Raise your hand if you either have kids or were once a kid yourself. If you raised your hand, this one’s for you.
Kids and former kids alike tend to struggle with letting go of items that represent memories. Even I, the queen of getting rid of stuff, struggle from time to time. No matter how much of a minimalist you may be, guaranteed you’re hanging onto some things merely because they remind you of special memories, people, or achievements. And there’s nothing wrong with that just as long as you’re doing it selectively and with intention. But so often, we end up holding on simply because we aren't sure how, when or whether to let go. That keeping-by-default approach eventually leads to clutter, which in turn leads to disorganization when the clutter becomes unmanageable.
Learning how to make choices about your belongings with confidence is key to avoiding what I call "clutter creep”. Teaching kids that skill is as important as teaching them to balance a checkbook, yet it’s one aspect of child-rearing that often gets overlooked because parents themselves never learned how to do it.
Kids are notorious for wanting to keep everything under the sun because they haven't yet fully experienced the many negative consequences of clutter creep. And if no one teaches them how to make thoughtful, intentional decisions about their stuff, they’ll continue to keep by default and grow up to be former kids who feel compelled to keep everything. Perhaps you know someone who fits this description? The good news is that by learning just a few simple strategies, they can instead grow up to enjoy a lifetime of clutter-free living as adults and save you from grappling with their clutter creep in the meantime (perhaps on top of your own). So whether you’re hoping to raise a de-cluttered kid or to become a de-cluttered former kid, read on.
First, two important points to remember when it comes to keeping memorabilia:
1) Their main function is to trigger a positive memory (thus the name “memorabilia”)
2) Less really is more.
Think about this for a minute: How is a huge stash of photos, old school papers, certificates, artwork, old birthday cards and so on helpful in preserving memories from the past? Not only is it in your way, limiting activity in your present and threatening productivity in your future, but all the memories that stuff represents are currently hidden in a big, anxiety- and stress-provoking mess. In order to trigger any precious memories, you would have to take time to sit down and actually go through that big pile, piece by piece...yet most of us are actively avoiding the big pile... which is precisely how it has grown so unwieldy. We’re procrastinating looking through it because it's overwhelming. It represents unmade decisions, uncertain outcomes and sometimes even guilt as the pile continues to grow. It doesn’t feel fun or inviting the way your old memories should feel. Add to that the visual noise and inconvenience of having to live around it. Whether you’ve stashed it all away in some storage closet or are tripping over it every day, it is there...unmanageable and unconquered...nagging at you in the back of your mind (or maybe even in the front of it). At some point, that huge stash of what is supposed to be positive memories has become a big pile of negativity. And guess what...your kid's stash can feel that way to them too. So what to do with it?
Strategy #1: The Transformation Challenge
A couple of weeks ago, I talked about functional keepsakes in this blog. If you missed it, go back and read about them here. The idea is to transform your 3-dimensional keepsakes into something that serves a practical purpose. An example would be a big seashell your child collected during a family beach vacation. Help her brainstorm ways this purely sentimental object can fulfill a functional need. Turn the shell upside down and voila! it becomes a dish for holding small items such as change, paper clips, tiny earrings, etc.
The point is to clear some space by replacing an everyday, mundane, purely functional object with something that is both functional and memory-evoking at the same time. In this example, by transforming the shell into a change-holder, you can ditch the boring plastic container that was previously holding change. Thus, you are eliminating clutter without eliminating the memory. Plus, every time your child places change in the shell, it will evoke positive memories about his beach vacation. Win-Win! Challenge your kids to see what ideas they can come up with. You'll be amazed at their creativity, and they'll feel so proud of their own cleverness.
Strategy #2: The Keepsake Box
Last week’s post focused on how to keep paper keepsakes under control. Most kids don’t understand the concept of “less is more”, but keeping every school project, essay, drawing, handmade card, and certificate they ever received is not going to be valuable to either of you down the road. Help them to see what they are losing by keeping more. Would they rather look through the big, scary pile of papers on their desk to find and admire their old artwork, or use their desk for drawing something new? Would they rather spend the afternoon looking through a pile of old birthday cards from their best friend, or playing outside with that friend? Instead of keeping everything, limit the paper keepsakes to just what will fit inside a defined and manageable space such as a keepsake box and encourage them to choose with intention what goes in it. When the space gets full, it's time for your child to sit down, review everything in the box (and evoke some cool memories) and then eliminate items that are no longer as meaningful as they once were in order to make room for new ones.
This weeding out process gives them an opportunity to practice making intentional decisions about what to save while keeping them in charge of their own stuff. Consider using a box that they themselves have decorated or another vessel that conveys special meaning, making the receptacle itself a functional keepsake like the objects described in Strategy #1. Defining the space ahead of time keeps the pile manageable. Decide together in advance the rules for when it’s okay to add a second box (every five years? every ten?) and stick to those rules. This will depend on how much space you are both willing to devote to paper keepsakes. Remember, the less stuff you keep, the more space you have available for enjoying life and creating new memories!!
Strategy #3: The Art Gallery
Artwork often represents a unique challenge for parents, especially if your child is a prolific artist. Once again, less is more. You can save space in your keepsake box by displaying any drawings and paintings instead. Borrowing the concept of limited storage space from strategy #2, create a gallery space specifically for this purpose using a bulletin board, the refrigerator, frames in a hallway/bedroom, or pages of a portfolio...whatever works best for your family. (I'll share more ideas for keepsake organization in next week's blog post.) Define the space ahead of time and don't exceed it. Have your child decide what gets displayed and for how long. When a new masterpiece comes along, leave it up to her to decide what needs to go in order to make room for it. This not only allows him to practice that crucial decision-making process again, it also alleviates any guilt you might feel about tossing your little Picasso's creations.
Strategy #4: The "Vacation" Rotation
So what about trinkets and toys that cannot be transformed into functional objects and won't easily fit in a keepsake box, scrap book or on a gallery wall? Ever notice how kids develop a sudden strong attachment to toys they have long outgrown and forgotten all about when they discover them in the “Donations” box? When saying goodbye forever is too much of a struggle, teach your kids to say "bon voyage" instead, and place these items into temporary storage for 3-6 months. Make note of their scheduled return date. If your child hasn't mentioned them or asked for them by that date, extend the "vacation" a bit longer. If they still don't ask for them, this is a sign that they may be more ready to part with them than they thought. If they still insist on keeping them, negotiate a swap for some other toys they no longer use. Again, this allows them to practice making choices and keeps them in charge.
While it’s tempting to discard items you’re sure they won’t miss while they are napping or at school, this can lead them to cling even more fiercely to sentimental objects and potentially introduce a level of distrust into the relationship that you don’t want. Even more importantly, you’ll miss precious opportunities to help them practice letting go of their own accord.
Strategy #5: The Photo Shoot/Book Tour
Sometimes saving the actual object is not required to trigger a memory. They say a picture paints a thousand words, so a photo or even a short story about an object may be a more practical and appropriate solution. Make it fun and creative! Set the mood with a fan and some mood music while you play pretend professional photographer and conduct a photo shoot of your child with all his to-be-donated stuffed animals, dolls, or dinosaurs. Invite friends or siblings to join in. Or encourage your child to write the story of an object...where it came from, why it's special, what adventures they hope/imagine it experiences in its next "life" after donation. Allow him/her to share the story with family and friends a la book tour. Documenting the important role this object has played while it is still fresh in their minds will preserve the memory in more intricate detail than saving the thing itself ever could. They are putting into words or capturing in photos what the object means to them right now rather than having to rely on a vague recollection of it down the road.
Parting with stuff--for adults and kids alike--feels bad because we fear forever losing the memories it triggers. No wonder we avoid it! But having adequate space to live in and create new memories...feeling organized and in charge of our own environment...that feels really good. Teaching your kids these strategies and giving them opportunities to practice making intentional choices will empower them. With a little patience and a few good strategies, even raising de-cluttered kids (or becoming a de-cluttered former kid) can be easy peasy.
Valerie Sheridan is a professional organizer, wife, mother of two, and Founder/Owner of EasyPeasy Living.