Kids and their Stuff

I’ve been learning about the unique challenges of organizing with children, not only because I have clients with children (and a seven-year-old of my own), but also because many of my clients point to childhood experiences as a significant source of their clutter/disorganization problems.

It seems to me that children’s possessions are probably the only things they feel they have control over, besides their own bodies. So they may often be very attached to their things, even objecting to the removal of the tiniest broken toy.

This creates an interesting dynamic, because most of the things our children own, we bought for them. So we may feel that we have the right to take the things away or tell them what they must do with them. But I think a gift is a gift, and in most instances, the things my daughter owns belong to her, and she can do what she wants with them. There are consequences, of course; if she started destroying her clothes, she knows that I would quickly stop buying her new clothes. And there are exceptions: If she were to do something dangerous with a toy, I’d take it away for some period of time. But I think it’s important that in general she feel a sense of ownership over her things, both for a sense of security, and more importantly because when you own things, then you are naturally more inclined to take care of them. Also, I think she is more willing to let go of things she doesn’t want anymore, because she knows it’s her decision to make, and doesn’t feel that she has to make a stand just to prove a point. So, fortunately, I think I’ve always kept a pretty good handle on the number of things in my daughter’s room.

Many of my clients and friends, however, are starting from a place where the toys/books/clothes/etc. in their kids’ rooms are currently at 150-200% capacity, and there needs to be some serious culling. So….

What Not to Do:

1. From working with my adult clients, I have learned that the worst thing you can do is throw away toys behind your child’s back. This seems to have a direct correlation with later disorganization and hoarding in adulthood. So although it may be tempting, and you’re certain your kid won’t miss the item(s), don’t throw things away without his or her knowledge. (Obviously, this doesn’t apply to babies/toddlers, who thankfully aren’t that aware of their stuff yet – parents of wee ones, start now!)

2. Do not threaten, yell, punish, or scold/tease your child about their stuff. Hey, we all lose patience sometimes, but in general, this is not a good way to get results, and it will contribute to setting up your kid for organization/hoarding problems later.

What to Do:

1. Set limits on numbers. Kids actually like limits, especially when set and explained in a kind way. You decide how many Barbies you’d like your kid to own, and then ask him to pick out that many of his favorite ones to keep. I think the 80/20 rule of clothing (we wear 20 percent of our clothes 80 percent of the time) applies to toys as well. Containers also represent visual limits.

2. What goes in, must come out. Before birthdays and winter holidays, do your culling to make room for the new stuff. This makes sense to kids.

3. Give incentives. Many kids like the idea of giving their toys to others who don’t have any, and you can even get them in on the process, by bringing them to the charity with you. Cold hard cash also speaks volumes: If you have a yard sale, or sell things on Ebay, offer to split the proceeds 50-50 with your kid. My daughter loves this.

4. Set an example. If you have a very cluttered home, your kid will naturally see the hypocrisy in your directive to toss things. Also make sure the kid sees you getting rid of your own unwanted stuff, and saying no to stuff you don’t need.

5. Respect your kid’s emotions and preferences. We all have our tender spots for certain items. Maybe Bertram is holding on to a drawing he made when he was three that looks like bird scratch to you. Just because you don’t understand his reasons doesn’t mean he doesn’t have them. But it also doesn’t mean that he’s going to be just as intractable about all his stuff. See what he is willing to give away. And if he sees that you are respecting his needs about what to keep, his grip will gradually loosen. Of course, if he refuses to get rid of anything at all, see #1 about limits, but validate his feelings: “I know you love all your Matchbox cars, but you still need to pick out your 10 favorites and let the rest go.”

So, that’s everything off the top of my head. Got any input? Polite dissent? Did I leave anything out?

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