Kids and Clutter Go Together Like Peanut Butter and Jelly

evergreens on snow - kids

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

– Phyllis Diller

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

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!

“And I want my kids to be raised knowing that…although all of our ‘stuff’ has a place in our home, there also comes a time for it to go. So that we have more space and time to work. And more importantly, more space and time to play.”

– Jenn at Smart Cookie

For years I told 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.

One day though, a few years ago, I came home to find that my messy 13-year old had filled up a grocery bag with things he didn’t want anymore. I was impressed.

Little did I know that my son had been kidnapped and replaced with a robot. Bags of trash, recycling, and charitable donations poured out of his room for days.

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

I kind of thought this was a phase, but three years later, he’s still awfully neat for a teenager and owns only things he uses regularly.

“Kids will always learn more from example than words. If your life is caught up in always needing to own the latest fashion, technology, or product on the market, theirs will be too. And it would be unreasonable to expect anything less.”

– Joshua Becker

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.

We also 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.

“My kids are sometimes more open to letting go of stuff they don’t love/use when they think about giving it to someone else who WILL love it.”

– Kristen, The Frugal Girl

How can you get your kids to start decluttering?

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Before gift-giving holidays, have them choose a few things to donate to charity so they’ll have room for their new gifts. 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. These experiences helped motivate him to give away things he no longer loved.

Study Says America has 3.1% of the world’s children but buys 40% of the world’s toys.

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

I know some kids don’t have any problem spending their own money, but giving my son an allowance helped a lot. The item he wanted became a lot less desirable if he had to use his cash or do extra chores to get it.

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-controlled 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 Stick. This versatile toy is a real classic — chances are your great-great-grandparents played with one, and your kids have probably discovered it for themselves as well.”

– Wired Magazine, The 5 Best Toys of All Time

Finally (avoiding 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.

Let them play with sticks, mud and cardboard boxes.

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.

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.

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 in the comments.

3 thoughts on “Kids and Clutter Go Together Like Peanut Butter and Jelly

  1. Practicing the “one in, one out” rule helps. If they have to decide what to get rid of to make room for the new they sometimes decide they’d rather keep the old. Of course, to make this truly effective, the rule has to apply to the whole family. A variation of this for younger kids is the “it must fit in the toy box” rule.

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.