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What Should You Do If Your Kids Aren't On Board with Decluttering? - Totally the Mom

What you should do if your kids aren't on board with decluttering

For many of us, myself included, kid “stuff” all over the place is probably a huge reason you’re planning a home decluttering project (check out this post if you need help getting started; this one if you’re having trouble finding the time to do it). But, as is also the case with me, decluttering with kids presents a number of challenges. I’d be willing to bet, this probably happens: You start sorting through the toys. You put items in boxes to donate. Your kids might even think this is a good idea – until they start to see the boxes and bags full of “their” things and suddenly, everything is a beloved favorite that is impossible to live without.

You have two choices: You can either continue to trudge ahead over their cries of despair, hoping they’ll eventually get over it and embrace the idea of decluttering and having less stuff. Or you can give in and let the stuff grow, feeling defeated, but perhaps at least a little less guilty.

I totally get it. And I know the struggle is real. Decluttering and minimizing can be difficult concepts for kids to embrace, especially if they haven’t ever been presented with the idea before. Sharing and giving are challenging ideas for people of all ages, including adults.

But even if your kids aren’t on board with decluttering, you don’t have to wave your arms in surrender just yet. By setting some clear expectations and firm boundaries, you can keep the kid clutter from overwhelming your space.

I’ve created a handy decluttering cheat sheet for kids to help you guide your kids through the decluttering process, and you can get it for free here:


Now, here are some tips to help keep the mess in check:

What should you do if your kids aren’t on board with decluttering?


1. Set physical boundaries on where play can happen and what specific toys/supplies may be used.

If your kids aren’t willing to part with their toys, you can set aside a specific area where they can be used. Got a playroom? Great, that’s where the kids can play and make a mess. And that’s where the mess stays. You don’t need to be tripping over it all over the house. Whatever is your designated area, make your expectations clear, and be sure to enforce consequences if the rules aren’t followed.

You might even come up with a system where kids have to ask ahead of time before playing with specific items, like playdough or a big Lego build. It must be contained and when they are done, it all gets put away and stored in a place where they don’t have free access.

2. Implement regular clean-up times.

Ingrain these into your daily routine, and make sure you build in time for it a few times throughout the day. Here’s what we do in our house:

  • We have a quick pick up before school, before lunch, and before bed.
  • I even set alarms since they usually come before events that occur at specific times (10 minutes before we need to leave for school in the morning, a clean-up alarm rings. At 7:30 p.m. each evening, we do a quick pick up and put everything away for the next day). The key is to make it quick. A long drawn-out nag fest isn’t going to make your kids willing to cooperate. Set a timer for 10 minutes and put away everything you can during that time. It doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as everyone is helping. Done is better than perfect.
  • Lead by example. I’m not advocating that you alone clean up all of the kid stuff. If they are old enough to clean, let them. But make this “Quick Pick Up” routine something the whole family can do. When the alarm goes off, you can start hustling through the house picking up whatever is out. Or you can even help them in their designated play space. Just make sure you’re not doing ALL of the work.
  • Finally, make it fun. See who can put away the most things. Or sometimes I’ll challenge my kids to a race. We’ll see if they can get their play room picked up before I’m done washing the dishes. The winner gets to pick the first book we read at bed time. 🙂

3. Designate space where projects/school work can be displayed.

Here, each kid has two cork boards of space to show off their masterpieces and a line of wire where we clip art. When it’s full, something has to go if they want to display a new piece.

Giving them the power to choose what stays and what comes down makes it about their priorities, not yours. They become much more willing to cooperate and think through their choices instead of just fighting you. If your kids are particularly attached to their work, you can always snap a photo. They can have a memento that doesn’t need to clutter your walls and can reflect on it whenever they’re feeling nostalgic.

These roundup posts by Organised Pretty Home  and The Artful Parent have some really cute ideas if you need some inspiration.

Make sure your kids understand that if everything is special, nothing is. Make a big deal about what is displayed. This space is for the Best of the Best. If they’ve done something they’re especially proud of, make sure to encourage them to display it.

And for kids, this is an especially tangible way for them to grasp a greater appreciation for having less. The other day, my daughter decided, entirely on her own, to declutter her homework desk. She had a test she was proud of and told my husband she didn’t know what to do with it. He encouraged her to put it on her board to show how her hard work had paid off in the form of a good grade. She said there wasn’t room. He reminded her that she could take something down to make room for the new piece of work. And that was all the involvement he had. She assessed, decided to move some things, proudly displayed her test and kept going! A few minutes later she came to me with her hands full of used workbooks and old school work and asked if she could recycle them. When I entered the room, I was surprised to see a completely cleaned desk and an organized display area. She simply said, “I needed to declutter my desk.”

Redemption! 🙂 No one told her to do this. No one even asked her to clean up. She just recognized that she enjoyed the area when it was less cluttered, took the initiative and did it. By empowering her to make the decisions, it becomes about her choices, not just what Mom and Dad tell her to do. She is learning the value of minimizing.

And this is coming from my child who wants to upcycle everything. The kid who, no exaggeration, fights to save a used paper cup and candy wrappers because she “might” want to use them for something.

Again (shameless plug) I’ve created a handy decluttering cheat sheet for kids to help you guide your kids through the decluttering process, and you can get it for free here:


4. Focus on your own mission – Lead by example.

Don’t make this a power struggle. If you set firm, reasonable parameters with your kids they can still feel like they have choices. You don’t need to expect more from them right now. If you use threats and punishment as incentive to declutter their toys, they are not going to welcome this new lifestyle with open hearts. Instead, they could value  and hoard their stuff more because they know they could lose it.

Focus on what you can do throughout the house. Declutter your closet and other areas of the house that don’t require the involvement of others.  Even if it isn’t directly involving your kids and their stuff, they are still going gain the benefits of an overall less cluttered space. And kids are like sponges, always watching and absorbing what you do. If they see you living out your values, working on decluttering and making a conscious effort to bring less into your home, they will model that behavior. Remember my example above about my daughter decluttering her desk? Again, this wasn’t something I had asked, or even mentioned to her. She is learning to appreciate what it means by observing the changes in our lives as I have worked on decluttering our home.

Go ahead and grab your free decluttering pack here if you’re ready to start being this example for your family:


5. Demonstrate and live out your values as a family.

Enjoy experiences together that don’t involve “stuff,” and reflect on those often when you’re talking about decluttering:

“Remember how much fun we had when we spent the day at the beach? We can do more of that when we don’t have as much stuff to take care of because we’ll have more time to do it since we won’t have to spend all weekend cleaning, and more money to go more often because we won’t be spending it all on things.”

Be spontaneous when you have the freedom to be. And point out why:

“Hey, there’s a Groupon for a night at the indoor water park this weekend, let’s go! Since we haven’t been spending as much money on toys and stuff we don’t need, we can spend it on this impromptu trip instead. And the house is in pretty good shape since we don’t have as much to clean so we should easily have time to get away this weekend.”

Taking a minute to point out all the benefits you’re enjoying as a family because of the work you’ve done to declutter your home and lives will help instill the core values behind why this is important. Your kids will eventually learn to think about toys and “stuff” in a different way, placing a higher value on experiences and time together than the next shiny thing to catch their eye. Use these experiences as motivation when you need to talk about decluttering with your kids.

So now I’d love to know, when it comes to decluttering your kids’ stuff, do you attempt to declutter with them, or do you prefer the sneak-it-out-and-hope-they-don’t-notice approach? What works and what doesn’t? Leave a comment below or e-mail me at Kristin at totally the mom dot com and share your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you!