Response post to a question I received from Jenny of Ex-Consumer.
Hi Tanja. I’m so glad I found you through Marianne! Your site is incredible. Really, really beautiful design.
What a great story. I used to be quite the packrat too. In fact, I felt like I had things pretty well under control — until I had two kids. Now my oldest son (6) is becoming a packrat and his clutter is overtaking a couple of rooms in our house. I’m trying to figure out how to curb his accumulating tendencies, but so far I’ve come up short. Any suggestions? I added an RSS feed icon to my blog after reading your comment, and I just subscribed to your feed by email. :)
My response: Hi Jenny (I signed up for your rss. Thanks for adding it!). I had a harder time writing this than I thought I would. It unsurfaced a lot of old childhood stuff for me. I used to be a packrat kid. Not a hoarder kid, but a messy, cluttery packrat kid. I didn’t clean my room. I didn’t want to get rid of things. And I always wanted something new and shiny at the mall.
When you’ve got a packrat child on your hands it can feel overwhelming. You’ve got two main options staring you in the face. You can spend 18 years picking up after them (that’s what my mom did, bless her soul). Or you can work with your child to teach them healthy limits and boundaries. That’s what too much stuff is when you condense the issue down to basics, a lack of limits.
Families in America have thousands of options. Options of what clothes to wear, what toys to buy (adults too), even choosing what movie to watch can offer a spectrum of a couple hundred choices at the local Blockbuster.
The one thing we don’t have is the ability to exercise all of our options. There isn’t enough time and space in our lives to have limitless abundance. And that’s where limits and boundaries come in. We have to make choices.
Teaching a packrat child (or any child) to understand healthy limits will profoundly affect their ability to function later in life after they’ve grown up. Trust me. I know. My mom (a wonderful mother) had a budding packrat on her hands. She took the path of cleaning up my messes for 18 years as her solution. As a result I never learned to do it on my own.
Now that sounds insane doesn’t it? Never learned to clean my own room? Well I didn’t. I also didn’t learn basic housekeeping lessons, how to balance a checkbook, and how to respect the stuff I owned.
My parents were wonderful parents in many ways, but they forgot to cover a few basics. There are things kids will learn at home that they can never learn at school. Some of those things are respecting themselves, respecting their belongings, respecting other people, and developing critical decision making skills.
What I did learn was the shopping mall was good. Shiny new things were good and money grew inside plastic credit cards. These are not the life lessons anyone wants to teach their children, but it’s quite common these days.
Most kids who clutter are not clinically diagnosed hoarders. They’re simply showing what they’ve learned. Parents often start them off young, giving infants tons of gifts for Christmas. They learn to expect gifts frequently. They learn that new things are better than old things. They learn that more is better than less.
Kids are smart. And it’s what YOU teach them that they’ll take into their adult life. Give them a strong start by teaching them to care for themselves, their things, and their home. Have conversations about money and what it costs to buy a new action figure. Equate it out to hours worked. Say things like, “This toy costs $15. Mom has to work 30 minutes to buy this new toy for you. Are you willing to do 30 minutes of chores around the house in order to get it?”
Teach them the value of money because that leads to learning the value of things. Teach them that relationships and people are more important than things.Teach them the fine art of self discipline. Teach them to pick up after themselves, put their toys away and handle their things gently so they don’t break.
Set limits. Set boundaries. And watch how they flourish.
Now for some specifics:
1 As a parent you control how much comes into the house. That’s good! Start limiting the amount of new things your child is given. Get friends and family on the same page for holidays and birthdays. Less is more and you can teach your child this. Gently teach him to care for what he owns and cherish it. Your goal is to cut back on his desire for “new” things. Luckily you do have control over new things coming into the house. Start implementing this control. It is the first big step.
2 Create healthy boundaries. Limit the amount of space that can be cluttered by your son. This will go over smoother if you involve the whole family and avoid singling him out as the culprit. Hold a family meeting where you talk about the house clutter. Get everyone on board with some new rules. Here are some sample rules:
- Personal items are limited to each person’s bedroom.
- If there are any exclusions to the first rule (toy box in family room, purse on kitchen counter, etc.) spell them out clearly.
- Set rules for the exclusion zones as well. The new rule for a toy box may be that all toys must fit inside the box or some must be put in the bedroom.
- Set up awards for following the rules. An extra dollar as an allowance or a fun outing for each clutter free week.
- Set up gentle consequences for not following the rules. Ex. Any toys or personal items left out after bedtime go into the “family clutter box” in the garage for a month. Be firm. Don’t give in on the consequences or the behavior will not be learned.
I leave everyone with these last thoughts. Don Aslett, the author of Clutter’s Last Stand, says that children have 75% more toys than they need. Children don’t buy all these toys for themselves. Adults buy them. It starts with controlling how much comes in. Once that’s under control the decluttering starts. And remember that all the shiny new toys in the world are no match for a stick, a string and and some imagination. Here’s my midnight conversation with Patrick.
Patrick “My favorite toy was a stick and a rope. I’d go on adventures with them. Mostly in the woods. They’d turn into a weapon or a super power.”
Tanja, “How can a stick and a rope be a superpower?”
Patrick, “You’d have to read Captain Britain to know.”
Kids don’t need as much as we think they need. Less is more. All they really need is lots of love, healthy limits, gentle guidance, a stick and a rope, and a heaping dose of imagination.
Next week I’ll put out the follow-up post with specific decluttering tricks for kids. This week just focus on steps 1 and 2 as a homework assignment.
What do you all think? Did you learn these important life lessons as a child? If you have kids have you passed these lessons onto them? Comments below!