Helping kids pare down their stuff

After my last blog post about keeping things ‘just in case’, I’ve had a few people come up to me to ask about what to do when the person hanging on to things isn’t the person reading my posts.  How do we help kids and spouses let go of what we deem to be superfluous?  I’d like to offer some suggestions on how to help your children let go of belongings they no longer use need or love in this post.  And if the primary source of disorganization isn’t your children?  Well, the beauty of organization is that it can be quite contagious, so that if you and your children are becoming more organized, your spouse will likely want in on that special juju.  And if not, well at least you’ll have converted the future generation!

While I definitely don’t claim to have all the secrets, I’ve got some really good ones to share with you today.  At a recent Professional Organizers of Canada local monthly meeting, a seasoned organizer shared tips learned from the Institute for Challenging Disorganization with us on how to help chronically disorganized customers.  Since I tend to deal primarily with families, what struck me was that these tips could really be applicable to children in my day-to-day practice.  While people challenged by chronic disorganization tend to have a past history of failed attempts at disorganization, children are at the other end of the spectrum and present a blank canvas of organizing experience.   Yet, even when one or both parents are organized, we seldom think to teach these skills to our kids since we often assume that they either have the same skills as we do or that they’ll learn through osmosis!  But organizing, while some have innate skills, can and should be taught.  

Coming back to Julie Morgenstern’s SPACE acronym which I referred to in my previous post, which stands for sort, purge, assign a home, containerize and equalize, the challenge for children will often be in the purge category.  Like those challenged by chronic disorganization, children tend to have very emotional attachment to their belongings, and the typical logical organization methods often simply don’t work with them.  So certain techniques can be used instead.

The first one I’ve had the most success is the ‘Friend/Stranger/Acquaintance Game’ approach to pairing down belongings, as taught by Judith Kolberg.  With this technique you can ask your child, as young as seven or eight years old, to put the belongings you are wishing to organize (and partially get rid of!) into one of these three categories.  Which of these stuffed animals/books/trucks/art projects would you consider to be close friends, or in other words, are so special to you that you can’t imagine not having?  Which of them are strangers, or items you don’t feel like you’ve really played with?  Which are acquaintances: you’ve played with them occasionally, read them, but they aren’t part of your must-have collection and they may have over-stayed their welcome?  Depending on how much stuff your child may have, and how much space can be allocated to the categories, you can then agree to part with the ‘’strangers’’ and also with some or all of the ‘’acquaintances’’.  This technique should work well with children who seem to exaggerate the feelings they have for their belongings.

A second similar technique when children have strong attachment to their ‘’stuff’’ can be going on a treasure hunt with them, to find however many objects you can or wish to keep in a particular category.  For younger children, asking them to find their three most precious dolls, or ten most precious books can really help you narrow in on which are most important to them.

When you do ultimately decide on what to keep and what to donate or sell, a key point in keeping a solid trusting relationship with your children is to agree together on what will be kept and honour that agreement.  I know, sometimes we just want to do that job when they’re out of the house and we hope they’ll just forget about whatever may have ‘magically’ made its way to the donation center or the recycling bin, because let’s face it, it’s much easier than putting these techniques to use.  But in the long run, in addition to affecting trust, we’re not helping our children learn those organizing steps.   

For those children who are more emotionally attached to their things taking pictures of them with some of these objects can work wonders.  If you need to go one step further and have some storage space available, you can also agree to temporarily keep a box of things that they are not absolutely sure about letting go of for an agreed upon time-frame, after which they can be donated if they haven’t been used.  You can label the box: Theo’s books, donate if unopened by May 25th 2017.

Finally, make sure to focus on what was gained by this purge.  It could be more room to play in the playroom, money obtained by selling some items on Kijiji, or the satisfaction of knowing these unused or underused items are serving other children who are not as privileged.  I hope this can help you solve the parenting dilemma of how to pare down children’s belongings!  Happy organizing!

Mylène Houle Morency is a Professional Organizer, speaker, and owner of flo organisation, which specializes in organizing families with children ranging from newborn to the teenage years. She has the firm conviction that organized homes help parents become the parents they want to be, by freeing up time and diminishing stress. She has the privilege to lovingly test all her theories and organization inspirations on her husband and three children!