How to Get Rid of Kid Clutter

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An interview with Carolyn Koehnline, M.A., L.M.H.C.

How did we end up with so much stuff? As much as I try to be one of those minimalistic-minded mamas with a clutter-free home, birthdays happen. Grandparents happen. Things—lots and lots of physical things—have a way of coming into our homes, filling our closets and taking up space in the corners of our lives. I find that the more stuff my kids have, the more stuff they want. Letting go of it all is tough. I asked psychotherapist and Confronting Your Clutter author Carolyn Koehnline for some tips.  – Allison Ellis



How did our lives get so cluttered?

One of the biggest themes I see with families these days is that people are overwhelmed. They don’t get around to weeding things out. Our culture is very consumer-oriented. There’s a focus on bringing things into the home but rarely do we put an emphasis on letting go. Therefore things pile up and making choices about what stays and what goes can become very emotional. In addition, brain wiring, upbringing, life traumas, and what life stage we’re in can all greatly affect how we feel about and behave with our things.

What does this mean for kids?

Just as we get overwhelmed by having too many things, so do children. It’s especially difficult for them because they don’t yet know how to integrate or determine what should stay and what should go. There’s also a lot of shame surrounding clutter – for example, when parents say things like “clean your room!” it becomes something that’s dreaded – or a source of embarrassment – instead of a part of life that can be embraced.

What can parents do to set a good example?

Being kind to yourself and creating positive associations with letting go is extremely important. Releasing the things in your life that are no longer of use or bringing you joy shouldn’t feel like deprivation. You can hire a professional organizer to help. You can also involve your children in the process and say, “it’s hard for me to let go of this dress that no longer fits me” and let them help you make decisions.  They’ll learn that there are emotions associated with letting go.

When should families ‘clean house’ – annually, seasonally? More often?

I encourage families to discuss timing together so that it can be a positive experience for everyone; more importantly, it can be a wonderful opportunity to talk about what their ideal home environment looks like and feels like. Then, you can begin creating it together.  Just before –or just after– an occasion, such as a child’s birthday, is a great time to sort through belongings and talk to the child about letting things go in order to create room and space for new things to come in.

What can we do to make organizing and putting things away more fun?

Preschools and teachers are great at this. They set a specific “clean up time,” and may even play music.  Children are given a task that they know how to do and can do by themselves, and everyone helps so that it’s a group effort. Therefore “clean up time” becomes an activity that is fun and efficient. You can recreate this at home by setting the timer, playing some upbeat music and involve your children in the task of putting away things in their proper places. This teaches them values and creates healthy habits that will last a lifetime.

If kids get to make money off the toys they sell (say at a garage sale or on Craigslist), are we as parents sending the wrong message if we allow them to buy more “stuff” with the proceeds? Is there a way around this?

How about rewarding with some experiences instead or stuff? For example, the whole family could commit to weeding out and having a garage sale to raise money towards a trip or special outing. Or a child who does a major releasing of clutter from her room might get help with painting and rearranging it to suit her tastes. Also, sometimes kids do get very invested in a cause, like donating toys to a homeless shelter.

How can we get kids to embrace the process and become more willing to let things go?

Yes, kids often need some prompting. In general you want to build positive associations with the process of de-cluttering, and teach that what you’re making room for is not more stuff, but more life.

Carolyn Koehnline, LMHC is the author of Confronting Your Clutter, and has a private practice in Bellingham, Washington. She has been offering psychotherapy, clutter assistance and classes since 1992.

This article was originally published July 24, 2014

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Posted in: Expert Advice, Modern Parenting