Note: This is a guest post from Sandy Kreps of Modern Simplicity.
Stuff Management is an important life skill—not just for parents, but for the kids we are raising. Parents often stress about how to keep on top of their kids’ toys, books, and clothes, neglecting an important facet of life with kids:
Kids can’t learn to manage their own stuff if they don’t get the practice and support to do so.
Children need to learn how to sort through messes and decide what’s important to keep and what’s not. When my kids are grown, I want them to be armed with the skills necessary to manage their possessions, which means I need to help them practice now.
Many parents I’ve talked to are overwhelmed trying to manage their own home, let alone the prospect of teaching their children how to declutter and organize their own stuff.
But I’ve found there are only 10 critical decluttering skills that parents need to teach their children how to manage their own stuff and set them up for success in the future.
If you can conquer them all, your kids will be way ahead of most.
Ten Critical Decluttering Skills that Parents Need
1. The ability to distinguish between a “want” and a “need.”
A key part of decluttering and simplifying is the ability to determine what actually constitutes a “need” versus what items fall under the category of “wants.”
It can be difficult to tell them apart sometimes, particularly for children and teens. The basic idea of food, shelter, and clothing as needs is not as black and white as it may seem.
Yes, clothing is necessary, but are designer jeans a need? A letter jacket? New shoes? In some families, a cell phone may be a need for teens with lots of extracurricular activities, a job, or access to their own transportation, but is a smart phone a need or a want?
It really depends on the individual lifestyle and preferences of the family. Needs versus wants will be different for each family, and it’s up to parents to decide what falls into each category—not just for their stuff, but for your stuff as well.
In a multi-parent family, parents should work to be on the same page with what constitutes a need and present a united front to kids for consistency’s sake.
2. The willingness to model desired behavior.
Creating a minimalist lifestyle is not a “do as I say, not as I do” affair.
Parents have to be ready and willing to model the lifestyle they want their kids to reflect. Kids need to see their parents getting rid of their own clutter, curating their own possessions, taking responsible care of their own stuff, managing their own tasks and commitments, prioritizing what’s really important—BEFORE parents expect to see these traits regularly in their children.
3. An encouraging, coaching spirit.
Being a “Decluttering Dictator” isn’t going to work. Sorry, it just won’t.
Demanding that your kids get rid of their stuff isn’t going to result in long-term change—it’s just going to generate anger, frustration, and rebellion.
Encouragement, thoughtful consideration, and the willingness to coach instead of command are keys to teaching kids how to manage their own stuff. We want to instill good habits that can last a lifetime, not just temporary “my house, my rules” behavior.
4. The desire to ask the right questions.
Decluttering isn’t about just tossing everything that isn’t needed. It’s about looking at items with the intention of keeping what is useful and fulfilling.
The questions don’t stop at “do you use or wear this right now?” That’s too simplistic, especially for kids who still place emotional value in material objects.
We experienced a house fire a few years ago, and the aftermath has had a noticeable effect on how each of my kids manage their stuff.
My younger son, a preteen, keeps everything. There’s an unconscious fear of losing it all again. Keeping his nest feathered with lots of stuff, particularly stuffed animals and soft blankets, makes him feel safer and happier. He’s allowed to keep what he wants within the boundaries of his room and with a mandate that the room stays reasonably tidy.
My older son, a teen, realized he didn’t need, or even wants, a bunch of “stuff” to deal with anymore, and he has become a minimalist with a fondness for higher quality items that will last and that make him feel good. He has nicer things now that he puts a lot of thought into curating, and he’s quick to discard things he’s not using, aren’t “right,” or don’t suit him.
Decluttering has to be tailored to suit the kid’s personality and headspace, and you need to be willing to go beyond the easy “are you still using this” question. Other questions to consider include:
- Do you use this regularly?
- Does this item make you happy?
- Does it help you feel safe? Loved?
- Does this item bring up sad feelings?
- How would you feel if this item was gone?
- What feelings do you have when you hold this item?
5. The willingness to stay hands off.
As difficult as it can be, kids need to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to managing their own possessions, particularly as they get older.
Obviously tiny tots and preschoolers need lots of help, but older kids and teens need the respect and responsibility of deciding for themselves how to manage their possessions. If you’re modeling the behavior you wish to instill and helping your kids ask the right questions when it comes to making choices about what to keep and what to let go of, you have to trust that your kids can make the best decisions for themselves—with you there for guidance, not guilt.
6. Except when hand-on assistance is needed and/or wanted.
There is a time to back off and a time to get involved, and when help is needed, parents need to be willing to step in and offer the assist.
Chances are good that at some point, your child is going to want your help with their stuff. The important skill is the ability to help without feeling the need to jump in and take over (or if you do feel that need, the ability to restrain yourself!)
Kids need guidance and mentoring—they don’t need us to jump in and do it for them.
If I see my child struggling with managing his stuff, I’ll offer to help. Not demand to take over, not say “I’ll just do it for you,” but I’ll ask if he would like a helping hand, either with decisions, the manual work of cleaning, or both.
It’s tough even for adults to declutter their stuff, so kids can’t be expected to do everything on their own. Let them take the lead, and be willing to help them navigate the complex feelings that come with simplifying as well as the actual physical work required.
7. The ability to listen without judging.
Sometimes kids don’t know what to do with their things, particularly if they have a lot of stuff and have never really processed what it feels like to voluntarily let go of things.
They may be overwhelmed. They may be sad. They may feel anxious. All those feelings are totally fine and expected, and kids need to know that it’s OK to feel whatever they’re feeling as they learn to manage their own possessions.
As a parent, it’s important to be able to sit with them and just listen to your kids without placing judgement on what they’re feeling or saying. They need that safe space with you to learn to process their big feelings. Material possessions are often tied to memories, and kids are often anxious about losing a memory if they let go of an item associated with it.
8. The ability to explain options.
It’s easier to let things go when you have some choices on how to get rid of them. Part of decluttering is learning how to discard responsibly. Showing kids that they have options for how to let go of things can help them feel good (and even happy) with the decision of letting their stuff go.
Things that still have use left may be given to friends or family. Maybe there’s a charity in town, a homeless shelter, or a domestic violence home that can use your child’s discards. Maybe a church or hospital can use some outgrown toys for their nurseries.
Maybe a friend has a little brother or sister or maybe your child has a cousin that would enjoy those outgrown clothes. Maybe your child would like to try to sell a few things on a local buy/sell group, a yard sale, or eBay to earn some extra spending money.
Maybe they have some video games to trade at a game shop for something new-to-them. Maybe those beloved books can go to the city library or a school or preschool library.
Things that may no longer be useful may be able to be recycled instead of trashed bound for a landfill.
Giving your child options for how to get rid of their stuff may make things a little more complicated, but it can go a long way to making them feel good about their choice to simplify and to feel fulfilled knowing their discards can go to helping others feel cared for.
9. The willingness to provide needed resources, including books, coaching, and supplies.
Sometimes things are needed to help the decluttering process along, whether it’s boxes and trash bags or a good how-to book.
Maybe it’s access to a blog with decluttering encouragement, or a few minutes on the phone with a trusted mentor. Maybe it’s a ride down to the local charity to drop off some hard-fought discards. It might even be a few new supplies to organize that beloved collection your child wants to keep tidy or a little paint to freshen up the closet they worked so hard to declutter.
Keeping an open mind and being willing to listen to what your child is asking for to help them get the job done helps build trust that you’re a partner in the process.
10. The practice of patience.
There’s no doubt about it—decluttering and learning to live a minimalist lifestyle requires patience and hard work. Rooms don’t become cluttered overnight, so it’s unrealistic to expect everything to be clean and clutter free in just a weekend.
Being patient with your child as he learns this new skill, while encouraging him to keep working at it, will help both of you feel good about the progress both of you are making.
Sandy Kreps helps families cut through the chaos of modern life and find a simpler path on her blog, Modern Simplicity. She has a free ebook, 101 Ways to Simplify Your Life. Or you can also follow her on Instagram.