From sneaking to teaching (more thoughts on kids and stuff)

I had just pinned it to my Just for Mama Pinterest board, the pretty watercolor flowers in the background of a message I hold close to my heart – If it doesn’t nourish your soul, get rid of it – when five minutes later, someone left a comment: “And if it nourishes the souls of your children???”

Ah yes. The struggle. It is real.

For those of us who crave the uncluttered and who sometimes shake angry fists in the air with Littlest Pet Shop creatures underfoot, the tension between the ideals of simplicity and the realities of family life can reach a fever pitch. And when that happens to me, I usually start marching around the house with a garbage bag, throwing in the things I want to throw out.

Yet as my children have gotten older (my older two children are now ten and seven, and our twins are two), I’ve become highly convicted about how much I was quietly sneaking out the stuff of theirs that I just couldn’t stand to look at/put away/trip over anymore.

Yes, that’s me. The one who wrote so many years ago about how as parents, we get to decide what stays in our homes. I have to admit, that philosophy was much easier when my children were little, easily distracted, and not quite as vocal about which toys stayed with us and which toys found a new home.

But I recently read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and it caused to me evaluate what I am really teaching my children about stuff when I am the only one making decisions about their stuff.

I was inspired to know that Marie began her quest for peace through thoughtful, organized living when she was a young girl. It’s so hard for me to step back and see how much my children are really capable of internalizing and acting on; when I look at their big brown eyes and kiss their sweet faces, I still see my little babies. But they are not little babies, and in fact, my oldest is over the halfway point of how long she’ll live at home.

When it comes to teaching them how to make thoughtful choices about their physical belongings, I’ve got some catching up to do.

In other areas of life, I am focused and intentional in teaching them what I want them to know. We talk often about how our family is a team, and we all work together to give it our best try at winning each day. They know I get a little serious-eyed and intense when it comes to teaching them about their bodies and who can touch them where and when. Many conversations go down about how powerful words are and how we all need to use our words to show love for those around us.

So why have I skimped on teaching them about the enjoyment and peacefulness that comes from keeping only that which nourishes our souls?

The primary answer to that question is that it’s just easier and more efficient for me to curate their stuff for them. Have you had a conversation with a seven year old lately about what in their room brings them joy? That level of zen-like patient endurance seems elusive to me. Just let me get in there and do it myself while they are at school.

But if I’m being honest, part of the reason I am still decluttering for them is that I don’t want to relinquish the control of letting them choose. I realize this is in direct opposition to everything else I teach them; in all of life, I want them to feel empowered and to experience agency and to own their own choices. Yet I’ve been hesitant to let go of control in this area because I’m fairly sure there will be a disconnect between what I want them to keep and what they will choose to keep. It feels uncomfortable to navigate that divide, and so by doing it myself, I’ve avoided it altogether.

Finally, the most disconcerting aspect of this habit of mine is the one that is most powerfully fueling my desire to change. When I was a child, no one taught me how to be thoughtful with my belongings. My own parents are far from hoarders, but they are certainly not minimalists either. I have so often wished that the habits of simple living were ingrained in me from my earliest years, and now I have the chance to redeem that by teaching my own children now all that I would have loved to have learned back then.

So starting now, I’m starting fresh. No more sneaking toys out of the house to be donated. From now on, it’s going to be me partnering with them to learn side-by-side what life looks when we are surrounded only by that which delights us. We’ll learn as we go, one stuffed animal at a time.

Reading Time:

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43 Comments

  1. Megan

    Definitely the older the kids get the more involved they should be in the process of decluttering. I always started the process with taking everything out and then asking them what their top 10 favourite things were to keep instead of what to toss. After we had what I thought were their favourites then we talked about what to donate. As they got older they were more motivated to get rid of stuff if they could have a garage sale and keep the proceeds!! One child has always been more sentimental and more likely to hoard (like her dad) and one more minimalist (like me). The sentimental child was convinced to give up all her stuffed animals at 13 when a friend of mine told her they could go to refugee children who had absolutely no toys. She just wanted them to go to good homes. Win win on both our parts!

    • Megan Tietz

      My daughters are total opposites on this, too. And I think the idea of finding a good home for things appeals to all of us Idealist types. Thanks for sharing your experience in this!

  2. Lisa Donovan

    AAAHG! Right in the heart. You just described me with my 8 year old. And, we are working on this as a family.
    Thank you for this thoughtful piece.

    • Megan Tietz

      Truly, it makes the work more meaningful and more lasting when families can work together and be on the same page as much as possible. We’re definitely still working on that part!

  3. Rea

    This is me with my 10 year old! I learned several years ago that I couldn’t just sneak his stuff out, he remembers all of it and gets really upset if I make decisions for him. So periodically we will sort and organize and try to get rid of a few things. And he tells me “Mom, you see junk, I see memories.” So I’m trying to learn how to let him keep the memories in a way that brings him joy. It is a work in progress, but this is a good reminder that I need to be intentional about teaching it.

    • Megan Tietz

      That has been the hardest part for me with MY stuff – the memories. The Kondo book shares some specific ways to reframe that and it has been so helpful!

  4. kariane

    I think you’re right; it’s so important to involve kids in these decisions. In our home, we try involve our kids in these decisions, especially as it involves their space and creations (though it would be far easier and much faster to whirl through and do it myself). For instance, my 6-year-old makes prolific amounts of art work that tend to accumulate everywhere. I wrote about decluttering art work with him here: http://everydaymindfulliving.com/simplify-saturday-kids-art-decluttering/

    • Megan Tietz

      Oh yes, their artwork! My younger daughter is the same way. Thanks so much for sharing your link!

  5. Rachel

    I appreciate the sentiment behind this, I think: that children must eventually take responsibility for letting go of things and for taking care of those things that they choose to keep.

    But, having read the Kondo book, I have an entirely different outlook, no doubt informed by the fact that she and I share entirely different worldviews.

    No THING nourishes my soul. Truly. And, as the mother of eleven, it is important to me that I impart THAT message to my children. All of this stuff around us? It can be useful, it can be beautiful, it can be necessary. But it can NOT nourish our souls.

    “Toys [dishes, furniture, clothing, etc.] don’t last forever.” That’s a quote often heard around here: from me, from my husband, from the children!

    Far better to invest in those things that WILL last.

    Just my .02, and it may not even be worth that.

    • Megan Tietz

      Excellent insight, Rachel! Thanks so much for adding to the conversation.

    • Laura

      Your comment is worth way more than 2 cents. Keep doing the good work! We feel the same at our home and I doubt I would bother to read the book referenced in the article as such. 🙂 As for what is written in this article, I agree. We are blessed with a little one (6 years old) who likes to give away his toys and such so it has been easy to date. He is getting older though so we shall see if he continues to be so easy in this department and I strive to teach him that, while we are to be good stewards of what we are given, no belonging is truly ours or even necessary. They come and go. I like the idea of being intentional with him regarding the teaching of all of this, but my husband and I mostly try and lead by example.

  6. Missy Robinson

    For years I have been encouraging this habit of cultivating among my now 11, 9 and 7 year olds. It’s interesting how some personalities value items more than others. Another tool, for us, has been to regularly clean and store items. The process of touching, caring and storing things forces us to determine which items are worth the effort.

    • Megan Tietz

      Personality and temperament play SUCH a huge role in this. I’ve tried to honor that in my children (and myself) as we go about this work. And YES to learning to actually care for the things we hang onto!

  7. Jill Foley

    so much wisdom here…I stopped sneaking things a couple years ago. I still will throw out stuff that they leave laying around if it’s been there a while (several days) and I’ve asked them repeatedly to find a place for it. To me, their lack of response shows that it’s not important to them.

    I have one pack rat and one minimalist, but both are learning that they just can’t keep everything. I think it’s a valuable lesson to learn.

    • Megan Tietz

      Yes, learning to curate stuff is significantly harder for us pack-rat-types. And I agree totally on the lack of response – if you are about something, you can take the time to get it back to where it belongs!

  8. Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm

    *shifty eyes* Five is too young, right?

    I mean I love this idea in theory, but in practice she’s going to ditch all the Melissa & Doug toys and keep the dollar store tiaras.

    This is even more incentive for my plans to do a BIG clean-through over summer break. The spring has been too frenetic, but since summer temps mean staying inside in the AC most of the day anyway… Maybe we’ll have some of these hard conversations!

    • Megan Tietz

      We are embarking on a big clean out right now, too. It’s kind of horrifying how MUCH stuff accumulates in such a SHORT amount of time!

    • Rebecca

      The Melissa and Doug toys are clutter if no one is using them! I have had to learn the hard way that the beautiful wooden toys that allowed open ended play didn’t actually help at our house. My autistic sons needed more realistic role play toys and, shock horror, merchandise related to TV programmes as this helped scaffold their developing play skills. They can now both play quite imaginatively with their “bits of plastic tat”. The wooden toys have mostly been sold on; the wooden garage and wooden train set still get used a bit.

    • Alissa

      This! I think this is a big challenge for me – I want them to keep the toys that seem more *valuable* in my eyes. Yes, it’s totally a matter of perspective, but so hard to allow in practice.

      I’m finding that maybe I need to find “a good home” for those high quality toys so that *I* can let go of them. I’ve come up with the idea of donating them to places where we already are – M&D toys to the kids room at church, un-loved board games to my son’s afterschool care program. I guess in my mind, then they’ll still have access to those nice toys that were given to us as gifts. (No, it doesn’t align very well with having a pure giving heart… but it might be what *I* need to do in order to reduce the overflow in our house.)

      • Rebecca

        Alissa – that’s exactly what I did. I donated the toys to the charity that runs my sons’ preschool and respite service. Maybe you could reframe it as sharing rather than giving, because sharing means you are still allowed to use it too!?!

        • Rebecca

          I also sold some of the toys through a second hand clothes and toy agency. We can use the money to buy sensory toys instead.

  9. Mab

    My mom is this naturally clean and organize person who had a hard time teaching what is so natural to her and would declutter when we, the kids, weren’t around so I didn’t really ever learn. As an adult I’ve worked on it especially since being married to someone who really appreciates an uncluttered home and leading example with our kids. I started when my boys were 5 and 4 having them decide what to purge as an effort to sell to earn monies towards a family pet- I was amazed on how much they were willing to give up and some of it were things I like more than them. Over the years we practice decluttering and organizing that at 12 and 11 they are very capable by themselves (my 11 is not a naturally clean and organize person so he has help with the clothes still, he just wouldn’t care ever to do it right). My goal is to have them grow up to adults who don’t get asked to move out by roommates due to slob habits.

  10. Bethany V.

    My daughter gets attached to everything (at age 6) even down to those cheap plastic toys you get at the dentist office and every paper she’s ever colored in Sunday school. But she is terrible at cleaning up after herself and I’m tired of drowning in mess. (We’ve tried to keep toys minimal but we live in a very small house). My three year old is more the out of sight out of mind type, who also refuses to clean up.
    My daughter routinely complains that she has “too much stuff” to clean up in her room but doesn’t want to get rid of anything. I’m trying to institute the new policy of if you don’t pick it up, it goes away. But it’s still a ton of work for me. I used to save everything, but as I get older and live longer in small spaces (with an ever increasing number of people) I find that I really do need to be strict about only keeping those things that are functional or beautiful. But how do I communicate this to my kids.

    • Margaret

      Ahh! This is my 6-year old daughter exactly! I haven’t figured it out either 🙁

    • Sarah

      When I was a girl, the “Toy Fairy” would visit our house. She would collect all the toys that weren’t put away and would give them to kids who would appreciate them and take care of them. She now visits our house once a week.
      I don’t have to plead or cajole for anyone to clean, and I don’t have to be the bad guy. They pick up or don’t, and then get the consequence that follows their choice.

    • Katieliz

      That’s my 8YO daughter, too….At room cleaning time (which I typically have to help with), I routinely hear “it’s too much!” And I’d be happy to help with that problem 😉 I agree with the heart of this article and want to implement that in our home, yet with this sweetie it’s going to be a painful process!

  11. Alissa

    Bethany, one thing that has worked well for us (very few strategies have!) is to group items and ask my kids to pick their favorite items out of the group to keep. That seems to work well for the cheap trinkets – they all go in a pile on the floor and you choose out your favorite 5 to keep. Also works well for art and school work – everything collects in a bin throughout the school year (or for 6 months or whatever) and then we group things and the kids choose to keep their “best two paintings.” Easier to let go of the 15 Sunday School drawings when you get to keep your best one.

  12. HeyBeckyJ

    Shortly after Christmas, I went through toys with my kids (ages 4 & 2) to find some donation candidates. I pulled out a bunch that I thought could be given away, and let them “save” one or two from the pile, if they wanted, and asked for other candidates if they wanted more than that. I kept the boxes in the garage for about two weeks before giving them away, just to see if they asked for anything back (since this was the first time I had let them help with this purge). My daughter “rescued” only one item on the way to the donation center. Now, it is so much easier for them to clean-up their toys, because they aren’t overflowing the shelves. Definitely consider the whole project a success. I really only gave them input because I figured it would help deter some whining, but after reading this, I’m encouraged to continue like this, knowing that I’m helping them to curate their own stuff.

  13. Sharon

    My brother and sister-in-law have tried (often to no avail) to keep the toys that flow into the house to a minimum (grandparents, friends, parties etc often make this tough). The other day when my 7 year old nephew and I were out and about at the grocery store he asked if he could get a toy. I said we were there specifically for food for dinner not toys. He insisted as only 7 year olds can do and I asked him why he wanted another toy when he had so many at home and his answer was simply “I want a new toy”. Very direct! We shopped for the food and talked about wanting vs. needing all the way out to the parking lot. I’m pretty tough when it comes to wheedling (years as a teacher) so there was no new toy. He then saw a little green plastic thingie bobber type toy on the ground in the parking lot and tried to explain to me that he NEEDED that toy (so much for the philosophical talk). I countered with the fact that it was garbage and not a toy. We could pick it up and throw it away but that was it. We made it home without a toy (or piece of garbage) and he moved on without a hitch but that was a 30 minute verbal wrangle that just amazes me every time he does it. Kids have such stamina when it comes to what they want or think they need. Parents have my deepest sympathies on this issue!

    • Courtney

      My 5-year-old loves to read the book “Too Many Toys!” by David Shannon. We haven’t fully taken on the challenge of sorting through them all but this is a great start to learning the process 🙂

  14. Rachel

    My boys are 3 and 5 and I’m honest with them. Our family lives minimally, there is only so much space in our small home and we can’t keep everything. We built shelves into their closet to store toys in our ‘toy library’ and we use space as our limiter, if the shelves are too ful, it’s time to purge! After Christmas, they joined me in reorganizing their toys and deciding what should stay and what could go. It’s not always easy and they sometimes will cry because we’re getting rid of a ‘favorite toy’ but we talk about how it’s just stuff and sometimes I’ll tell them ‘if you really miss it and are still thinking about it in a month, we can replace it.’ I’ve never had to replace anything because they forget about those toys because they really weren’t favorites! Both of my boys also have ‘special drawers’ that contain their treasures. Any special artwork, papers, little collections go into these drawers. My oldest has lots of papers from church and some Star Wars toys in his and my youngest has a little nature collection of rocks, leaves and sticks! I fully agree that the child needs to be respected when it comes to their possessions – even if they choose mass marketed character items over heirloom quality wooden toys!

  15. Dee

    We went through a major flood (Katrina) when my son was 3. He was really impacted by that and at times cried over toys lost for a few years after, so I never snuck away toys (even as I took some grief from friends over his inability to let anything go. He bordered on having hoarding tendencies.

    Last fall, he eased up on keeping everything. He packed up toys for a fundraiser rummage sale. Unfortunately the sale was postponed and they didn’t leave the house until this spring. He was fine with it until a day later when he started thinking about this or that toy and he started to cry (he’s 13). I felt heartbroken for him. I know, intellectually, we cannot keep toys indefinitely. But I also so understand this meaning he and we all give to things. I even woke up in the middle of the night feeling loss for one of the items (a fold up match box kit that was ideal for taking to restaurants).

    We are big feelers. We assign meaning and import to things that are with us at points in our lives. And there’s pain when you give it away. I commend his growth and understand his nostalgia and sadness.

  16. Michele

    Inspiring, thank you! And good luck!

  17. Anna

    I love this angle. We work on teaching our kids (5 & 2) to respect property, so this is just an extension of that. My kids don’t even really play with toys; at this stage they like puzzles, games, playing pretend, reading together, being outside. But what about minimizing what comes into the house in the first place? This topic has been covered here on AoS before with regard to the holidays. We celebrate birthdays in our family…but we do not give birthday parties for many reasons, and keeping clutter away is one of them.

    • Megan Tietz

      Yes, it’s true! We have covered this topic quite a few times (I know I’ve written on it more than once!) because I think that in our culture, those of us who want to live with less have a hard time knowing what to do when friends and family don’t get that. We are trying so hard to minimize what comes into the house, but it’s still astounding what makes its way in!

  18. Angela @ Setting My Intention

    thanks for your honesty and reflection Megan. I can relate to your hesitancy over giving up control. I too am going to start honing my kids skills in editing their belongings. I actually think they will be better at knowing what sparks joy than me!

    • Megan Tietz

      Thank you for hearing me in this, Angela!

  19. Juanita

    HI,

    I am going through a major purge right now and that is after a few years of downsizing and minimalizing. I am at the point of contemplating all that you’ve addressed here and appreciate your perspective. I feel like I need to get to the point of actual minimalism to then teach from there after. A clean slate so to speak…This article inspires me to go that next final step to reach the clean slate to begin a meaningful dialog with my kids and hopefully my spouse as it is most definitely a journey.

    Thanks!
    Juanita

  20. Melissa

    I totally appreciate your honesty here. And I GET IT! My son is 7, and up until now, I really have had to take the reigns when it comes to de-cluttering his room. He’d seriously keep every scrap of paper and every empty box just because he “might use it for something sometime.” When he gets the idea of “keep only those things that bring you joy,” we’ll go there. But for now, he honestly believes that an empty shoebox brings him joy. I applaud your efforts here, though. And I’ll be there…right behind you…as soon as my kiddo can comprehend the concept of simple living. That goes for my husband, too.

  21. Rosanne Green

    I have started this process, and I was following the advice in the Kondo book to “stay in my own lane” and do you know my eighteen-year old son (ENFP) came to me and said, “can we do that thing you’ve been talking about where we go through all my clothes and ask ‘does this spark joy?”?” I dropped everything and said, “yes, sir!” My husband (ISTJ) said, “can you do that? Are you going to run your whole day off course?” I assured him I would make it work because can you believe?!?!
    (Side note: I have loved your podcasts on personality styles and taking the test on 16personalities is spreading like wildfire among our family and friends!)

  22. Karen

    The constant battle against clutter in our house is difficult as I am one of the worst offenders! lol. But I have never thrown out anything belonging my kids without their permission. Its about respect – not respect for things but respect for the people my children are and for what they value. What is important to them may look like rubbish to me! Eventually both of them have become excellent ‘thrower-outers’. I think your decision to work with your children to teach them the skills and values that you have is a very wise one!

  23. Jane

    Thanks so much for this thought provoking post. The day I read it I was about to embark on a major declutter of my kids rooms while they were at school! This post challenged me to wait until the weekend and to include them (they are 5 and 6). We talked it through and got stuck in together and it was actually fun (and interesting to see what they valued). When I explained that their toys and books would go to other children who needed them, this helped them see why they didn’t need, for example, lots of teddy bears. I was blown away by their generosity and willingness to relinquish! After we had finished (not beforehand) I said that we would weigh the bags and I gave them a little “reward” (stickers for their album collection) according to the amount of kilos . They had so much fun looking at the scales and adding up the weight of each bag! So thank you so much for your timely post

  24. Erika

    For us the stuffed animals are the worst. My 4 year old son and 10 year old daughter are good at deciding which of theirs to keep but my 6 year old daughter…yikes! She has no less than 47 stuffed animals on her bed and each one has a name and a back story and she L.O.V.E.S each one like it is really her pet. I have tried putting animals in the attic for months at a time thinking she won’t notice and giving them away after several months only to have her come back 6 months later sobbing “Violet is missing, my purple puppy dog. I can’t find her anywhere.” Then I have to tell her I gave Violet to Habitat and I feel terrible.

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