A Simple Approach to Living With Less

Understanding Older Kids and Their Clutter

I have two boys that are nine and eleven. They are not minimalists. They aren’t even a little bit minimalist. I’ve tried my best. I really have. But it’s just not happening.

I’ve dejunked their room while they’ve been gone. I’ve even spent entire days walking them through the process of decluttering. I’ve explained the benefits of having less to clean if you own less stuff. Less cleaning and more family time seemed to have the largest appeal to them. So why is it that every time I go into their room it makes my poor, little, minimalist skin crawl?

Discovering My Role in My Kids’ Clutter

I sat down and tried to take an honest assessment of where we are as a family and why things seem so challenging in the kid clutter department. Where did I go wrong? Here are a few realizations I had:

  1. I didn’t raise minimalists from birth. When I latched onto minimalism, my kids were 10, 8, and 2. By that time, my oldest two kids already had their own habits and love of toys well established. It is so much easier to start when your kids are small. If you have younger children, take my advice and start setting up healthy habits now. Life only gets more complicated later.
  2. I can’t force minimalism on my kids. My parents, siblings, and grandmother that we live with are all pretty much the opposite of being minimalist. It even took my husband awhile to get used to my tendency of throwing things out. So it makes sense that my children wouldn’t instantly have the same love of decluttering that I found overnight.
  3. I helped create the clutter mentality in my kids. As hard as it is to admit, I made my kids the way they are:

– We designated an entire playroom in our home dedicated to toys. As they grew and their toys accumulated, I bought bins to organize the clutter.
– When the grandparents heaped on the toys at every gift giving occasion, we sat back and let it happen.
– I saved the toys my oldest son grew out of so my second son could enjoy them. In reality, new toys were purchased for him anyway so I just doubled our clutter.
– When the playroom got too full, we headed to IKEA to add more toy storage to their bedroom.
– When a birthday or Christmas was approaching, I threw out broken and annoyingly noisy toys. However, I wasn’t usually approaching it as deciding what they needed. Typically, I was just making some room for the next set of toys that I knew was coming.

I could now see my role in my kids clutter tendencies, but that didn’t frustrate me any less. I needed to understand where my kids were coming from so I could learn how to deal with the clutter issue.

Understanding Kids & Their Clutter

Kids like to accumulate. I wish it were true that kids don’t want stuff, but in my experience I haven’t found that to be the case. Certainly kids crave family time and nurturing but that doesn’t seem to replace a need to have possessions to call their own. Something is built in us to collect more and more of the things we love.

Kids find part of their identity in their stuff. I vividly remember when my oldest son decided he wanted to collect something. He didn’t really seem to care what it was, but it was very important to him that he had a collection that was completely his own. He first considered collecting glass bottles, then settled on collecting just bottle caps for awhile. Later he moved on to a small collection of baseball cards and then Star Wars figures. Now whenever anything new related to Star Wars comes out, he is instantly drawn to it.

Finding a connection to what you like carries over into the things you buy and accumulate. People who like to read tend to have lots of books. If you like to work out, you often have tons of work out clothing. If you like to work on computers, you tend to hang onto lots of extra computer parts and buy new gadgets just because you like them. That doesn’t make it bad that we find part of our identity in things. We just have to learn to acknowledge when it happens and realize we are far more than just a collection of things we own.

Children follow the examples they see. Our kids follow our example whether it’s a good example or a bad one. If they see spontaneous spending, hanging onto clutter, and a messy house then that’s what they will develop as their normal way of living. It’s challenging to break bad habits of our own, but it so much more frustrating and time consuming trying to help our kids change bad habits. Be careful not to build habits now that you don’t want to break later.

Emotional attachments start early. You know those photo albums you can’t part with, your grandmother’s china, or those little porcelain figurines that are still up in the attic? Whatever it is, we all have items we are emotionally attached to. It’s the same with our children. It surprised me how early my sons were emotionally attached to things. Sometimes the items seemed silly and meaningless to me, but for my sons they carried a story full of memories. We can’t under value those sentimental attachments. Keeping them in check is part of the challenge, but within limits our children should be allowed to have keepsakes of their own.

We won’t always share the same priorities. My basic minimalist belief is to “focus on what matters and get rid of the rest.” Star Wars and video games don’t matter to me. Most days I find them pretty annoying if I’m being honest. Secretly I would love to get rid of most of what fills my boys’ room. However, that would be focusing on what matters to ME . . . and not respecting what matters to them. The days of stuffed animals and board books that they won’t notice if they went missing are long gone. Now the job is to find a happy middle ground for us all.

So how do you deal with older kids and their clutter and find that happy middle ground? I’m so glad you asked, but you’ll have to stay tuned for part two.

If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, Family-Sized Minimalism or subscribing to the RSS or the weekly update newsletter in the sidebar. Thanks so much for reading.

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Article originally published on 05/11/2011

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  1. Teaching our children anything involves a lot of steps, including leading by example. But that is only going to go so far, especially if they’ve already learned the opposite behavior by watching our previous actions. One of the best ways to get kids to “own” any set of positive actions for themselves (decluttering, exercising, eating healthy) is to go beyond just setting the example and actually involve them in the process. Sure it’s easier for us as parents to start sorting through toys and books and videos and remove them, but it is another thing to get the kids to participate in the project. Doing the work for our kids robs them of part of the learning process. When they’re involved, though, they’re taking responsibility for it. It’s the old adage, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” If we can teach our children minimalism (or eating right or exercising or anything) now they’ll be able to take it with them later and then also hopefully pass it on to their future spouse and children. “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) It’s not going to be easy, and there will be resistance, just as it is with us. But we must stay the course and see it through.

    • Faith Janes says

      I couldn’t agree more, Wayne. Thanks so much for your input and insight. Modeling is both important and humbling when we see our actions repeated in the lives of our children.

  2. Thanks for such an encouraging post.
    My four-year-old has just started wanting to make collections. I caught him sneaking off to his room with a handful of beads that he had ‘rescued’ from a broken beanie toy: his explanation was that they were for his collection. He also has a collection of beer bottle lids at the moment. Striking the balance between allowing him to find and express himself and teaching him to not hang on to ‘useless’ or ‘meaningless’ things is a real challenge. Also, challenging is knowing how many toys he should have and how often he can have new toys. Even today we went into a department store, and passed a table of marked down toys and I had to resist my desire to buy him a box of Toy Story Duplo that was less than half price because I know that in five months time he’ll turn five and will be allowed to have ‘big boy lego’! He really wanted it, and I really wanted to buy it for him because i haven’t bought him any new toys since Christmas, but he has so much Duplo already that he just didn’t need it.

  3. Thanks for writing this! I agree that it’s important to respect what matters to our kids. The key, I guess, is to teach them how to decipher what matters and what doesn’t.

  4. I have a feeling I know what some of your answers will be, but I will wait til the sequel post to divulge!
    Have you outgrown your pot?

  5. I’m looking forward to part two Faith. My six-year old has made huge strides in deciding what is truly important to him, and letting go of the rest this year. I’ve been careful to respect his feelings and have been trying to lead by example, while gently nudging him to evaluate why he wants to keep certain toys. The result has been that he’s now down to what he actually values and uses.

    Of course, his birthday is a couple of weeks, so we’ll see how well the grandparents have adjusted to our requests for less *stuff*! 🙂

  6. Kids fill empty space. If they have a big game room, there will be a big mess. If they have a small toy area, it will be a small mess. 🙂

  7. Great post — my 7-1/2 year old son is a total clutter bug, bordering on hoarding. Drives me nuts! Gotta go read part 2,

  8. Our 11 year old son has been a big surprise when it came to decluttering his room. Firstly, he didn’t object to having 10 bin bags thrown out, in fact he enjoyed the time we got to spend together doing it 😀 and secondly, he loves his new-look bedroom. He makes his bed every day (!) and makes sure everything is put away before he goes to sleep.
    He’s made me so proud, it was like he’s been waiting for that helping hand to just get rid of all that excess stuff.

    If only his sisters would follow his example!

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