How to Happily Declutter with Kids
Updated: Nov 7, 2020
If you have children, I'm sure you won't be surprised at the amount of 'stuff' they can accumulate.
As well as the endless toys; they will collect anything - sticks, stones, leaves, broken bits from toys, drawings, artwork and craft materials - and then get upset when you try to get rid of any of it.
The thing is, the little nature finds kids love to hold onto fade away - leaves get crispy, and twigs snap - they run their course; they don't last forever. Toys run their course too.
"We need to get rid of some of these toys!". It's not a phrase that many (if any) kids want to hear and they will usually dig their heels in when it comes to getting rid of any of their things. But, as I wrote about in a previous post, there are significant benefits to decluttering and simplifying the toys.
I'm not going to pretend that decluttering your kid's things is always easy; It can feel overwhelming, to begin with. But I hope that the following tips will help to make the process an enjoyable one that you can share with your children.
TIPS FOR DECLUTTERING WITH CHILDREN
Disclaimer: First of all, I do want to mention that I am most definitely not a parenting expert, and these tips may not necessarily work for all children. I just wanted to share what has worked for our family and clients I have worked with. Children (and adults) come with all sorts of organising pre-sets and have wildly different approaches to tidiness, 'stuff' management and levels of attachment. You know your kids best!
BEST AGE TO START
I believe that children should start to learn about taking ownership of their personal belongings and their spaces as soon as possible.
As I mentioned above - all children are different - but the around the age of four is a good age to start to get them involved. Once children hit four, they seem to become a lot more aware of their belongings and are more likely to miss things and feel violated if you take them away without them knowing.
Their input at this age will be limited, but they can certainly help to pick out their favourite toys, look through a pile of their drawings or try a pot of markers to figure out which ones have dried up.
I know the thought of decluttering with a four-year-old may sound terrifying, and it would be so much easier without little ones around, but the work that you put in early on really does pay off in the long-run and will pay itself back for the rest of your child's life.
If your children are a lot older than four, the best time start is now 😉.
SHARE YOUR WHY
It's always good to start any project or edit with your why. It creates your goal and motivation to work towards.
Why do you need to declutter and organise the kid's stuff and spaces?
What's working, and what's not working for your family?
Do your kids have too much stuff?
How do you feel about the toys in your home?
How will having less improve your children's lives?
How will having less improve your life?
Set aside some time to talk to your child/children about what you would like to do - and, most importantly, why you would like to do it.
For little ones, the book 'Too Many Toys' by David Shannon, is a great ice breaker to help your child understand why you would like to declutter and donate some of their toys. (There are some free read-a-long versions on YouTube).
We try and share with our kids why we do what we do as much as possible. When we explain our 'why', we usually meet less resistance!
Never start the conversation with "You have too many toys; we need to get rid of some!". Their guard will go up straight away.
Explain how only having the things they love and need will benefit them, and the rest of the family. You will have more space to play; less to tidy up; it'll be easier to find your favourite toys because they won't be mixed up with the ones that you don't play with anymore...
If your kids are young, they probably won't appreciate the calm and joy a clutter-free and easily tidied home can bring, so it's your job to verbalise those feelings and help them to understand the benefits.
It's not always easy to say goodbye to things we once loved, but remind them that letting go of old things can make room for new. As long as they are given a respectful explanation, most children will embrace and even enjoy going through their things to choose what stays and what goes.
Explain what you have learnt from your own decluttering journey.
Lead by Example
Involve your children in your own declutter session first. It can be your sock drawer or your kitchen Tupperware cupboard. Let then help to sort, but also engage them in conversation about why you are decluttering, how you decided that those things needed to go and what you will do with them. It will help them to understand the concept and the decluttering process.
The more your children see you easily parting with things, the easier it will be for them to do the same. And even if they do dig their heels in at first, you're sowing good seeds for them in older life.
You can't expect your child to let go of some of their stuff if you're drowning in excess clothes or craft supplies. It doesn't mean that you have to have decluttered entirely before you can start with your kids; just that you need to realise that your clutter and habits being displayed to your children shapes their thoughts about stuff.
Show them that we all need to let go of stuff that isn't needed or loved anymore - adults included!
Plan time in your calendar for a decluttering session in advance, and tell your kids to let the idea sink in - don't just spring it on them.
PLAN YOUR TIME AND DON'T RUSH
Decluttering is best done when you're not feeling rushed, so plan time in your calendar for a decluttering session (and tell your kids to let the idea sink in - don't just spring it on them).
The length of your decluttering session is going to be dependent on lots of different factors. Including; the age of your child, how you and your kids feel physically and emotionally, the size of space and how much stuff there is in it.
Decision making is tiring and can be challenging for many kids, so don't push it for the sake of trying to get it all 'done' in one go.
Try blocking an hour at a time, to begin with, to see how you go.
Break it down into smaller projects. Set a timer for 10 minutes and sort through just T-Shirts or puzzles together, or choose one drawer or shelf.
An older child or teenage may be able to declutter and clean a messy room, all in one day, but that is asking a lot of a young child. The smaller the child, the smaller the increments of time you should work in one go. (A lot of the adults I work with can only handle 3 hours of decluttering at a time).
Make sure that you allow kids enough time to think and not feel rushed to decide which toys they are happy to part with. The more time and thought they can put in, the fewer regrets they will have about their decisions later. The more emotional and sentimental your kids are - the slower you will need to go (more about that in a minute).
Pay attention to your focus and energy levels, and take breaks where necessary. It's essential for the kids, but also us adults too. If you can feel yourself, or your children, getting low on patience, irritated or stressed - stop and come back it when you're feeling more refreshed.
With our daugher, we started doing small bursts of decluttering and then stop, before she or I lost it emotionally. This is so important because you don't want them to see decluttering as this awful, stressful experience.
Patience is really important - a big smile will help too!
KEEP THE DECLUTTERING PROCESS positive, CALM AND CLEAR
So that they know what to expect; Explain the process in an uplifting and positive way. It can be fun!
When decluttering with children, it's really important to have a clear, simple system in place and instructions for them to follow.
Focus on one type of thing, or area, at a time.
Create clearly labelled areas or containers for each of your clutter categories - Rubbish, Recycling, Donate/Give, Different Room...
Remove as many distractions as possible. Adults and teenagers may enjoy cleaning and tidying to music, but that can be overstimulating for young children.
Make the process as enjoyable for them as possible. What you don't want is for your child to associate the decluttering and tidying of their spaces with fights with parents, emotional stress and negativity.
Think about what your kids are seeing in you during this process.
SORT THINGS INTO 'LIKE FOR LIKE' CATEGORIES
If your kids are anything like mine, the clutter ends up being a mish-mash of stuff. Toys, paper, crafts, nature, food, random little things that belong to you that you thought you had lost ages ago - and who knows what else, all end up together.
Grouping together similar things helps to make the decluttering process easier. For example, get all the cuddly toys together, cars together, dolls together, building blocks and so on...
Use as much as space as possible to layout your categories and label with a sticky note - most kids enjoy playing this 'game'!.
You can then work on one pile or category at a time.
Once you have decluttered each category, these related items can them be stored and contained together - all organised.
do it with them, rather than for them
Don't wade into their messy rooms with bin bags and threaten to chuck everything in. It might feel very tempting, but it isn't going to help in the long term. Working with them and teaching them to declutter has many more benefits.
You are helping them with the valuable life skill of being intentional about the things that you have in your life, and also getting to engage in good conversation and bonding time with your child.
Instead of it being a negative experience, where you're the mean parent who makes them get rid of all their toys, it becomes a bonding process.
It helps you to get to know your child and gain deeper insight into their thoughts and habits around 'stuff'.
It is going to help them to be more mindful and appreciative of the items they own and teach them about the responsibility of ownership.
It reduces the risk of removing things that they like more than you think. (Continuously decluttering toys that our children have genuine attachments to, makes them more likely to form hoarding habits and develop unreasonable attachments to things in the future).
So, involve your children in the decluttering process as much as is practical (depending on age, etc.), spend some quality time together and allow them to make their own decisions.
Note: If a young child's room has become very messy and cluttered, I understand that practicality and ideals need to meet in the middle to make things happen, so, in my opinion, as long as they understand what is happening in their space, if they decide to tune out and play while you declutter near them, I think that is okay. Make sure that they are present for some of the decisions to let them practice the skills, but a four-year-old does not need to decide on every piece of rubbish or broken toy.
TEACHING TO LET GO
The art of letting go takes practice. It gets a little easier each time you do it. Its the same for adults and children.
As well as clarity in the decluttering process; conversation is key to a successful decluttering session.
Reflect on each toy/items and discuss the reason why it might be the right time to let go and reiterate the benefits of decluttering they will feel afterwards.
The conversation helps to give them the space to process their feelings. At the end of the chat about each item, you'll get to know whether they are ready to let go of an object. (If not, don't worry - you can revisit at the next declutter session).
Start the conversation by asking questions such as:
What are your favourite toys?
Which if these things makes you happy?
Why do you want to keep...?
Questions to ask yourself;
Is this toy adding to my child's life in a positive way?
Is this toy played with regularly?
Is this toy valued? And would it be looked for if it went missing?
Why do we have these toys?
Try always to use a positive tone to speak about things, even about the ones that you are letting go. It helps to teach the important life lesson that we do not have to hate something to let it go. We can let go of the good stuff too.
"We do not have to hate something to let it go. We can let go of the good stuff too".
Say goodbye! It might feel silly to say goodbye to objects, but it helps in the process of learning how to declutter and free ourselves from the items that we hold onto simply because we 'should'; or because there are memories attached to them.
When I talked to the kids about going through their possessions, I explained to them that it's okay to feel a bit sad about having to let some things go. It can be hard to say goodbye to something we once loved. But that we don't also need to hold onto something just for the sake of holding onto it.
Talk to them about where their donation items might be going, and who they might be helping or bringing happiness to. They are sometimes more open to letting go of stuff they don't love anymore when they know someone else will enjoy it.
TIP: Don't throw kids 'donate' toys into bin bags - even if you are just going to drop them off at the charity shop. Seeing their once-loved toys in a black bin bag can leave them with negative feelings. Kids are more likely to give away their toys if they feel they are going to be loved and cared for in a new home, rather than seeing them in a bin bag.
focus on the child - NOT THE ROOM, OR THE STUFF IN IT
Your initial priority when you are working on a decluttering project with children is to put your focus on the child and not on making the space look perfect. Forget about that Pinterest-perfect room - for now.
Being a parent is all about balance and juggling - in this case, it's trying your best to tune into your child and not just to think about how much stuff you need to get out of the room as quickly as you possibly can.
Be mindful of the emotions that they may be feeling. For some children, it's an easy process, and for others, it's much more challenging.
Never get upset, angry or show any negative feelings. Understand that it may be hard for children to separate with some of the things that may have once loved.
Decluttering should be fun and not a punishment. Try not to say things like "There are so many children who don't have any toys, which of yours can you give away?" The process should be about them, and what things matter to them, not making them feel bad that they have more than other children.
We need to respect our children and allow them to declutter in a way that best suits their needs. If it's hard for them to things go - that's fine - don't force them and make a big issue out of it. Allow them to keep the items and agree to look at them another time. Decluttering is always an ongoing process.
RESPECT THEIR FEELINGs
Put yourself in their shoes. Decluttering can be an emotional process and harder for some personality types than others.
Try not to tell them how to feel about their toys - don't impose your feelings of what's important and what's not. We all have our own relationships and feelings about the things that we own.
They might not care one bit about an expensive toy that their grandparents brought them, but a small plastic toy that a friend gave to them at school may mean the world to them.
Sometimes kids need validation of their feelings towards things.
Items that you consider sentimental may not be to them (and vice versa). If it's sentimental to you, and YOU have to keep it, pop it in a memory box out of the child's space.
Take photos of favourite sentimental items, so that you can look back on them without having to keep the object.
...AND YOUr own FEELINGS
Something that surprised me when we started to simplify our kid's stuff and spaces is that I struggled with finding value in things way more than the kids did! They were often much quicker to add to the donation pile than I was.
As they have got older, I have found that it's sometimes healthier for me to let them get on with it so that I am not tempted to micromanage their decisions. To let them make their own decisions, uninfluenced by Mummy emotions.
When I am working with clients, it's very common to see a child making a decision on giving a toy away and the parent not wanting to let it go!
Sometimes letting go of toys is harder on the parents than the children - especially those who find it difficult that their children are growing so quickly and are not babies anymore.
If your child is happy to declutter something - don't keep asking if they are sure. Show them what it means to stick to a decision. It might not be what you would have chosen, but it's still progress.
If you are a very emotional parent and find sentimental value in everything, it may be best for you to get some additional help so you can walk away and take a break if needed.
For parents, there is usually some kind of guilt when decluttering with children. It isn't our stuff - it was given to or brought for our children to make them happy, so we feel guilty about wanting to get rid of it. There's also guilt about getting rid of things when we know how much they cost.
We worry that we are going to upset them and that they will miss something once it's gone or fears that we are making the wrong decisions.
Accept a little bit of decluttering. You might want to get rid of 75% of the clutter, but be willing to settle for less if that's what your child can handle in one session. The most important thing is the process - not the end result. If you were just after an instant result, you could bag everything up yourself. The goal here is to teach your kids how and why to declutter.
When my son was younger, I would give him a pile of 50 papers and magazines, and he might choose only to recycle 5, but the five is better than nothing, and he gave the decluttering muscle a little workout.
It was also very common when sorting through toys that he would decide he only wanted to give away four small Lego blocks!
Think of the long term benefits and try not to get frustrated when the result for that session does not quite look like your ideal.
Purging and decluttering is an ongoing process, and is usually best done in rounds. Round one may be an initial purge, and it may take a few more rounds/sessions to declutter everything that you don't want anymore.
While your child's decluttering efforts may not meet the standards you had personally set in your mind for their spaces and items, still praise them for the work they put in.
Always encourage every effort - no matter how small. Give plenty of praise for all their hard work and decisions. Share with them the specific ways in which you are proud of them.
This will give them a confidence boost and allow them to feel proud of their achievements.
The chances of long-term success and their ongoing involvement is going to be improved if they feel good about their efforts.
Keep reiterating the benefits of the newly decluttered space. "Look how easy it is to open your drawer; it'll be much easier to find your pencils now; there's room on the bookshelf to put your books away..."
Keep the motivation to stay tidy going.
Also, don't forget to give yourself some praise and encouragement for the progress you have made together.
Reward them for decluttering with a trip out or an experience - not to the toy shop!
Children learn in lots of different ways, and sometimes it feels like a real struggle, and you're just not getting anywhere ... until you do.
And sometimes the progress is so gradual that they are learning, but you just aren't noticing..until you finally see it.
Children aren't going to learn from one exposure to decluttering. Give them regular opportunities to declutter. It may not feel like a big momentous occasion every time. It may be a little here, and a little there, A drawer here and a shelf there - it adds up.
I diarise regular kids declutter sessions throughout the year - just before their birthdays and Christmas to concentrate on toys and general stuff, and May and Oct for their wardrobes.