Kids and Clutter

gourd bowl
© 2013 Christy King

“Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing up is like shoveling the walk before it stops snowing.”

- Phyllis Diller

Children are often natural-born collectors, hesitant to get rid of anything.

  • But Mom, these stuffed animals are my babies!
  • That’s not garbage – I’m going to build something with it!
  • Daddy, I want to save that for my babies to play with!
  • It took a long time to collect my rocks!
  • Grandma gave me that!

Kids and clutter go together like peanut butter and jelly. Many of us feel we’ve really accomplished something big if we just manage to prevent the stuff from spreading throughout the house, mostly giving up on the kids’ rooms.

 “I spend far less time being the janitor for my possessions, and far more time doing the things I love.”

- Joshua Becker

For years I’ve been telling my son that if he just had less stuff, it would be easier to find things and faster to clean his room. Like a lot of things I’ve said, it seemed to go in one ear and out the other.

Occasionally he’d clean his room without being asked, but he never got rid of more than a handful of items on his own.

Then he turned 13, and he didn’t even bother to get the trash or dirty dishes out of his room without constant reminders.

The Stepford Son

Several weeks ago, though, I came home to find that – without being asked – my messy teen had filled up a grocery bag with things he didn’t want anymore. I was impressed.

Little did I know that apparently my son had been kidnapped and replaced with a robot à la Stepford Wives, because he kept it up. Bags of trash, recycling, and charity donations poured out of his room for days.

I asked what had gotten into him. He said: “Less work, more video games.”

“Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.”

- Robert Fulghum

What did we do right? Maybe we just got lucky, but I’d like to believe that our own decluttering set a good example. I’d also like to think it helped that he often overheard my husband and I talking about what we believe is important.

Realistically, if your kids see you buying and holding on to a bunch of stuff you don’t need, apparently valuing stuff more than relationships and experiences, they’re likely to do the same thing.

Finally, we encouraged decluttering, even required him to get rid of some things. But we left him have a say in what in what he kept, so he saw decluttering as annoying or inconvenient, but not punitive.

Remember the saying, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Just because you don’t want it doesn’t mean your child doesn’t.

When my son was young, up until probably 7 or 8 years old, he filled boxes with what most of us would consider trash. But you know what? He used it to create some amazing things, including the bowl in today’s photo, made with a gourd skin he took from the compost pile.

“The key to a tidy room is to control the clutter and make cleanup enjoyable. Bright colors naturally pique children’s curiosity and sense of adventure, and these 13 storage solutions can play into the fun.”

- Better Homes and Gardens

Seriously? How could anybody write that with a straight face? To solve the problem of kids and clutter, make cleaning an adventure?

Yeah, there are lots of multi-colored shelves, tubs and baskets marketed for organizing kids’ rooms, along with cutesy labels decorated with basketballs or flowers.

Do you really believe that if your kids are slobs now, they’ll suddenly turn into neat freaks because you spent a fortune on organizational products? Has it ever worked for you?

Besides, it doesn’t address the real problem – most of our children, like most of us – have too much stuff.

Kids and Clutter: What Works?

Have some required decluttering. Have your kids try on all of their clothes and shoes a couple of times a year so you can see what no longer fits.

Ask them to get rid of things they don’t want anymore. They probably won’t volunteer more than a few things, but every little bit helps. If they’re younger, help them by going through their rooms, pointing out things you haven’t seen them use in a long time.

Before gift-giving holidays, have them choose a few things to donate to charity so they’ll have room for their new gifts.

Try suggesting they give their stuff to kids who will use it more often. Emphasize how happy they can make someone else by giving their stuff away.

When my son was about 6, we gave his outgrown first bike away through Freecycle. He got to see the tiny new owner’s huge smile when the boy and his mom picked up the bike.

My son also knows first-hand how exciting it is to find something he’s been wanting at the thrift store. When it’s time to declutter, we can remind him how happy someone will be to find what they’ve been looking for.

Buy Less

Naturally, if incoming exceeds outgoing, you’re not going to accomplish anything, so we’ve also limited what we buy.

I know some kids don’t have any problem spending their own money, but giving my son an allowance helped a lot. The conversation usually went like this:

“Mom, I want a new [whatever].”

“OK, you have enough money to buy it” or “I have some chores you can do to earn enough money for this.”

“No, I want you to buy it for me. Please….”

“The whole reason for your allowance and chore money is so you can buy things you want.”

“Well, I don’t want it that much.

Another lesson he learned by having to spend his own money is to think carefully before buying something. He once saved his money for a long time, only to impulsively spend it on a remote control robot.

He became bored with the toy – that really didn’t do much – after only a few days, regretting his purchase. If he hadn’t used his own money, I doubt he would’ve learned anything from that experience.

“A three year old child is a being who gets almost as much fun out of a fifty-six dollar set of swings as it does out of finding a small green worm.”

- Bill Vaughan

Finally (avoiding the dreaded lectures), teach your kids through your words and your actions that there are a lot of free and inexpensive things to do that will make them happier than buying stuff will.

If you glorify stuff, your kids will too. Raymund Tamayo points out that “Parents use material things as reward for something good done by their kids, without knowing they are introducing their children to the pattern of worldly materialism.”

While it’s okay to reward your children with material things occasionally, most often, use praise and affection, sprinkled with experiences, like extra time at the playground or the opportunity to bake cookies with you.

Show them you enjoy simple pleasures like playing fetch with the dog, watching the sunset, sitting on the porch, warming yourself by the fire, and playing board games with your family.

Regularly take your kids to the park, to the swimming pool, on hikes. Buy gifts that lead to experiences – a badminton set, a toy (like blocks) that will entertain for years or a zoo membership.

Encourage them to be creative with “trash” – show them sculptures and collages made by artists with found objects. You can point out products made with repurposed materials at craft fairs.

Please share your ideas and experiences for helping kids declutter and simplify in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Kids and Clutter

  1. Very well-written essay Christy. I really enjoy the practical wisdom you present.

    It’s almost mind-blowing how unconsciously materialist kids become at such a young age. Think of all the times we visit someone with a baby or toddler and we can barely find the kid amidst the clutter of all the multi-coloured plastic toys and brand names. Teaching them to be hoarders and poor consumers before they’re out of diapers. Unbelievable!

    I agree that example is a good defense. My parent’s certainly aren’t minimalists, but we never got everything we wanted, we too had to gut out our rooms a couple of times a year, and we learned to donate clothes and toys to ‘kids who aren’t as lucky as you.’ Good message overall, I think.

    Thanks very much for sharing. Cheers!

    Bob

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