt at the door 

The professional organizer and author Peter Walsh states in his book Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat? that “a gift is not an obligation.” 

I love this

What an idea, right? When I think about the sentiment behind this simple saying, it automatically helps me feel more able to let things go: just because someone gave us something doesn’t obligate us to keep it forever. 

Phew Scrubs GIF - Phew Scrubs ThatWasClose GIFs

Especially with young children, the shelf-life of any given gift might not be that long — and that’s okay. I for one get caught up in my head thinking that people who give my children gifts expect a certain longevity (or frequency of use) out of them. In fact, as my mom suggested, the people who give our children gifts only want our children to enjoy and use those gifts. No one (not even family members) wants or expects a recipient to hold onto a gift they can’t use anymore or don’t enjoy.

Of course, acknowledgment of the gift is always a plus. I’ve noticed that when I feel good about how we, as a family, have expressed gratitude for a gift received, in real time, I experience less guilt when it’s time to let it go — because I know we’ve shown our appreciation. (And I say this^^ as someone who has openly mixed feelings about thank you cards.) 

But however you choose to express gratitude, keeping Peter Walsh’s notion in mind is unbelievably freeing: we are not required to keep our children’s stuff forever — nor does anyone expect us to. 

Phone a Friend

I don’t have any research or even a single data point to back this up, but speaking from personal experience, I find it SO unbelievably helpful to have a buddy I know I can count on to absolve me whenever I’m in doubt about getting rid of something. (Alternatively… just ask a man — any man will do — they never seem to feel guilty about any of this 😂.)

I don’t know exactly why, but sometimes just having that external permission from someone — whether it’s a friend, your partner, a parent, whomever — makes me feel like I’m allowed to clear something out, and I don’t think twice about it.

Keeping Things Under Control: 

There are a number of things we can do to mitigate The Stuff Problem before it gets out of hand. Pick and choose what works for you: 

  • Don’t keep everything out all at once. Setting up an effective toy rotation is like a breath of fresh air. There are so many great things about this strategy: it keeps toy clean-up manageable, limits clutter, allows for a constant cycle of “new” and exciting things that keep children engaged for longer, helps cultivate children’s sense of appreciation for what’s available to them (i.e., “no — you can’t have all the things all the time”), and also operates as a de facto prompt to pare down every so often. It’s a little time consuming to set up, but SO worth it, and once you make a habit of it, truly is so easy. 
  • Stay organized, as best you can. Yes, it’s the hard advice no one wants to hear. But it’s true. 
How to Get Your Kids to Clean Up After Themselves | TODAY.com
  • Talk to people in advance of the stuff seasons. It may seem awkward at first, but having conversations beforehand with family/friends who typically give gifts can be incredibly helpful. Instead of saying “no gifts,” my mom recommends a few alternative strategies: 
    • Offer ideas about what would be helpful/wanted (or not helpful/unwanted). If there are clothes or other items your children need or want, that’s a great place to start. Generally speaking, my mom says, people find this sort of thing helpful and appreciate knowing what to buy. 
    • Consider sharing some moderate limitations, such as “no toys that make noise” (my amazing pediatrician’s genius idea) or “anything that can fit on the toy shelf,” or “anything that can be cleaned up in one minute or less.” Everyone’s ideas about what works best (or worst) for them is different, so it’s not one size fits all here, but being honest and open up front can go a long way.
    • Let gift-givers know about the reality of the average toy/game’s shelf-life in your home. Telling others how long these things tend to last gives them some perspective, so that if Aunt Sally buys X, she can have reasonable expectations about how long it might be around or understand that buying an expensive toy for a child of a particular age may not be the best use of their money at that time. 
    • Talk about your space limitations with gift-givers. This is especially true for city-dwellers who are in apartments… if you don’t have room for large items, or even just a lot of items, share that (and/or discuss what happens when you receive things you can’t accommodate).
    • One alternative idea: some extended family members are open to purchasing gifts that stay at their house, rather than your house. I love this idea, because it adds to the “fun stuff at grandma’s” mystique, and also levels the playing field (to an extent), without actually asking anyone to change the game. Ah, the art of the compromise. 👏
  • Abide by the “one in, one out” rule. When new stuff comes into the house, make a habit of having it replace something else. It’s up to you whether the “something else” is simply put away for a while or actually “got rid of,” but this works like a charm in preventing stuff overflow. 
  • Remember: experiences matter most. This little mantra is so useful in thinking about The Stuff Problem. Untold social science research shows that experiences make the best gifts, and this is true for children as well. There are two salient points here: 
    • We need not agonize over our reducing our children’s stuff. After all, it’s just stuff
    • Perhaps instead of objects, you and your family might discuss giving time, projects, or experiences as gifts rather than stuff (such as: making muffins together, a scavenger hunt, a zoo membership, magazine subscription, an art project, a book/reading project, etc.).

      *If you think (or ask anyone else) about their best memories with parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles and the like from childhood, they’re likely shared moments, not stuff-related. The same will probably be true for your kids. What do you want them to remember? 
Grandparents | Parents

It’s not an easy journey, friends, but it is a worthwhile one, in our opinion. Getting your home’s Stuff Problem under control is SO liberating, and it makes room for all the other stuff, the stuff we really care about. 

Godspeed, fellow parents, 👋 and let us know how it goes for you.

Comments

  1. Avatar

    I love this! I need to put a lot of this into practice. I have actually used the one suggestion to suggest to family and friends what your child may need (like clothing) or suggesting fun experiences (like a zoo or museum membership or magazine subscription). I’ve given these ideas to family members. I’m overwhelmed by all the STUFF. And the family members don’t follow my recommendations and just buy whatever they want. It is so frustrating. What do I do about that?! All the clutter in my house is stuff I DID NOT BUY! Nor do I want it and my kid barely plays with. Which some of the toy rotation would help with. And also paring down. But I need to stop the piling up. And family isn’t helping me with that, they are causing the problem 🙁

  2. Avatar

    I love the experience idea, but we got hosed by it last year. My MIL gave us an aquarium membership for Christmas 2019. We used it once before the pandemic shut everything down. But before that, we used to do an outing for our kids’ birthdays and then they’d get 2 smaller, usually related, gifts from us. Like a Thomas the Tank Engine t-shirt for my 2 year olds birthday outing to ride Thomas & Percy.

  3. Avatar

    Hi, I have a question about sentimental items. I’m the oldest great granddaughter, only granddaughter, and only daughter so I feel like I get so many family heirlooms. A lot of it is really great and special like a piano, cedar chest, desk and china tea set. However, I just keep getting more and more and I don’t know what to do with it all! I’ve got pictures, baby books, jewelry, business cards, baby clothes, a pocket watch etc. I’m told how valuable it all is to our family, how old it is, who it belonged to etc. which adds to my guilt. I should be grateful but I’m so overwhelmed. I feel like I cannot get rid of anything because of its sentimental value and how much it would hurt my mom. We are in a 2 bedroom apartment. Ideas?

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