It is a law of the universe: The more personal possessions your children have, the more prone your house is to untidiness. And, no matter how many great techniques you have for keeping things organized, the tendency will always be to chaos unless you have a regular process for purging your children’s toys, clothes, sporting gear and other items.
But children are natural pack rats. Convincing them to part with their possessions can be contentious, to say the least. Before you resort to sneaking their old things out of the house by cover of darkness, try these techniques to win their collaboration:
Empathize. Start with the understanding that there is very little that children get to control in their lives. Adults tell them when and what to eat, when to wake and sleep, how they should behave, and how to spend mostof their time (either in school or doing homework). It should come as no surprise that, when it comes to protecting their personal possessions, children can be fierce and more than a little unwilling to part with things, even when they no longer really want or need them.
Follow the kid-junk lifecycle. If the toy or possession is new and used frequently, give it a premier place in the child’s bedroom. If it is less new but still in play, relegate it to the play or recreation room. If it is old and rarely played with, it goes into storage with an option to come out upon the child’s request. (Remember to remove all batteries!) If it has remained in storage for at least a year, it gets assessed jointly for sentimental value. If it qualifies as memorabilia, put it in the child’s own memento box to be sent along when he or she moves out eventually. If it has no personal value and is intact and clean, donate it; if it is broken, missing pieces, or excessively shabby, earmark it for disposal.
Keep your own values and opinions out of the process. You may have spent oodles of cash on that fancy, lifelike doll and countless of adorable outfits to go with it, but if your daughter always plays with her ratty stuffed animals, accept her preference. Let her keep the stuffed animals and prepare to either resell on eBay or to find a more deserving home for the expensive doll gear.
Honor their collections. Somewhere between toddler and teenager, many children develop urges to become collectors. Whole toy empires are built on this. Sometimes it is a passing phase or craze, but other times it will become a lifelong passion. Recognize the difference and find creative ways to help your child organize and manage his or her lasting collections. Teach them to be discerning and about the concepts of creating collections with either sentimental or monetary value. Help them to understand, for example, why a collection of rare baseball cards will have long-term value that could appreciate over time while a collection of Funny Bands or Japanese Erasers most likely will not.
Record their histories. When deciding which school papers to keep or throw out, use this rule of thumb: if the work expresses your child’s personal thoughts or views on the world-a persuasive essay, a piece of creative writing or artwork into which they have put a great deal of effort-keep it. If the work represents a regurgitation of anybody else’s view of the world or is something the child spent little time on creatively, add it to the recycle bin. When the time comes that you no longer want to store those 21 hand-painted plaster statues or the 14 nearly identical soccer trophies handed out each year by your children’s coaches, arrange the items in a nice setting, photograph them, then dispose of them.
Encourage philanthropy. Most children (once they get past their terrible twos or threes) are naturally philanthropic. Remind them on a daily basis about how fortunate they are and help them to imagine how happy some other child would be to have an opportunity to play with or own a toy that is sitting unused under his or her bed.
Think source reduction. Debating between cooking dinner and zipping through the fast-food drive through? Factor in the idea that you are likely to acquire three new junky plastic toys in the process. If your child is the intransigent type when it comes to giving up old toys, grab your pots and pans and avoid the acquisition altogether. Likewise, instead of throwing a big 25-kid birthday party every year, limit large parties to every second, third, or fourth year to minimize the inflow of new possessions. If you simply must invite 25 kids to your ten-year-old son’s skating party, consider helping him select a charity and request that donations be made in lieu of gifts. This works best if you have family around who will be giving your son gifts anyway or if you can tie the decision in with a much-wanted gift-like a new bicycle-that you were planning to give anyway.
Timing is everything. Capitalize on your child’s excitement by timing his or her possession purges to coincide with gift-giving events like birthdays, holidays or back-to-school shopping sprees when you are already planning to buy new things. Explain that he or she needs to make space, in the desk for new supplies, in the bureau for new clothes, or on the shelves for new games and toys. You were going to buy anyway, so this is not technically a bribe!
If all else fails-if you learn through these processes that your child is just a bona fide hoarder-you may need to resort to covert operations. Amp up your powers of observation; notice what he or she touches and does not touch on a regular basis. Pack rarely-used items into boxes under cover of darkness and move them into storage. If-after six months or a year-your child never goes looking for the stored items, go ahead and dispose of them with the one caveat that you may never be completely forgiven!