5 Ways to Declutter Your Kid’s Stuff

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Parents watching their children play
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We’ve previously shown you seven strategies to clear out the clutter in your life. However, what if it’s not your stuff that’s filling all the space?

What if it’s your kid’s stuff?

There are a couple of different strategies to handle a kid-clutter problem, and no one way is the right way. How you approach your child’s clutter will depend largely on your personality as well as theirs.

Here are the five approaches you can try to reclaim your space.

1. The “surprise, your room is clean!” method

This can also be called the “disappearing stuff” method. Your kids are at school, and you simply declutter without their permission or knowledge.

Personally, I strongly encourage you to use this method only for children who are very young – babies, toddlers and maybe preschoolers. At that age, they probably have so much stuff, they don’t know what they have and aren’t particularly attached to any of it. I feel no guilt about rummaging through my 2-year-old’s toys while she naps and putting half of them in a bag headed to the thrift store.

Would I do that with my 16-year-old’s stuff? Absolutely not. I don’t know why she needs dozens of manga books on her shelf, but I do know they are important to her and that it would be a huge violation of trust for me to declutter them without talking to her first.

(Here’s a compromise method for smaller children: Bag up the stuff you’re pretty sure they don’t care about and put it in the garage or basement for a few months. If they don’t miss it at that point, take it off to the thrift store. If they do miss it? No problem. You can magically rediscover it!)

2. The firm-limits method

The next method of decluttering is my favorite, largely because it puts your kids in charge. You give them limits, and they decide how to fill them. Limits could be:

• One section of the communal bookshelf is theirs
• Clothes have to fit comfortably in a single dresser
• When items come in (i.e. gifts or purchases), an equal number go out

This method is most suitable for older kids and teens. They are given a set amount of space and need to work within it. It alleviates power struggles and puts the ball squarely in their court.

While I’m not a huge fan of the third limit on the list above because it seems arbitrary, I can see where it may be necessary if you have limited space or a child is sharing a room with a sibling. For gifts, they can decide whether they like a present enough to give up something else or pay it forward by passing it on to someone else.

3. The clean-slate method

I haven’t used this method myself, but after reading about it recently, I am intrigued by its potential.

To use this method, remove everything from your child’s room except the bed and any heavy, bulky furniture. Let your son or daughter see what the room looks like empty and then help him or her decide what they want to put back in.

It’s easy for kids — and adults — to be overloaded by too many choices. Removing everything from the room gives them a clean slate and may make it easy for them to separate what they really treasure from what was simply taking up space in their room. You can try the same approach in a playroom or communal space.

I can see where this method may appeal to certain children but would be a waste of time for others. I have one son who loves arranging and organizing his stuff so he would undoubtedly get a kick out of being able to redo his room from the ground up. My older daughter, on the other hand, would probably be less impressed and insist we move everything back in ASAP.

4. The hand-holding method

The hand-holding method isn’t just about getting stuff out of your house, it’s also about trying to teach your child some skills on clutter-control that can be used going forward.

With this method, you declutter alongside your child. You go through all their stuff. You ask why they want to keep something. You ask where they’re going to store it. You ask how they plan to use it. You want them to think a little more about what they own and why, while gently discouraging their inclination to simply stockpile.

This is definitely a time-intensive option, and it has the potential to quickly dissolve into you nagging, badgering or harassing your child into getting rid of stuff they want to keep. If you think your son or daughter might be a future star of “Hoarders,” this method can have merits, but I must admit I don’t have the patience for it.

5. The ultimatum method

This final method is one I don’t particularly recommend, although I have used it in the past. It’s actually a variation of the “surprise, your room in clean!” method, except in this case you’re giving your child fair warning.

Parents usually use the ultimatum method when they’re at the end of their rope. They insist their child clean up and declutter “or else.” That “or else” typically involves lots of angry words as stuff is thrown in the garbage or taken to the thrift store.

Nearly 10 years later, my teen still reminds me of how traumatizing it was when, in a rage at his inability to clean up, I threw all his prized football cards in the garbage. They actually went to a shelf in the basement, but still, it wasn’t one of my finest parenting moments. My son still remembers; I still regret; and his ability to clean up didn’t improve either. The only lesson he learned is that Mom can look really scary when she’s angry.

My advice? Try one of the other methods above. If your child can’t keep his or her stuff under control, giving them an ultimatum doesn’t magically make them capable of tidying up.

Final notes: gifts and rooms

Before we wrap up, let’s talk briefly about gifts and kids’ rooms.

When it comes to gifts, we often feel that we have to hold on to them because Nana or Aunt Kathy or whoever took the time and money to bestow our children with a present. I used to feel that way until I had a relative bring weekly gifts every time she came to baby-sit. I learned to deposit them directly into the donation bag I kept in the closet.

If your child gets a gift and the gift-giver might be visiting in the future, you might keep it around at least until after their visit. After that, I wouldn’t feel bad about sending it on to the thrift store, assuming my child wasn’t using it. If a gift-giver asks about the item in the future, I would respond vaguely with “Hmm … I’m not sure where that is, offhand,” and then change the subject. No need to hurt their feelings by saying it’s gone.

For my kids’ rooms, I tend to leave them as they are. I figure that it’s my child’s space, and doors were invented to be closed. I’m not sure why they would want to have overstuffed closets and bookshelves, but it’s really no skin off my back if they do. At one point, I did have three boys in one room, and in that case, I did put limits on the clutter so they could coexist relatively peacefully. I also insist on clothes off the floor and no food in bedrooms, but that’s the extent of my rules.

What about you? How do you clear out your kid’s clutter, and what’s your philosophy on their rooms? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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