Week Five: Kid Clutter

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I’m that mean mom.

Like an evil Santa Clause I take toys away in the night. I bag them up and donate them without my kid’s knowing. As soon as I see our toy stash getting out of control – no room to store things, many forgotten items that neither one of them play with – I pack it up and send it away. Doesn’t matter if it is fairly new to us or a gift. If we have too much, or we’re not playing with it regularly, it goes.

This strategy isn’t for every family. It probably isn’t for my family long term. As the boys get older I’ll have them get more involved with the culling process. But right now it works. It works really well. Simplicity Parenting agrees (amazing book. Check it out from your local library. Great ideas for cutting out the noise in your family life and connecting more).

If your children will run away from home with my method take heart: there are many ways to reduce kid clutter that work. We’re going to talk about them this week and take a crack at seeing what the floor of your play room looks like.

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Before you start sneaking Hex Bugs and shape sorting toys out in the middle of the night, ask yourself a few question.

  • What will my children say if I donate toys without asking them or telling them about it?
  • What are my children really using right now? No, not the stuff you had hoped they would use but the stuff they actually play with frequently.
  • Is anything worth saving for younger children? Really think about this one.

We get fantastic age appropriate gifts for my boys at birthdays and Christmas. I’m really seeing I don’t need to store much for our second because not only does he prefer to play with his older brother’s toys but my mum or mother-in-law always gift him new toys and clothing. I do not have a shortage of toys coming into my house.

Kid clutter is a huge topic but we’re going to hit the big ones – toys, time, clothing – this week. So start thinking about what you, and your kids, will handle best: a toy-drive for kids in need or sneaking those forgotten Barbies out of the house one at a time.

If you want an in-depth book on this subject Joshua Becker of Becoming Minimalist has just released Clutter Free with Kids and it’s $2.99 until Monday (then it is $5.99 I believe).  If you’re expecting a new baby you can check out my book, The Minimalist Mom’s Guide to Baby’s First Year (just say no to those must-have for baby lists).

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  • Rachel, the good news for you is that your kids might be okay with your system as they get older because you started them on it when they were little. My 6/8/10-year-old kids just understand that we aren’t too attached to stuff, that if it gets too hard to clean up some of it needs to go, and that we only need so many “favourite” things. I still make passes when they’re at school (and they seldom notice) and often they bring things to me willingly: “I don’t really use this. Can we donate it?” Hmm.. they’re just leaving for school now…maybe I should pull out the culling shovel. :)

    • This was what I was going to say! My 6/5/1 year old boys still don’t seem to question when toys go missing. When it gets hard to clean up, or if I notice there is a particular toy that is no longer loved, it goes into a box in my room. When the box is full, it gets donated. My boys have even come in to my room and noticed one of their toys in a box. I usually get a “hey, I remember that!” comment, but I don’t think they’ve ever asked for it back.

      And I second Rachel’s comments about saving stuff for younger kids. My oldest two were 22 months apart, so I saved everything. Now that I have a third son, I know that toys and (most) clothes aren’t worth saving. They’ll get age appropriate toys and new clothes from family on x-mas and their birthdays. For me, pajamas and winter coats are the things worth saving.

      Also wanted to plug your book and recommendations. I loved simplicity parenting and the minimalist mom’s guide to baby’s first year. Am looking forward to reading Joshua Becker’s newest book.

  • Sneaking toys away works great for small kids, but be sure to stop in time! My mom used to do it, and at some point I got verry mad at her for it (I was maybe 7 or 8). She had to stop doing it after that.
    I think limiting the inflow of toys is also a big factor. We buy fewer but very good quality toys for our 16mo daughter (no “plastic trash”). These nicer toys look less like clutter to our eyes because they are also visually pleasing to us (obviously, once she’ll be older she’ll insist on stuff we’ll hate, but for now this works). These toys are also worth keeping, in fact our daughter plays with things that used to belong to me, and I’m really happy my mom kept them.

  • Rachel,
    For us it started when I was arranging the clothes, etc. to be donated to Haiyan typhoon victims. My 5 year-old saw what I was doing and I tried to explain in a way she can comprehend. I asked if she wanted to give some toys and did so without over-thinking about it.
    Now if a dress doesn’t fit her anymore or toys she no longer wants to play with, she’s more than eager to pass them along to younger friends/cousins or donate to charity.
    Of course, there’s still some items I wanted to be gone and she refuses to part with them. When it happens I just give in. She usually compromises by choosing other stuff. :)

    Great post as always.

  • I am totally in your camp on this one. We do not get attached to the thing because of the giver and toys rotate in and out of their lives on a routine basis. We have a firm cap of 100 children books in our library. It’s not uncommon for ten new ones to show up at birthday and holiday season, so they have gotten used to the rotation. The used books go to their preschool classes where they are well-loved so I think that eases the pain somewhat.

    We are blessed with a large walk-in closet, so I have the luxury of being able to store some things out of sight, which lets them get rested and returned to use months later. Some of the toys with small pieces that I don’t want dumped out on a daily basis are also stored there.

    The transition as the kids grow will be interesting. The boys know that some stuff comes and goes and so far it seems to be okay with them. Thankfully, the grandparents are on board with it too, and that makes my path much easier. Our Christmas this year was a huge success with the kids getting thoughtful gifts that they will use. A zoo membership, a new backpack, a giant bulletin board for displaying their art, a bicycle bell, art supplies.

  • Great post and interesting topic. I was great getting rid of my kids extra/ excess toys and clothes when they were younger. It is definitely more difficult now. They are ages 11 and 13. I try to involve them in the process of decluttering their stuff. Some attempts are better than others. Some days (many recently!) I just have to close the door to each child’s bedroom and let it be. They are slobby and have too much stuff. However, I try to respect their space and belongings. I will be interested to hear what other parents of older children have to say about this topic! Thanks for another great post!

  • When my kids were little I would usually rotate toys before deciding to donate them. After each hit about 5 or so, I would sit down and let them choose what they would get rid of. My kids are now 9, 12, 14 and 17, they don’t own a lot of toys, now I purge as I see they outgrow a toy, but not before suggesting and getting approval from them. That goes for clothing too.

  • Wanted to comment on Elaine’s idea of respecting kid’s privacy. Although my kids are not as messy now as one is already 17, I allow for some mess to remain untouched some times. I think its ok to let kids be kids, and messy is part of childhood, from food, feeding to toys and even un made beds that look like a tornado hit it. I think being dirty and overly messy is one thing, but I have never expected my kids to have a straight room. It takes away the beauty of being a child.

    • Very true Eva. This can be challenging for me at times because I am neat and hate clutter. I draw the line at having food in the bedrooms but other than that I try to just let it be. You are right, messy is a part of childhood!

  • Hi Rachel, I didn’t see it in your list of topics to come but I was hoping that you might talk about how to manage the avalanche of crafts, school projects, homemade gifts/cards etc that comes along with having school age kids. Each item seems so precious but keeping everything just seems to lead to piles of clutter. Would be great to hear your take on this!

    • Try asking them which art projects they want you to keep. Many projects are done as a class with the expectation that everyone will make pretty much the same thing. The doodle on the back of an old homework sheet may be more meaningful to them than the elaborate mixed media art piece they bring home.

  • Tish, I take pictures of my children’s artwork, projects, etc, that I want to remember but not necessarily keep. I can put the pictures in their albums and it takes up a lot less space than the actual papers would. I keep a few extra special things but most we hang for a week or so and then toss. Once or twice my kids have written notes to grandparents on the back of a piece of artwork. I hope this helps!

  • I love the book Simplicity Parenting! When I ask my kids if they have any toys they are ready to part with my oldest (almost 7) will usually come up with something but her 4 year old sister won’t. I do take toys away while they are gone/sleeping. But instead of donating the right away I box up the toys and hide them for at least a week to see if anyone misses anything I took. That way the missed toy can always be “found” and the girls don’t freak out. I don’t want them to start hoarding things if they realize stuff might disappear when they aren’t home.

  • I was blown away recently when the 3 year old son of a mutual friend of ours (you will figure it out!) calmly explained to me that he had to choose some toy cars to get rid of before getting his new toys because “there are some kids that don’t even have toys. Some kids don’t even have clean water.” His parents weren’t even around so it was totally unprompted and, I thought, amazing for a 3 year old (although I don’t hang around many 3 year olds, so maybe more common than I think!). I can only hope that I can instill such worldly views in my kids one day!

    • That’s not common for a three year old and I would guess it’s due to his amazing parents. They, like you and the rest of the crowd in your city, are a great source of inspiration and how-to for work/life balance and living your values. So awesome to hear that story, Shelly.

  • We always do a toy purge before birthdays and Christmas. I actually do it with my boys (3 and 5) and have never had problems getting them to give things up. It helps, I think, that they are doing so with the expectation of new things to come. But really, I think because we have this habit, and maybe cause we have a limited space for their things in one room rather than bits throughout the house, they don’t have a problem letting go of things the rest of the year either. I’m always a bit surprised at how easy it is.

  • Just finished reading Clutterfree with Kids and immediately started re-reading Simplicity Parenting, since I haven’t read it in 18 months and definitely needed the refresher. Love both books. Glad I have them on my kindle, since I reference my ‘clippings’ on them both often.

  • The challenge for me is that third bullet point: is it worth saving for a younger child.
    Yes. Many things are. And with a still-growing large family, that translates into a lot of stuff! We don’t buy much, but do get a lot of gifts and hand me downs.

  • Long time reader, first time commenter:)

    Just wanted to say that I literally laughed out loud when I read “I’m that mean mom.” I laughed because I knew exactly what you meant before I even read your post! “Mean Moms” unite!

    Greetings from California…

  • As Tish mentioned, I shudder at the sheer quantities of precious art my 4 year-old produces at school. So far, I’ve just kept it in a folder or in baskets in her room. I let her play with it and often it gets broken, destroyed. I warn her in advance that playing with ‘decorations’ can wear then out etc. She seems to prefer to be able to play with little clay scultpures she’s made or ‘decorate’ her room with her posters over keeping them long term. When they are really trashed, I throw them away.

    As for weeding out of toys, like some of your other commenters, I rotate the toys she has available. If I’m not sure if we’re ‘done’ with something I keep it out for a while and then reintroduce it much later. If it doesn’t get actually played with then it disappears forever with the next rotation. So far, so good. And once I got lucky when she asked, “Hey, where is that basket of hamsters??” Luckily they were still in the garage. I hate those things–really. Do Zoopets exist outside of France? Battery operated hamsters that crawl around and let out battle charges and little giggles. EVIL. (obviously a present).

    We aslo have a ‘boite de bordel’ basically a crap box where we toss all the weird, missmatched treasures she collects–incidentally, she really plays with that stuff pretending they are her shopping, cooking, pottery class, what have you. When the box is over-full, I throw out some of the —stuff. She still has plenty of jewels and buttons and rocks and pipe cleaners etc. And I don’t have to hyperventilate when I see this stuff about my house, just toss it in the box.

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