A Mom's Guide to Decluttering: Why My Kids Gave Up Almost All Their Toys

I hate clutter, and one morning I just couldn't take it anymore. Here's how I got my kids to throw out their toys and tidy up our house.
Clutter

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I have a habit of starting most mornings before the sun. I like to move through the house in the dark, avoiding artificial light as much as possible. I usually slip outside to watch the stars before the sky lightens, then return indoors to sit beside the window as the lightning bugs show off their final blips. 

I feel like I’m about to be swallowed alive by all the kid crap in my house.

Saoirse returned home from summer camp yesterday, and this morning I trip over her camp gear on my odyssey through the dark. My bare feet are stabbed by plastic shards which have snapped off toys strewed about the floor. I kick aside piles of juvenile debris to clear a path to the door, and kick away more on my way back inside toward my favorite chair.

As I sit down, I meditate on the new aura of strength and confidence around Saoirse upon her return from wilderness summer camp. And I want to honor that growth. But while I sit in the dark, and think about my daughter’s new maturity, I feel like I’m about to be swallowed alive by all the kid crap in my house. My throat is constricting. I feel pressure building up behind my eyes.

I hate stuff. I hate clutter. Bob and I have made every attempt to raise our children to be non-consumers, but our house has filled up with junk in spite of our efforts. Sometimes I think being a “non-consumer family” makes us bigger targets for crap. With the best of intentions, folks often cast their belongings onto us, assuming my children will appreciate hand-me-downs. Or they indulge my daughters with new and glorious items, knowing that their curmudgeonly parents aren’t likely to part with dollars for the whims of childhood. The more Bob and I resist consumption, the more the picked bones of consumerism pile up.

I’m familiar with the parental debates surrounding decluttering. I’ve heard friends and family bemoan the cruelty of mothers who threw away sandbox toys and brazenly donated favorite stuffed animals and action figures to Goodwill. In past years, Bob and I have exercised something we call Dawn Patrol to avoid unnecessary trauma. When the kids sleep down at the farm we work through the night and sneak garbage bags of old toys, books, and clothes out of the house before their return.

That trick worked better when they were younger. They’re on to us. Now, after Dawn Patrol, they come up to us and ask about their missing items. “Where’s my giant stuffed dog from Uncle Sean? Where is that pop-up book from Auntie C? Where is my plastic castle?” When they leave the house now, I am certain they take a mental inventory of their belongings.

By the time Bob comes down to make coffee, I’ve begun dumping piles of toys in the center of the living room floor. “Don’t you want to wait until the girls are down at the farm?” he asks in a gentle, placating tone.

“I don’t care anymore.” My words are sharp.

The more Bob and I resist consumption, the more the picked bones of consumerism pile up.

And it's true. I don’t care if I am being insensitive to my children’s feelings. I don’t care if I am making them feel powerless by depriving them of their possessions. I could honor their feelings by tolerating the mess, but then I would be a bitter, angry, passive-aggressive mother. On this day, in this moment, ruthless cruelty is my most direct route back to kindness.

“Did I mention I need to get to the farm a little early this morning?” Bob’s voice comes out in a slightly higher register as he backs away from the coffee pot. “I left you some coffee…”

He is gone by the time the kids are up. And they see the bloodlust in my eyes, too. “You have two choices,” I keep my voice even. “You can help, or you can go down to the farm and swim for the day. But you CANNOT stop me. I want every toy in this house on this living room floor,” I direct.

There is a method to my madness. If they have to see all their toys in one place, they will recognize the enormity of the situation. Plus, I work a lot faster without having to hunt down objects. And a lot more gets tossed when it is all visible. Ula jumps at my command and begins the work before she even starts her breakfast. Saoirse narrows her eyes at me, an open challenge.

“I can sort my stuff on my own,” she says slowly. I feel the daggers. How dare I ruin her glorious return from wilderness camp with a cleaning frenzy?

I don’t look away. “I want all of it. Down here. On the living room floor.” With my toe, I trace two circles with 18 inch diameters on the rug. “When we’re done, you each can keep enough stuff to fill one circle. I will decide which legacy toys can be kept for your own children, and they don’t have to count in the circle. And there will also be a small section for toys related to homeschooling. That’s it.”

“I’ll just sort in my room.” Saoirse says defiantly.

Here. I want you to see it all together first. Or go to the farm and leave me to it.”

“We’ll stay,” they say in unison.

“The minute I catch either of you cheating, you’re fired.”

 If they have to see all their toys in one place, they will recognize the enormity of the situation.

Ula makes a pretty fair effort for an 8-year-old. She dutifully helps me create the massive pile that fills our living room. But once I start to sort items into bags for either the thrift store or the garbage she begins to panic. I notice her squirrel little objects into her pockets, then secretly slip upstairs to hide them. At the same time, Saoirse takes a different tack. She leaves objects in her room, assuming I won’t go up to check.

“That’s it!” I think there might be foam around the corners of my lips by this point. “You’re both fired! Get into the car! You’re going to the farm!”

Ula runs for the car. Saoirse doesn’t move. She stares me down. With confidence, I am reminded, comes the inner strength to disobey. “I’m staying.”

“You will not. You’re cheating.” She follows me out to the car. From the back seat she meets my gaze as I speed down the road to the farm.

“You’re not being fair!” She screams at me. “You can’t just take away our stuff! We need those things!”

I slam on the breaks and gaze back at her through the rearview mirror. My voice is suddenly calm. “You just spent a week living outdoors. The only toys you had were a 4-inch knife and a borrowed soccer ball. Do you mean to tell me you still need everything that’s on that living room floor?”

There is silence. After a few moments, Ula recites a short list of what she hopes to save: some stuffed animals, the Barbies, one porcelain doll, some modeling clay. I pull into the driveway at the farm. Ula gets out and runs to the safety of her grandmother’s arms. Saoirse stays behind, daring me to kick her out of the car.

“I can do it,” she says softly.

I am no longer angry. “I can’t live with the clutter, Kiddo,” I tell her. “But I won’t make you be there while I go through it all. It’s too hard on you.”

“Mom. I can do this. I want to do this.”

I assent. She gets one more chance.

I see a new pride in her—one that comes from knowing what she doesn’t need.

We turn around and drive back up the mountain. At first, she can't physically put the objects in the bags. She pleads a few times, but when I look up at her with my fiery gaze, she backs away. She moves to the far end of the pile, and chooses to read to me from her newest book rather than witness the exodus. Her story is interrupted with each bag I haul out the door.

We stop in the heat of the afternoon, strip off our clothes, then run outside naked and spray ourselves with the hose. We make two iced mochas in the blender, then sip them on the screen porch while she recounts stories from camp. Caffeine, I’ve found, is a powerful enabler for discarding.

We return to the pile. This time, she sits closer to where I work. A few more times she interrupts, then quickly looks away and shouts, “No! Just do it. I don’t need it!” By the time we are done, her toys fit into a picnic basket.

“I feel like a tornado victim,” she says quietly. “Something suddenly blew through, and now I’ve lost everything.”

“But you’ll learn what you can do without,” I reply.

The next day, Ula comes home, and Saoirse’s despair has melted into pride. “Look how clean and nice it is!” She leads Ula up to the loft where her few toys granted permanent amnesty are arranged. Ula is so absorbed with her simplified surroundings, suddenly able to immerse herself in play (rather than looking for things), she doesn’t notice Saoirse disappear. I am in the kitchen fixing supper when she passes through, headed up to her own room. A few minutes later, she comes down with an armload of clothes. “I don’t need these anymore,” she tells me. Then she carries them away. I see a new pride in her—one that comes from knowing what she doesn’t need.

The job is not done. The next day, we target craft supplies. The task is so enormous that I decide it must be divided into three days. Day one is for paper and anything that touches paper— from markers and crayons to paintbrushes and glue.

We work into the night, sorting pens, discarding old drawings, testing markers. We chatter and laugh, and by bedtime, for the first time in our family’s history, we know where every pen, colored pencil, coloring book, and pair of scissors lies. And I’m able to sleep happy, until tomorrow, when we begin sorting through all the sewing supplies.