Guiding Children to Declutter

8 Tips on Guiding Children To Declutter

Children come with all sorts of different organizing pre-sets. I have four children, and they all have a wildly different approach to helping around the house, finishing chores, keeping their own spaces tidy, and getting rid of things they don’t need or want anymore. They all have the same mother and father, and have had access to the same examples and same parental training, but they are all so different. Even my identical twins have vastly different organizing instincts.

If you think being born into an organized home with a professional organizer as a mom means you are a shoe-in to being organized … just think about some preacher’s kid analogies and you’ll be a little closer to realistic. My kids are normal kids, which is good news for you, because they’ve given me lots of practical training in helping children work through hoarding, organizing, responsibilities, cleaning, chores, etc.

The hardest organizing work I do is within my own home with my own children. As a child myself, I fell into the self-starter category. I liked to clean my room and I created my own cleaning rotation for keeping my room spotless. I organized and re-oroganized everything in my room hundreds of times before I left to go to college, and that was before organizing was a trendy thing and reality tv shows existed and I didn’t even know what I was doing had a name. I obviously knew my kids may not be like me, especially since I married a man who, well … let’s just say “complemented” me, but it was still so shocking the first time I was confronted with one of my children wanting to keep actual garbage.

My daughter was about five, and I was teaching her to clean out a drawer. The drawer was mostly full of paper with scribbles on it and a few broken beaded necklaces and then a lollipop stick and wrapper. It was her nightstand drawer and since nothing actually belonged in the drawer, she had been stashing random things in there. I looked in and thought the drawer was going to be easy to clean because it was all trash, but she wanted to keep it all. I laid out each piece of trash, and asked which she could get rid of, and she wanted to keep them all. I tried to ask differently and every way I could think of, but she wanted to keep the garbage.

I had to take a time out and I just sobbed privately.

  • My first thought was that I had failed as a mom.
  • My next thought went to a different crazy extreme, which was that she just was a hoarder and I would have to take care of her all her life so that she wouldn’t live a terrible life surrounded by garbage, alienated from society.
  • My next thought was “Dear Heavenly Father, Please help me teach this child.”

In my study of organizing and decluttering, I started to focus on how to help children, and specifically this daughter. I’ve thought and prayed on this subject a lot. And I’ve been waiting to write this blog post for a long time, because I wanted to see … would the slow and steady progress of my philosophy and these ideas eventually add up? I wanted to share with you something that I could say: “I know this works from my personal experience.” And in such a profoundly personal way, I can say that.

Right now I am going to focus on decluttering, because if you can get a child to understand how to get rid of clutter, organizing will follow.

1. Involve The Child, Even When It Is Easier To Do The Job Alone

Children should start taking part ownership of their personal belongings and personal space as soon as it makes sense. Children share these responsibilities with their parents. For instance, young children might be given the job of adding pillows to the beds when beds are being made, and children can put their dirty clothes in their own dirty clothes basket as soon as they can walk and carry something at the same time. Toddlers and preschoolers can also help throw away their diapers and other trash too. As time passes, their confidence increases with their competence and they are able to do more for themselves and do more to take care of their personal environments.

Until a child is 4, a parent can declutter their belongings without the child present and if the parent keeps at least the child’s favorite 10-25% of their toys, usually everything is pretty smooth sailing. If a young child misses something, they can be distracted from that feeling by the sight of something that is familiar and does comfort them.

When a child is about 4 years old, a child remembers a lot more of their belongings and is more likely to notice something missing. When a child older than 4 loses something, they may get “stuck” missing something. Depending on the child’s temperament and the stability in their life,  you may be starting a vicious cycle of that child feeling like they are losing control in their environment and needing to hold on to things to gain back a feeling of control. This is a cycle, because as they hold onto things and collect lots of stuff again, you will be tempted to get rid of their things again … so they will feel a loss of control again, and this time only worse. Their need to hold onto things will come back even stronger.

Children 4 or older need to be involved in the decluttering of their spaces, even though it would be so much easier to do without them around. These are the moments that you put in the work and training that will pay itself back ten-fold for the rest of the child’s life.

2. Break The Big Job into Small Tasks

A tween or teenager may be able to declutter and clean a messy room all in one day, but that is asking a lot of a very small child. The younger the child, the smaller the increments of time they can work in one go.

Like I have outlined in the Declutter Challenge, break things up into the closet, a dresser, a shelf, the floor, etc.

And in reality, when you are facing a big turnaround in the home and you are cleaning a very messy child’s room for the first time, I understand that practicality and ideals need to meet in the middle to make things happen, so I’ll say this —. In my opinion, as long as a 4-6 year old understands what is happening in their space, if they decide to tune out and play a little while you are decluttering near them, I think that is okay. They are coping. Make sure they are present for some of the decisions to let them practice the skills, but a four year old does not need to decide about every piece of trash or broken toy. They need to decide enough so that they feel comfortable with throwing trash away. See that balance? As the parent, you need to tune in to your child and not just think about “how do I get this room clean?”

With my daughter that I was most worried about, we started doing small bursts of decluttering and then stop before she or I lost it emotionally. This is important, because you do not want to push the child too far because you don’t want them to see decluttering as this awful, terrible experience. Also, you need all the patience you can gather, so keep yourself fresh.

3. Remove Distractions

Adults and Teenagers may enjoy cleaning to music, but that can be over-stimulating to young children. Keep things quiet and remove as many distractions as possible.

4. Kids Don’t See Intrinsic Value (aka – Bribe!!)

Children aren’t born feeling the intrinsic satisfaction of a job well done. You know that feeling when you clean the kitchen at night and everything is in it’s place and the counters are clean, and you look around and think “ahh, this is nice”, and the reward you feel is in the effort you gave. Yeah, children don’t feel that. That kind of feeling comes with maturity and grows with a child as they grow into adults. So, you can start to see the seeds of intrinsic satisfaction growing in young children, but it will take many more years before that is enough motivation by itself to work hard.

Basically what I’m saying is that it is 100% acceptable to Bribe children for good behavior. In fact, when they are motivated by the bribe, they do the hard work, and then they get to finish and feel the joy of that effort, and it actually helps them in the maturing process.

I had this idea that I wanted my children to associate decluttering and cleaning their rooms with happy memories, so I started the tradition of taking them out for ice cream when we decluttered their rooms. As they’ve grown, the tradition has morphed. A few years later, when decluttering was already an established thing, I bought ice cream to have at home instead of going out. The next time, I bought them each a little candy instead. And then the next time, I didn’t have any treat at all because the treat started to become how much they loved their fresh clean spaces.

Whatever you decide to do, what you don’t want is for your child to associate the decluttering and cleaning of their spaces with fights with parents, emotional turmoil, and general terrible-ness.

This worked for me and my daughter, though, the word decluttering started to bring out smiles instead of crying!!

5. Lay out the Options

When decluttering with children, it is very helpful to group their stuff into similar things. For instance, get all the stuffed animals together, get all the blocks together, etc.

Now, give options.

Say – Pick 3 stuffed animals, 3 cars, etc.

Also say, pick something to donate.

Compromises will happen, just get through it as best you can, using teaching moments when they come up. Remind yourself that the child is in charge. Think of the big picture. Deep breaths!

6. Appreciate and Honor Their Creative Memories Without Keeping Them

My girls are always creating. We re-arranged the bedrooms to the three girls sharing a room so that we could make a bedroom into their very own craft room that we call The Clubhouse. I believe children learn through using their creativity and it has always been important to me to give them room to create and the space to make a mess. I firmly believe craft supplies are to be used up, not hoarded. Every pack of paper or spool of thread they use up is a thrill for me, because I see it as experience gained and something learned.

So where are the piles of their creations all over my house? Where’s their artwork all over my fridge (I don’t do fridge decor)? They keep a few favorite pieces of art tacked up on their wall or in their memory box and a few sewing projects in their drawers, and I have a few things I’ve kept special, but mostly their projects have been recycled if possible.

This didn’t happen by me saying “oh, this isn’t some of your best work, you should get rid of this.” Quite the opposite, as we look through their old projects, we say “wasn’t it cool when you made this, that was such a good experience” and then it goes in the recycle pile.

Children today have learned to associate that we throw things away or donate things because they aren’t good anymore. So they see their creations as still good, and don’t want to trash them. They’ve worked hard on them and don’t want to see their work as bad, and they don’t want YOU to think they are bad. So, you have to teach a new way of thinking about it, which is, “Your art makes me so happy. I love to see you create. I want you to have space to create, but if we keep everything you make, then it will take all of the space up. Let’s pick out our favorites and let the rest go, so we can keep on making new things.”

Decluttering my children’s drawers with them is a trip down memory lane of their recent creations, and I honor my child’s work. I tell them how much I love this or that about each thing, but the thing still goes into the recycle pile. I am teaching them an important life lesson, that we do not have to hate something to let it go. We can let go of the good stuff too.

This was one of the biggest breakthroughs for my daughter who needed my help the most. She is so creative – I didn’t realize when she was little that what I thought was trash was actually early artwork or things she planned on using in artwork. Once I changed my tone about the things we were getting rid of, and sounded positive, even about the things I wanted to toss, it made a huge difference to her. Sometimes I think she really just wanted my validation about these things that seemed so small to me – I didn’t even realize she was looking for it.

READ my article Saving Little Johnny’s Artwork Forever {Organizing Memory Boxes} to see how I do my children’s memory boxes.

7. Just Keep Going – On Repeat

There were many times I wondered if I was making a difference to my daughter and if all my effort to teach her was making a difference. Children learn in lots of different ways and sometimes it’s like they just aren’t getting it … until they do. And sometimes the progress is so gradual that they are learning, but you just aren’t noticing … until you finally see it.

Children aren’t going to learn from one exposure to decluttering. You must give them the chance regularly. It is not going to feel like a big momentous occasion each time. It is going to be a little here, and a little there. Every year during the declutter challenge, and every season change when all the clothes get switched out, those are some of the times I find to practice with my children. A drawer here, a shelf here … it adds up.

Fast forward to this Declutter Challenge and I was working with my daughter on her room, the very same nightstand that made me sob 5 years ago. I asked her if she wanted my help decluttering her nightstand and she said yes. (One daughter said no, one daughter had a few questions, and this daughter said yes – all three girls are still all so different.)

Now my daughter, who once wanted to keep garbage, is now 10, and what a different experience decluttering with her was this year. I had to hold back tears for a different reason.

“Do you want to keep this painting?”


“That was really fun to make that day we went to the museum.”

“Yeah, it was.” (into the trash)

“What about all of your origami? You can make a lot of tricky stuff.”

“I think I should move the the unused paper into my desk with the rest of my unused paper. I can recycle these folded ones. I want to try some different ones.”

“That makes sense.”

“Mom, which drawer should I put my nail clippers in?”

She is so bright and amazing, and I think she’ll have the beautiful life that she deserves … not surrounded by garbage.

8. Focus on the Child, Not the Room

Your goal when you are working on decluttering with children, is not to to focus on making the space perfect, you are focused on the child. You should think:

  • how do I make this a better experience for them?
  • how do I help them?
  • how could they enjoy this?
  • how will this help them in the future?
  • what are they seeing in me?

Forget Pinterest-perfect rooms. Forget perfectionism altogether. None of that really matters if you have a happy child who is learning and growing!

Happy Decluttering!


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15 thoughts on “Guiding Children to Declutter

  1. Thank you so much for this perspective. Next week I will be working with my lovely, beautiful, sweet, sixteen-year-old, VERY MESSY daughter. I tend to get focused on the task and bulldoze right over the people that are not on mission with me. I am going to take a different approach with her this time. I feel it will take much longer but be well worth the effort. Daily I tell her your room is a disaster! Clean it up! I have trouble understanding how it can get like that EVERY DAY! I’m going try a different approach this time. Wish me luck!

    1. Good luck! There IS a reason it is getting like that, getting to the bottom of the WHY will help both of you so much. Maybe take her out to ice cream to talk about it! :)

  2. Thank you Mary! I have struggled with this! Many great ideas here of how to really apply this to our family.
    One thing that helps me let go of their art creations is to take a digital picture of it. We can then file it in their Craft folder on the computer and they can look at all the neat projects that they have done over the years.

  3. My boys created thousands of drawings and colouring pages. They all end up shoved in a cupboard (once the fridge magnets are full) and every so often we pull them out in a big pile. I sit both boys down and tell them they get to choose 5 each as special ones to put in their memory file, then I started holding up one picture at a time for them to decide to keep or toss. Of course, the first 5 are always keep, so from then on if they want to keep one they have to trade for it. It really helps them figure out if they love it more than what’s already in their “keep” pile, and they are the ones decided what’s precious to them, not me.

  4. This post really resonates with me right now. I too am a self created organizer. I spent my childhood rearranging my furniture and possessions so everything was “just right”. My daughter is almost 10 and I have just started seeing a huge change in her willingness to Declutter over the past year. She too liked to keep trash, especially the foil wrappers from Easter chocolates because the Easter Bunny was on them. I was SURE she was destined to be a hoarder.

    I have consistently and (mostly) patiently worked with her throughout her life to keep things organized and purged. I always felt like I was going nowhere really fast. I have spent a lot of time crying after a cleaning session with her and worrying about what her life would be like when she grows up surrounded by clutter.

    This last year, she just decided to start letting go of so much and now she is a champ at decluttering! She tells me when her room feels too “junky” and she is overwhelmed and we sit down and go through her things. She is able to let go of things so easily now. She has a memory box and a bin that she can keep all the little notes, cards, balloons, trinkets and junk her little heart desires. When the bin is full, we go through it. She is able to get rid of a lot of things that only a short while ago seemed so important. The memory box and bin are so important. It gives her a safe place to keep things that I think are completely junk. I have learned acceptance and compromise according to her personality and it really works.

    I feel like those little cleaning sessions that were really a struggle did eventually pay off! We are now reaping the benefits of almost 10 years of gentle training. I am loving it!!!!

    1. I loved reading this so much and hearing your story! Sounds like we would have a lot to talk about over a lunch. ;)

      I love that these kids are gaining real skills and won’t have painful, traumatic memories associated with decluttering. Good job!!!

  5. I’m going to take (a qualified) exception to #4 and state that kids are actually BORN with the kind of intrinsic motivation that you’re talking about. It’s a lot harder for them to get the more abstract connection between a neat personal space like a bedroom and a peaceful feeling, but there probably isn’t a need to bribe here.

    Not saying anyone who DOES bribe should beat themselves up – not at all! If it works for you, it does; every family is different. Right now we’re using the promise of a laptop to get the high-schooler’s desk surface unearthed. *grin*

    But IME when we’ve cleaned out a corner and I’ve called attention to how nice it is, that’s all I’ve needed to do to get another corner of work done by/with the kids, especially when they’re younger and especially when all they’ve known is Mom’s (my) Casual Housekeeping. The contrast is apparent right away, and they’re less reluctant to help out once they get the idea. :-)

    Looking forward to the 2017 91-day Declutter so we can re-boot the house! :-)

    1. If positive reinforcement is working for you, keep that up! It is, of course, important for all of us to give our kids positive reinforcement, no matter our other tactics.

      But, sometimes you need some help to get some positive behavior to reinforce. Bribing can bridge the gap. :)

  6. This article hit home for me. Today, my 10 year old daughter (very similar to yours) completely surprised me and, as I was cleaning out my clothing drawers decided she wanted to do hers at the same time too. I was a little worried as she keeps all the things generally or takes it all out, gets tired and I pick it up so she has room to sleep. She did a fabulous job and chose the items I was thinking of getting rid of all on her own, with a few questions. My heart is swelling and I feel rewarded after many years of restraint from yelling, “just throw it out, it’s trash!” paid off and we had a great afternoon each cleaning our drawers. I hope it continues.

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