Teaching children to fight clutter

Today we welcome Mandi Ehman to share her tips on helping kids learn to battle clutter.

If you’re committed to living an uncluttered life, you probably want to pass those same ideals on to your children as well. Here are five methods we have used (and continue to use) to teach our four children the value of uncluttering and organizing:

  1. Model good behavior: It’s no secret that children are greatly influenced by their parents’ actions. “Do as I say and not as I do” just doesn’t work, and it’s not enough to try to teach your kids the value of living an uncluttered life if you’re buried under a pile of stuff yourself.
  2. Share your struggles: That said, I firmly believe that kids learn more from watching us struggle and overcome than they do from living with the impression that we’re perfect and have it all figured out. Let your kids know when you realize you’ve bought something that is a waste of time, money, and space. Let them see you wrestle with the decision to give away certain items. And let them watch you walk through the process of deciding what to keep and what to sell or give away.
  3. Get them involved: Although it’s easier to unclutter without children underfoot, it’s important to involve children in the process. No one likes to have their stuff thrown or given away without their permission, and if you regularly involve your kids in the process, you may find that it’s not nearly as bad as you expect.
  4. Set limits and let them make the choices: Everyone has things they hold onto that don’t make sense to outside observers, and it’s important to give children freedom to choose special toys and knick knacks of their own — within limits. Set concrete limits on toys and doodads and let your children decide what to keep and what to give away within those limits. My girls each have a special container next to their bed with miscellaneous doodads that don’t belong anywhere else. They are allowed to keep whatever they want as long as everything fits in the box. This gives them control of the decisions so that I don’t have to play the bad guy.
  5. Don’t wield uncluttering as a threat or punishment: If you want to give your children the tools they need to live an uncluttered life, it’s very important that uncluttering not be used as a threat or punishment. Threatening to throw away or give away their toys if they don’t clean their room doesn’t do anything except make them hold onto their stuff more tightly. In our home, uncluttering is always handled matter-of-factly and never with negative connotations. If I feel the need to take away certain toys to handle behavior issues, they’re packed up and put away for a specific period of time.

What methods do you use to teach your children the value of uncluttering and organizing?

37 Comments for “Teaching children to fight clutter”

  1. posted by Joe Ganley on

    My kids caught on very quickly: After the first few fights as we were walking out the door because they didn’t know where their shoes were, they learned that if they put them back where they belong (each child has her own shoe basket under a bench by the front door), EVERY TIME, then there is never a problem with not knowing where they are.

    We always make a point that if they can’t find something of theirs, it’s their own fault, and then we show them where/how to keep things so that they can always find them.

    My wife’s first rule for kids and uncluttering: Make it easier for them to put things away than to get things out. For example, all toys go in baskets or bins; when it’s time to clean up, they can just scoop it all up and dump it in the basket.

  2. posted by NancyV908 on

    I like this piece b/c it is realistic. I often read about parents with really draconian rules about clutter or neatness that I think are too restrictive for kids. My feeling is that once kids enter the picture your household is bound to be a little more cluttered; the trick is to keep it within reason, not to surrender to it.

    I have one child who is in the Lego-train track phase; he will dump out multiple boxes of them (my least favorite sound in the world!) & create a huge mess, but he is being creative & learning from it all, so I let him do it–but he knows he has to clean it up at the end of the day. I have another who is in the hold-on-to-trinkets phase that Mandi mentions; I would dearly love to sweep that stuff away & see some actual surfaces in her room, but the things are important to her so they stay. But we periodically go through them, to keep the amount under control. I like the idea of the designted box for odd things, with its built-in limits.

    Other than that, I encourage my kids to clean things up before they move on to the next item, with limited success. But they are used to “family cleanup,” which happens every night. I think this is (slowly) instilling some good habits in them.

  3. posted by Joe Ganley on

    Oh, the dumping-toys sound. Ouch.

    We’re pretty strict about clutter (hopefully not quite Draconian), but we do relax the rules a little when they have a Lego or K’Nex work in progress.

  4. posted by JCos on

    Couldn’t these ideas work with a spouse too?

  5. posted by Dawn F. on

    We pay our 7-year-old son a small weekly allowance. The allowance is earned by being responsible for his bedroom and playroom – that includes putting away toys, putting his dirty laundry in the hamper, putting his clean laundry (like socks and undies) back in their respective drawers, making his bed each morning, etc., etc.

    He has learned that when he puts things back in their “home” spot he doesn’t lose things or misplace pieces/parts. It has worked out wonderful for him AND us!

    Not only does earning a monetary allowance give him some incentive, he has showed a sense of pride in his bedroom and playroom by keeping it clean, neat and tidy. He is always happy to bring his friends and grandparents over to join in playtime.

  6. posted by [email protected] on

    These are great tips, Mandi! Part of our kids bedtime routine is to find a home for everything on their floor. Since we worked together in the past to find everything that belongs in their room a home, it goes really fast and easy. Setting limits on what comes in is also huge. We have toy purges right before Christmas and in the spring. The kids are involved in this process and each time we do it, they find they can part with a little more.

  7. posted by Chance on

    We have our two kids (age 10 and 11) make sure all their stuff is in their room or in its place by 7:00 pm Tuesday and 7:00 pm Saturday. Then Wednesday after school and Sunday morning the family does a 30 minute speed clean of the house. We teach the kids how to quickly clean by doing this as a family and they see how having stuff out of place slows this down. Afterwards is family fun time. If their cleaning is impeded by picking up stuff the family fun time is greatly reduced. So far the results have been OK but not great. They are learning how to clean, however their stuff is not up to satisfactory standards and we have as yet never had the time to do what we planed fro family fun time and had to settle for less fun options. I am not happy whit spending my precious family time helping them pick up their stuff. The issue seems to be the kids don’t remember who got what out and both pass over things thinning it was the others responsibility and this can lead to disagreements. Or Saturday or Tuesday evening something came up and got in the way. We are considering telling the kids that if all their stuff is not up resulting in the cleaning taking to long that we are going to use their allowance to pay for a maid to clean. Or to charge them for the amount of time it takes to put all their stuff in a box and put it into their room. I am curious of others thoughts on this. Is it too harsh? Does anyone else have any suggestions or insight?

  8. posted by Amandine on

    Great tips. I would add two more — make it part of a routine, and show them how to break it down into smaller parts.

    The routine: we always do a clothing purge in the spring before new summer clothes are bought, and in late summer before school shopping. I actually have a checklist I use to determine what we have that will still work for the new season, and what we will need to buy. My kids have learned that we buy what we NEED, and when we have that, we are done with clothes shopping for 6 months!

    My kids are expected to clean their rooms each Saturday as part of their chores. That includes picking up & putting everything away where it belongs. I am picky about them actually putting everything away at this time, and really cleaning. Otherwise, I don’t bug them about their rooms at all. This has worked out very well for them, and me.

    Breaking it down: decluttering in bits when their rooms get overwhelming. I’ll suggest, why don’t you clean out just your bookshelves today? Or just your “treasure box”, etc. I always sat down with my kids and kept them company as we went through their stuff. Now that they are older (15 & 11), they can do it on their own, and both of them are pretty good about letting stuff go.

    I also second the idea on limits. Works great for me, too!

  9. posted by Laura on

    @Chance – I think you should think about instituting the “putting things away” rule for nightly at 7 PM rather than twice a week. It will be easier to make it a routine if they have to do it nightly.

    I think starting young and doing the cleanup daily is key. My 14 month old already knows that we do clean up every night as the start of our evening routine. I started doing this at around 5 months with us doing the work while holding her. Some nights it is more work than others to get her to do it, and most of the time I have to give her specific commands (i.e., hand her a lego and tell her “put the lego in the basket”), but she knows it’s something we do.

    What’s funny is when we started, we would applaud when we were done, so now she applauds herself (sometimes after every toy).

  10. posted by Amandine on

    @Chance: Perhaps you could have the kids start earlier cleaning up their stuff. Give them an hour’s head start on the picking up, before you come in to check their rooms/play areas. At 10 & 11, they are old enough to be doing this without any help at all.

    I always gave my kids specific areas that they could keep toys & their own belongings. When too many toys had migrated out of those areas, I would ask my kids ONCE to put them away. Anything left out after that time got donated to the local Goodwill. I never threatened them with this as a punishment, I was just very calm & matter-of-fact about it. Believe me, they will take care of the toys they actually care about. If they are not picking everything up, I would tell them if they don’t want to take care of these items any longer, then you will, but then they will be gone.

    It took my son a little while to catch on to this. When some of his favorite toys went missing, and he realized they had gone to Goodwill, he knew I meant business.

    Some moms accused me of being “mean” by doing this, but I wanted my kids to grow up being responsible for their belongings. They won’t ever learn responsibility if there aren’t any consequences for their actions. And both my kids are very responsible now.

  11. posted by Joe Ganley on

    @Chance – We have the same problem with “but it’s not my mess.” We’re trying, with some success but not as much as I’d like, to convince them that it doesn’t matter who made the mess, noting that we parents clean up their messes all the time. We praise effusively when one kid cleans up another kid’s mess without being asked to. They’re getting it, if slowly. Developing good habits takes time, for them just as for us.

  12. posted by chacha1 on

    @Chance, it sounds as though you may be teaching your kids that “family fun time” is less important to you than having a clean house. They aren’t getting the promised payoff, so their incentive to be productive isn’t holding up.

    I’d suggest you need to think about why and how two kids can spread so much stuff out over your home that the whole family can’t get it picked up in an hour. (How big is the house??) Defined areas for defined activities should be the first step here, reducing their total amount of leisure crap the second.

    Frankly, by the time we were 10 and 11, my sister and I were expected to keep all our crap in our room; if we carried anything out, to play with on the porch or in the living room or wherever, it was to be returned to our room that day.

    And of course, modeling the behavior is key. If you drop things randomly as you pass through the house, so will the kids. Joe’s point is excellent, keeping the house tidy is a team effort.

  13. posted by Mandi @ Organizing Your Way on

    Amandine, I love your idea of encouraging them to clean a small area at a time when things get overwhelming. That’s how I organize my own stuff too!

    Chance, I agree with Laura about making it an everyday routine instead of twice a week. We actually straighten twice a day — before lunch/nap and before dinner — since we’re home all day, and while we do leave out works in progress, doing it more often means there’s a whole lot less to clean up at any one time.

    I’m not sure I agree about not being willing to help them. My girls help me with my chores, and I help them. They are younger, so that’s part of it, but the other part is that we all work together to get it done (and we might just break out into a rousing rendition of “What’s it gonna take? Teamwork! What’s it gonna take? Teamwork!” while we’re at it!)

  14. posted by Gina on


    Ditto what others said, except I’ll add its absolutely too harsh to decide to hire a cleaning service and then take the cost of that out of their allowance (dang, how much allowance are you giving them?)

    I wouldn’t hinge money on this issue in any form.

  15. posted by opadit on

    My ex-husband and I split when my daughter was 5, and we’ve been in our current home since she was 6. It’s a small 2-bedroom flat in a 3-unit, 3-floor condo building. My daughter lives with me about half the time, so she has a full complement of clothing, toys, toiletries, and so on here in my home.

    When she was little, I allowed her to have a play area by the livingroom sofa where she had to keep her toys. By the end of the day, she was expected to (almost literally) shovel all her stuff — blocks, drawings, stuffies, etc. — into that little area or to put it away in her room. After she outgrew her blocks, and after I’d been through the most time-consuming year of law school, we eliminated her play area. We made the decision together; that is, I decided it was going to go away, and I helped her see that our home looked better, and she had more privacy with her play, if her stuff stayed in her room. We gathered up her blocks and donated them, recycled most of her drawings, and sorted through the other toys.

    Now her room is usually a disaster area, at least to my standards. But I can get in there and vacuum, and I have her clear off her surfaces on a regular basis.

    Going through our clothes is an on-going thing. Luckily (at least, luckily in this context) she outgrows things quickly. Other than the Hello Kitty t-shirt she had to wear almost every day when she was in kindergarten, she has almost no undue emotional attachment to her clothes, and she readily gives up things that don’t fit any more. I check in with her with every load of laundry: she has to put her clothes away after I take them down off the drying rack and fold them, and I remind her to put donatable stuff in the give-away pile rather than in her dresser or closet.

    The biggest thing for us has been to make everything a habit: cleaning up, putting things away, and donating clothes and toys. It’s not yearly or monthly or weekly, it’s daily — I’m trying to teach her to be mindful of our household neatness goals all the time.

  16. posted by Snufkin on

    This is my situation in reverse. I’m the very organized, anti-clutter child of a packrat family. Good luck with trying to ingrain habits. Even from the age of 10, trying to show my mom how easy it is to keep things organized, it never ever happens. If anything, her system for de-cluttering and organizing is to get so messy I want to pull my hair out and do it for her.

  17. posted by lana on

    I totally agree with Joe Ganley (and his wife). Make things easy for kids to put away and they will usually do it with very little coaxing; especially if the option is to live without that particular item the next time they need it if they don’t put it away.

    My daughter is 15 and has always had packrat tendencies (like both of her parents). When she was younger, I was much more lenient about her clutter, but now that she’s older and can understand how clutter affects the whole family, I expect her to be responsible for her own mess, just as my husband and I are responsible for ours. If she makes a habit of not putting her things back, I’ll take it away for a week. It only took one week of living without makeup for her to learn I meant business. 😉

    What helped enormously in her situation, I think, was showing her the benefits of a less-is-more lifestyle. We let her say goodbye to and choose the toy, books and clothes that she would give away *and* we let her see the direct benefit of her generosity by having her come along as we donated these things.

    We also try to practice what we preach and teach by example. It’s never too early to teach kids about “grown-up” topics like consumerism and media manipulation. When commercials come on that blatantly pander to our insecurities or try to sucker us into believing we need Brand X, our family makes a game of skewering them mercilessly. We’ve done this since our daughter was 5 or 6 and she is a very savvy shopper as a result.

  18. posted by opadit on

    @lana — re your last paragraph, I had the funniest exchange with my daughter a little while ago when the first winter homewares catalog from L.L. Bean arrived in the mail. I said, “Wow, honey, every year when we get this crazy catalog it makes me worry that we don’t have enough blankets. But then I thought about it and realized that we have about 15, if you include our sleeping bags. So since we have an odd number, which one of us gets 8 blankets, and which one of us gets 7?”

    It was amusing to see how the catalog pressed my emergency preparedness buttons, and it was nice to have a teachable moment about consumerism, thrift, and preparedness with my daughter.

  19. posted by Eva Wallace on

    I love this – thank you! Especially about giving them their own box of “un-touchables”. Wish I would have been aware of more of these tips when my kids were little. And really, some of these tips can apply to more in life than just clutter and organizing. I am transparent with a lot of my adult struggles to my kids and they have really appreciated that over the years.

  20. posted by PatriciaD on

    We set the time for 15 minutes and EVERYONE cleans their room or the house for that 15 minutes. This works especially well if we’re getting ready to go out for a fun family time and we come home to a cleaner house. We also use the Watch me do it, Help me do it, I watch you and now You do it on your own cleaning method. This way the kids know what you expect, know how to do what you want done and can do it themselves.

  21. posted by Laura Webber on

    For ‘artistic clutter’ try taking a digital picture of art projects – or even your child holding the art project before tossing it! Sometimes its just the memories that need to last, not the artwork!

  22. posted by Ruth on

    Loving reading the comments! Some great ideas there. Thanks everyone!

    We have several clean-up times each day. Before lunch, before we pick my eldest up from school and before bath time in the evening. Toys are not allowed in the lounge room. We have ‘room play’ every morning for an hour before lunch (while I get some time to myself). The kids have quickly realised that the more they get out the more time it takes to pack away. I have a rule that is ‘when you’re finished playing with it, pack it away’. My three girls rarely go back to the game they were playing or back to the craft they were making so the rule is pack away.

    The dressing table in their room is for ‘their’ things as well as a treasure box. On ‘cleaning’ day they are responsible to wipe down their dressing table and reorganise it. They usually de clutter it.

    I struggle with drawings and crafty things that they have made. I don’t like that sort of clutter. The rules here are – Only one item per person on the fridge. Only one box construction on your dressing table, and, If it’s left laying around it mustn’t be a special one. I have a plastic sleeve folder where they put their drawings that they did at preschool and at home that they can’t part with. I’ll also put their paintings on the cupboard in their room but once again, only one.

    As for toys, if the lid doesn’t fit on the toy box it’s time to purge. They help me do this.

    Wow! Sorry that was so long!

  23. posted by Jessica on

    I’ve done decluttering work with other families, and I’ve found that boys are typically naturals at decluttering! I simply say, “Let’s get rid of any old toys that would embarrass you when your friends come over, and whatever we sell at the yard sale, you can use that money toward a new game.” They light right up and start bagging everything in sight!

    Girls seem to respond more to the idea that we periodically clean out our closets and donate things to charity, because other people might need it more than we do.

    For both, we talk about how everyone in the family tries to be considerate of everyone else, and that’s why we have shared areas that everyone helps keep neat and clean. The only problem with this approach is when the kids start holding the parents accountable.

    I have a teenage stepdaughter now, and she tends to be… a bit… casual in her approach to housekeeping. We’ve agreed that as long as her bedroom door is shut, sheets and laundry are washed once a week, and the floor is vacuumed, she can do what she wants. Personal items left around the house are rounded up either before dinner time or before we leave the house together. We’ve spent a lot of time discussing the ‘categorical imperative’ and how that relates to living with others.

    In general I think kids respond best to structure, and they’ll cheerfully go along with any rules that seem fair and consistent.

  24. posted by The Simple Dollar » The Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: The Santa Question Edition on

    […] Teaching Children to Fight Clutter My perspective is that clutter goes hand-in-hand with the accumulation of too many material items, which is often linked to financial problems. As I watch my children slowly accumulate toys, I’m beginning to plan a big decluttering of their items soon – perhaps in the early summer when we have a yard sale. (@ unclutterer) […]

  25. posted by The Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: The Santa Question Edition | Frugal Living News on

    […] Teaching Children to Fight Clutter My perspective is that clutter goes hand-in-hand with the accumulation of too many material items, which is often linked to financial problems. As I watch my children slowly accumulate toys, I’m beginning to plan a big decluttering of their items soon – perhaps in the early summer when we have a yard sale. (@ unclutterer) […]

  26. posted by sandy on

    REcently, both of my girls (ages 16 and 11) just went through their rooms and our basement. They were ruthless.
    I went through the totes that they had filled (to make sure nothing valuable was being tossed). I found a lot of the little toys that they had collected/been given/found/bought and put them all in a pile. As it is, our family has taken up geo-caching recently, and both girls babysit. SO…all those really tiny things are now geocache trash (when you geocache, you take an object and leave an object on some of them), and the slightly larger items went into a container that my girls use when babysitting. Each child they babysit for gets to pick an item to take home with them…guess who is everyone’s favorite babysitter in the neighborhood???

  27. posted by The Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: The Santa Question Edition on

    […] Teaching Children to Fight Clutter My perspective is that clutter goes hand-in-hand with the accumulation of too many material items, which is often linked to financial problems. As I watch my children slowly accumulate toys, I’m beginning to plan a big decluttering of their items soon – perhaps in the early summer when we have a yard sale. (@ unclutterer) […]

  28. posted by Sarah on

    I think an idea that has multiple lessons is the idea of making use of a single table for any ongoing project. This keeps all of the items needed for that project in one area, and it means that projects won’t be totally abandoned because the children can’t start on a new project until they’ve finished the old one, so children learn to finish what they start. My family used to use the dining room table but that’s because we didn’t entertain very often; a cheap foldable table would work just as well. In a house with more than one child (there were 4 kids in my house growing up!), as the children get older and demand more space they will have to learn to share the table and keep their tools contained so they don’t get mixed up with their sibling’s tools.

  29. posted by Vanessa on

    I babysit two boys (5 & 7), and we clean up the basement after playing (they can mess an entire basement very quickly!). They know I’ll help them clean, as long as they are cleaning also. If I notice them dawdling or playing with the toys, I stop cleaning. Then they have to clean by themselves for about 5 minutes before I’ll help them again. They tend to think of me as their maid, so that was the best way for them to realize that I won’t clean up their messes for them.

    Their mom also makes them do a “clean house” type of thing before their birthdays and Christmas. She told them that since they have so many toys, Santa might think they have TOO many, so he won’t bring them as many toys. So they get big bags and completely clear out most of their toys. They don’t get attached to their stuff, so it’s easy for them, and they are happy to clean since it means more toys in the future, haha.

  30. posted by A Frugal Chick » Frugal Fridays on

    […] I get older I am becoming more of a minimalist. Here is a great article on some small steps you can take with your kids to teach them that […]

  31. posted by Lenetta @ Nettacow on

    Excellent ideas! Hubs is a genetic clutterer (though he hates it) and I’ve become one so I don’t get hacked at his minor cluttering. It’s a survival technique, I promise. :>) Regardless, it’s not a habit I want my little one to have, so we need to get to work! I linked to this on my weekly roundup, post is under my name. Thanks!

  32. posted by Petra Teunissen-Nijsse on

    This is a nice post on teaching children to give their toys away viaSanta: http://www.parenthacks.com/200.....as-ev.html

  33. posted by Emily on

    My mother had two brilliant strategies she used with us.

    First was 3 or 4 times a year we had to do a massive cleaning of our room. We started with three piles – keep, give, throw. By the time we were done, the piles were about equal – maybe slightly skewed to the keep. But, it seemed to work and every choice was up to us. I use that strategy still today!

    Second thing was ’10 things’. My mom turned cleaning and decluttering into a game. We would each have to pick up ten things before dinner or throw away ten things by the end of the week. It really took the intimidation of the big task away. I just completed ten things for ten days and pushed myself to get rid of 100 things in just over a week. It’s amazing how quickly things go once you get started.

  34. posted by Teaching Kids With Hands On Activities | Teaching About it on

    […] all the whiney kids you see on Dr. Phil? I’d explore this psychological breakthrough longer. Teaching children to fight clutter If you drop things randomly as you pass through the house, so will the kids. Joe’s point […]

  35. posted by 31 Days of Organizing for a Better 2010: Resist Consumerism | Organizing Your Way on

    […] guest posted at Unclutterer last month, sharing four tips to help children fight clutter. When I opened up the conversation for additional tips, Tanna from Complete Organizing Solutions […]

  36. posted by Freelance Writing Portfolio on

    […] Unclutterer Teaching Children to Fight Clutter […]

  37. posted by Putting children to work as housekeepers — Doodaddy on

    […] And if I catch Fern just right, she loves to do chores with me. Anything involving water, obviously, is a huge game, but the room takes serious threat, or reward, or bribe, or else (and this is usually the case) I just clean it. To myself, I pretend I’m modeling good behavior, which my favorite clutter blog tells me is very important. […]

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