5 Ways To Teach Your Child To Manage Clutter

As a sentimental mom, I like to keep certain things. I have a box of shirts I want to make into a quilt one day. I save silly cards my kids give me, and I treasure those sweet little favorite items they have outgrown. My kids are aware of my sentimental side, and they appeal to it when they want to hold on to things a bit longer. When I ask them to deep clean their rooms, they always make three piles — the trash pile, the donate pile, and the “put it in the memory box, please” pile. I realized this was becoming a problem when my daughter brought me that last pile and it included one cowgirl boot, a music box that no longer worked (or even opened), and a book that only had two pages in it — not because it was well-loved, but because the dog had chewed on it. I didn’t even recall reading her the book. Visions of my child appearing on a future episode of “Hoarders” flashed through my mind. So how do we help our kids get rid of their beloved items without causing a meltdown? And how do we know when they cross the line from collecting to hoarding?

According to Childmind.org, hoarding is a “disorder characterized by a person not only acquiring objects in great excess, but also being unable or unwilling to part with them, causing great personal and family distress.” There is a fine line between the typical attachment to a favorite stuffed animal or the collection of a particular interest, but the key part of that definition is “causing great personal and family distress.” So even though their desire to hold on to special things may be cute, it is important to put limits on it early and catch any potential issues that may arise. Try gently guiding and motivating your children to get rid of things, while understanding that there will be a small level of attachment to some things that’s natural. If you find that your child may be leaning more towards actually hoarding, consult with your pediatrician on how to help him or her further. Here are three ideas to help clear the clutter while avoiding a tearful meltdown.

  1. Identify and acknowledge their attachment to an item. There are many reasons why children may resist getting rid of stuff. Sometimes a child may feel like holding on to an item that you want to toss is their way of gaining some control in their life. Maybe they feel like you don’t care about their stuff. Or maybe they don’t want to throw it away because their brother gave them that broken toy to make them feel better when they were crying one day. The important thing is to find out why they don’t want to get rid of something, and to give them the respect of talking through it. This is a good opportunity to have some heart-to-heart talks and find out what is happening in your child’s life. It is also a good way to show your kids you are on their side, and you are willing to compromise and find creative solutions.
  2.  Get creative. My daughter thinks every single piece of paper she brings home from school is save-worthy. She worked hard on it, and so, to her, it is important. So we decided to take pictures of everything as she brings things home, and at the end of the year, we make a photo book. She always ends up letting me delete the majority of pictures she no longer sees as “important” papers. We also have a memory bucket of things that are SUPER special … but my kids know there is limited space in the bucket. For the toys that my kids LOVE, but are outgrowing, my friend introduced me to her “thinking” bucket. The kids put those beloved toys they are too old for in there, and when it gets full (usually six months or so have passed), the toys in there get donated or tossed. There are a ton of ideas that will make everyone feel more comfortable with letting things go. Brainstorm with your child, ask your friends, or do a Google search, and hopefully you will find a solution that works for your family.
  3. Restrict space and focus on one in/one out. It is easier to limit what you keep when you know exactly how much space you have to work with. For example, you can set the expectation that all of your child’s stuff must have a place — whether it be a toy box, bookshelf, or drawer — and if something doesn’t fit in one of those places, then it can’t stay. Your child will have a clear visual of what they are allowed to keep. Your child will start prioritizing what really means the most, and what can be tossed. If they want to bring something new in, something old has to go out. For example, if your kid is adamant about holding on to every little thing from birthday party goody bags, then maybe they need to toss things from the last goody bag. Or if they want to buy a new Shopkins, they need to get rid of the broken Shopkins. The important part is to have it spelled out as clearly as possible so they can’t keep finding loopholes to acquire more stuff in their rooms.
  4. Supervise until they don’t need help. It seems pretty easy to us-crayons don’t belong on the floor, underwear doesn’t get shoved behind a dresser, and books don’t go in the dirty clothes basket. Believe it or not, though, it isn’t so cut and dry for kids. I sat down with my kids to deep clean their room the other day, and as we went along I asked questions. I learned that my daughter shoved her clothes next to her bed because the laundry basket overflows and I said nothing could be on the floor. My son had marbles loose on his bed because he didn’t know where to put them where they wouldn’t roll around and get lost. So they helped me find places for EVERYTHING. Every item they own now has a place it “belongs”.  So after we cleaned their room, I went in the next night and watched as they put their toys away. Their first instinct was to just shove it somewhere. So I told them to take it out and put it where it belonged. The next night I did the same-though I noticed I had to do it less. The third day I went in after they cleaned up and simply took the items that weren’t were they belonged and placed them on their beds to they could put them away correctly.
  5. Make a spot for random “stuff”. Seriously, the amount of stuff that kids have in their room that doesn’t belong anywhere is crazy. I used to use a toy box for the random items-things such as yo-yo’s, bubbles, magic cards, jacks etc. – but I found that they only ever played with the stuff on top. Now I use the toy box to hold their board games that are easy to take out and put back in, and I bought an over-the-door shoe organizer for the random stuff. It works like a charm. They can see everything to find what they want to play with, nothing is on the floor, and everything has a home. Each child also has a junk drawer where they put their “super-special stuff” (a.k.a junk). As long as they can close the drawer and I don’t have to see it- and there is no food or live animals in the drawer at any time-then they can have their small drawer of hoarding. It’s all about compromise.