Mar 11, 2016 · 8 minute read

By: Colleen Valles

Having kids doesn’t mean you have to have clutter.

Before you get all “She clearly has no idea what she’s talking about” on me, let me explain.

I know that from the moment we find out we’re pregnant, we’re bombarded with all the things we HAVE to have if we are to keep our precious little one alive: diapers, formula, educational toys and videos because we can’t waste any time in preparing our newborn infant for the right preschool. Some things we do need, others we definitely do not.

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I inherited a wipes warmer from a friend. I don’t know if she ever used it. I certainly never did, and I’m happy to report that my daughter survived infancy intact.

We start out with baby showers, acquiring lots of stuff, but never the things we really need, and then we move onto birthday parties where all the kids in class have to get invited, and consequently, there are 30 or so gifts for one kid. This amount can double if parents are divorced.

Add in other gift-giving holidays, random gifts from friends and family members, and yes, even mom and dad, and there is a near-constant inflow of stuff. So much so that someone whose person doesn’t take up that much space at all winds up needing a room for all the toys, art supplies, books, stuffed animals and more.

The barrage of kid stuff is so overwhelming that many parents now have designated “playrooms” in addition to kids’ bedrooms. My problem with this is two-fold: first, I think a child’s “playroom” should be the wide outdoors, and second, sending a child off to a separate room to play keeps that child segregated from the rest of the household. It’s lonely.

But it is possible to have a kid or two or more and not be tripping over their toys, not have their rooms and the rest of the house be overrun with their clutter and not have to send them off to play elsewhere (though sometimes that can offer a much-needed respite. That’s what the phrase “go play outside” is for.)

Here are some lessons I learned the hard way:

Other People

Stop the flow from the get go…

Once you know you’re going to have a baby, EVERYBODY is going to want to get you stuff. Everybody. Your family, your friends, your coworkers. And yes, you will need some stuff, but the operative word here is “some.” You don’t need everything ever invented for babies.

You’ll need diapers, blankets, clothes, bottles, burp cloths, baby wipes (preferably cloth and reusable. Having a baby is no excuse to ruin the planet.) a crib, stroller, baby-wearing carrier and car seat. Other than that, babies are just like what they seem to be: miniature people. Though oddly, one of the best investments I made was a humidifier. We still have that thing and bust it out whenever someone has a cough.

So if people want to get you stuff that’s not on the list above, decline politely and maybe suggest a contribution to a diaper service. Let me tell you, having somebody come and wash the stinky diapers and feeling good about not putting plastic on your baby or in the landfill is worth every penny. See if you can’t get enough people to contribute so you have diaper service for at least a year. It’s awesome.

…Or stop it whenever you can.

Now, maybe your kids are not babies or toddlers anymore, and you might feel like it’s too late to stem the incoming tide of crap. Never fear! It’s not too late.

Start having a discussion with the people who give you things regularly — normally family and friends. Let them know you’re trying to clear the clutter and you’d appreciate it if, at the next gift-giving day, they’d opt to give your child an experience, like a trip to the movies together or a sporting event or whatever your child likes to do. Your child will have lasting pleasant memories, and you won’t have to deal with finding a place to put yet another thing your kid will forget about in a week.

Friends with kids older than yours are often really great for hand-me-downs. But don’t feel obligated to take them all. Take what you think your kid will use, and refuse the rest, or, if your friend just gave you a giant mystery bag of stuff, donate what you won’t need.

The Kids

Now that we’ve dealt with other people, it’s time for the most important co-conspirators in this journey: the kids themselves. Believe it or not, if you tell your kids what you want to do and why, chances are they’ll buy into it. They love you and look up to you after all, and the example you set now will be one they follow for the rest of their lives.

Set limits: one in, one out is a good one.

Did your child just get an influx of birthday gifts? If she wants to keep them, great. But she needs to go through and find the same number of items to give away. If she wants to keep some of them, that’s OK too. With the one in, one out rule, she needs to send out of her life the same number of items that are coming into her life.

It’s a simple concept, but can be difficult for young kids to do. You know your child, and you may have to help her make the decision. If it’s just too hard, try putting away the items she’s considering giving away, out of sight and out of reach. If she doesn’t ask for them in a set period of time, say three months, it’s safe to get rid of them. If she does want one of them back, she needs to exchange it for something that she already has.

It’ll take some practice, but after a few tries, it will become the norm. That’s when it’ll have the greatest impact on your child, who will understand the rule and will think twice about asking for anything new.

Have your kids help you purge

Kids are kind and sympathetic. If you put it in terms they understand, they’re often more than willing to give the toys and clothes and other items they don’t use to another child who doesn’t have as much as they do. This can be a great motivator to encourage young children to go through their items, with your help, and pare down. It was for my daughter who understood from a very young age that some kids don’t even have enough to eat, let alone a room full of toys. About twice a year, we go through her room, and donate the things that are in good condition that would make another kid happy. She always feels very good after that exercise, and I think it has helped cultivate even more empathy.

Another way to motivate kids to help purge is to hold a garage sale at the end of the purge and let them keep the money they earn from the sale of their items. Kids’ toys go for cheap at garage sales, but most children have no source of income, and any money is seen as it should be: a treasure. Once they have the money, it’s important to teach them how they should handle it: one-third for saving, one-third for spending and one-third for donating is the breakdown we like to use.

Teach them a valuable lesson: cleaning up. If your kid is ambulatory, he can clean up after himself. There is no reason for you to endure the blinding pain of stepping on a Lego in bare feet. That shit should’ve been put up.

For young kids, singing a song, helping them out and having well-designated areas or bins for toys is going to make the process a lot easier. If your kids are older and they haven’t learned the importance of cleaning up, it’ll take a little more time, and you may have to withhold fun until they learn the lesson, but it’s well worth it. First, you’re not the maid and their arms aren’t painted on, so they can do it just fine. Second, you’ll be doing their college roommates and future spouses a favor, because it’s even harder to teach an adult to clean up their own mess.

No matter your child’s age, praise them for doing the job, and don’t wait until it’s past bedtime to tell them to get started on it. There’ll be no end to the whining and the whole process will take twice as long.

It’s been a lot of trial and error on my part, but it is possible to simplify with kids. So possible, in fact, that my daughter and I are going to pare down even more to move from a 900-square-foot house to a house less than half the size. It’s not built yet, but there’s no time like the present to start living with less stuff and more time for fun. We’ll talk about that next time.

How have you gotten your kids to simplify?


Colleen Valles
I'm Colleen, a writer, mother, knitter, pet mama and tiny house enthusiast who truly believes that everybody should slow down and simplify to make room for the things that are most important in their lives. I'm on a journey to do just that, to be able to spend more time with family and friends, riding my bike and working in the garden. Sign up to get awesome content right in your inbox, or follow me on social media.