Organize Your Family
Father and two children
Make Decluttering a Way of Life
Families are messy. They drop crumbs everywhere. They generate loads of laundry. They have pets and friends and birthday parties and toys with more tiny pieces than there are stars in the sky. Sometimes the physical clutter is so extensive that it can interfere with your efforts to clear away the emotional clutter. Let’s talk about the fundamental changes that have to occur to make decluttering a way of life for your children.
Child with a box of blocks
Happy to Help
Kids live as members of households and as such they need to understand from an early age that they're responsible for what they own and what they use. If your children are old enough to understand "put the blocks in the box," they're old enough to help. Make it clear that you expect your child to clean up the toys she uses. But do so without making it sound like a dreadful task. Don’t start bargaining: "If you clean up your toys, I’ll read you a book." Your child is not doing you a favor. Instead, channel Mary Poppins and say, "Let’s get this puzzle cleaned up so you can read that book!" If your children need more motivation, challenge them to do it fast or well, and compliment their work once it is done.
Children playing together
More Stuff Isn't More Fun
One surefire way to guarantee a stuff problem is to rear a child who is only stimulated by new purchases. Help your child learn to explore and create new uses for familiar toys. Educators talk about the benefits of open-ended toys, toys like building blocks that children can play with in infinite ways (as opposed to those annoying electronic toys where you push six buttons and you're done). I'm a fan of open-ended toys because children return to them again and again without getting bored. Be innovative. One of the best gifts I ever gave my young nephews was a stack of different-size cardboard boxes and some rolls of masking tape. Equipped with a box cutter, I followed their directions for what to cut where and helped them build spaceships, suits of armor, and even a castle. Bored children want new toys. New toys mean clutter. So look for toys that your child can explore in different ways for months, even years.
Child in a closet full of clothes
Happy to Grow Up
Clear out toys, clothes, and gear as your youngest child outgrows them. Don't sneak beloved toys out of the house in the dead of night and hope that your child forgets they ever existed. How would you feel if someone did that to you? You'd probably stop trusting the toy thief and keep a much closer guard on your remaining possessions. Instead, invite your child to pick a few toys that he has outgrown. Together, pick a charity or friend who will be your beneficiary. If saying good-bye is hard, take a picture so that your child can preserve the memory in an album of outgrown toys. Let giving away toys be a ritual by which you celebrate your child's growth.
Child's hands holding a wooden heart
Happy to Give
When you give toys away, don't miss the opportunity to instill in your child the value of giving. Even when he is young, he can enjoy the knowledge that he has made someone else happy. He can appreciate the fact that other children don't have the same advantages he has. One of my friends has established a ritual with his children where every birthday after they celebrate (and receive gifts) they go through their rooms and identify the items that they’ve outgrown and which can go to charity. I think it's a great tradition. Take your children to Goodwill or your local charity with the items that are being donated. Let them talk with the volunteers there so they understand where their donated item is going and who it will benefit. This is a wonderful lesson that promotes selflessness and instills an idea of giving that lasts a lifetime.
Family cleaning together
Take Joy in a Clutter-Free Home
As items leave your home, talk to your child about what the benefits are. There is more room to play. Toys are easier to find. Your home feels organized and well-kept. Cleaning up shouldn't be a cruel, adult-imposed torture. It is an action your child undertakes because she understands what she herself likes about the results.
Happy family at home
Clutter-Clearing Process
With these goals in mind, here is the process for freeing your family of the stuff that weighs you down and interferes with your vision.
  • Create a vision for your children's rooms and the space they share with the whole family.
  • Overcome obstacles that prevent you (and your kids) from letting go of items like toys, clothing, and artwork. If it doesn't serve your vision, it has to go.
  • Commit time, even if it's only twenty minutes and two garbage bags every day. If you stop making purchases and purge a small area of your home for twenty minutes, you'll be surprised at how quickly you start to see changes. One bag for trash, and one for items to be donated. The results are cumulative. Just two of you, twenty minutes a day for a week—that's fourteen bags of trash and fourteen bags of items destined for Goodwill.
  • Communicate with your children about your goals so they can understand and experience the benefits of being organized and build a foundation for a clutter-free life.
  • Set boundaries. You only have the space you have acknowledge and accept this. You can only have as many books as you have feet of bookshelf space. The same is true for toys, books, CDs, clothes, holiday decorations, and on and on and on.
  • Make changes. Only by changing the role stuff plays in your life and the lives of your children will you be able to stop buying more things and let go of the clutter that impedes your life.
  • Live in the present. Don’t hold on to "memory clutter" that takes up so much room that you can't live your life. Don't hold on to articles in hope of one day living in a bigger home. Your life right now is the priority. Fix it by striking the right balance.
  • Face fears. Sometimes clearing away the clutter with your children means that both or all of you have to learn to let go. Don't procrastinate by using your stuff to avoid dealing with reality.
  • Celebrate successes. As you clear stuff away, the whole family will feel a sense of calm and renewal. Enjoy the space you now have to enjoy one another.
Take Peter's quiz to find out how cluttered your family may be.