Uncluttering and other people’s things

An unfortunate uncluttering incident hit the news last week when Leonard Lasek accidentally discarded his wife’s copy of an old Judy Blume book.

As Lasek wrote on the posters he has put around his neighborhood:

I accidentally gave this book away on Saturday July 25th in a box on the corner of Green & Franklin. This book is extremely important to my wife. It was a keepsake from her mother and is irreplaceable. On the inside cover is a note that reads “Christmas 1991.” If you happened to pick up this book can you please get in touch with me.

Judy Blume heard about this and has offered to send an autographed copy as a replacement — which is wonderful, but even she isn’t sure she can get the specific edition since that particular printing is no longer available. Perhaps the person who picked it up will see one of the posters and will return it.

This incident is a good reminder that uncluttering someone else’s stuff without permission is almost never a good idea. (I’m not discussing extreme situations here, where there may be health or safety issues — just normal stuff that one person sees as clutter.)

Rather than getting rid of your partner’s things on the sly, consider going through them (with permission) and identifying those items that seem like good candidates for giving away, and then checking to see if your partner agrees.

I’ve found that checking in about everything, even the smallest of stuff, shows respect and builds trust. And that trust makes it easier to then have good discussions about the bigger things.

With children, uncluttering their things a bit more complicated. I’ve read and heard plenty of stories about adults who felt betrayed when, as children, their parents got rid of much-loved possessions. Yet involving children in every decision might be a real time-waster.

But it doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing situation. It might be fine to throw away a broken toy no one plays with anyway or to give away clothes the kids have outgrown. For other things, though, involving children in the decision-making process can teach them uncluttering habits and skills that will be useful throughout their lives. And sometimes they may surprise you! I’ve seen some children gladly give up way more toys than their parents thought they would.

At what age can children be involved? From my experience, I’d say that some preschoolers can do a fine job of choosing things to give away, with a bit of coaching. You can read online accounts of parents who started working on this with their children at age 3 or age 4.

Everyone likes to know that the things that are special to them, for whatever reason, aren’t going to disappear because someone else decided they were unimportant.

10 Comments for “Uncluttering and other people’s things”

  1. posted by infmom on

    My parents were callous discarders of other people’s things. They were so self centered that they could not understand how something that didn’t matter to them could possibly matter to anyone else.

    This is why from the earliest days I would not get rid of my kids’ stuff without their permission. Ever. Sometimes it meant persuading them that another child would love to have a toy that my kids clearly didn’t play with any more, and sometimes it meant demanding that they stay with me while we all got rid of trash.

    When my daughter moved out she left a LOT of stuff behind, but unless it was clearly trash we didn’t dispose of it. Fortunately we had room in the garage to store the boxes. This fall after the weather cools off we’re going to clean out the garage, and that means involving my daughter in the decisions on what to do with her stuff. She’s not going to like it any better than she did when she was little, but it’s the principle of the thing.

  2. posted by jc on

    I am careful to not purge other household members’ things without permission. I have, however, told them how much space they are allocated and their stuff has to fit that space both relatively neatly and safely. Several times DS has asked me to go through his things when he went to summer camp. He always left a detailed list of prized items and anything I thought might still be wanted I kept aside for him to consider when he returned.

    DD left home at age 16 for residential treatment. She has only been home twice for very short visits in the last four years. She will never live at home again. I have gradually reduced the number of boxes I am willing to store and it will reduce again to 3 small boxes this winter. The majority of the items have no particular value, monetary or sentimental. Some things she has not laid eyes on in 4 years and doesn’t even remember having them. My mother moved in with us and we have downsized 1/3 of our living space feet to accommodate an independent living space for her. Space is at a high premium now.

    I have never asked family members to purge their stuff without doing the same myself.

    We have a lot of Christmas decorations from when the children were small and liked to do the house (I did the tree). We have not used most of them in several years. This winter we will be purging those boxes over the Thanksgiving weekend so that they can be in the charity shops in time to be used that season.

  3. posted by Lisa on

    About 10 years ago, my husband callously discarded a small rocking chair and doll bed that my grandfather made for me when I was little (I am 53 now). I was keeping them for obvious sentimental reasons and to fix them up “one day when we have a grandchild”. Anyway, when I found out I was livid. The garbage collection facility in our small community was closed at the time but early the next morning I went over there. The attendent was quite surprised to see a woman dressed in business attire dumpster-diving!! I told him “these are mine, my husband threw them away and I am taking them back!” I stored them in my office at work until I left that job and about 3 years ago, I finally spruced them up and they look awesome! But, sadly, there’s still no grandchild…

  4. posted by Beverly D on

    Is this a guy thing?? My husband HATES the clutter that comes with Christmas. The packages! The wrapping! The ornaments! The decorations! you get the idea. Several years ago I received a box from my brother, who had just come back from a trip to Ireland. In the box filled with Styrofoam peanuts was a large box, then more peanuts. I took out the large box and my husband very quickly scooped up the packing box and took it out to the curb, where it was hauled off the next morning. On Christmas Day, I called my brother, who then asked, “how did the girls like their Connemara jewelry?” As I stuttered and stammered, it became clear that there were small boxes nestled in the rest of the peanuts, and they were lost. I have never since then allowed him to clear out a box without me checking every nook and cranny in it.

  5. posted by Elizabeth on

    My other/better half grew up in a family which moved house at regular intervals as his father (a medical consultant) took new postings at hospitals around the country.

    This guy – a middle-aged, hard-bitten cop – still gets teary about bags of teddy bears and cuddly toys belonging to him which mysteriously ‘disappeared’ during various house moves. He suspects the hand of his grandmother in their fate.

    And he has deep-seated resentment against his mother for toys and models which were important to him (at the time) but which he knows she disposed of without his knowledge or permission (she informed him of her actions afterwards).

  6. posted by Robinsh Kumar on

    I always care for the documents or money of mine as well as of others but never thought that even a book could be irreplaceable thing for someone (specially when it is connected with some emotions & remembrance).

    Thanks for sharing that happening, it taught me a new life lesson today.

  7. posted by Jordan on

    A good warning in this story: You don’t necessarily know what’s junk and what’s not when it comes to someone else’s stuff! That’s why if you’re living together, you need to unclutter together.

  8. posted by Sarah on

    I had a mother who would “unclutter” while we children were at school. I will never forget the day I came home and found that she & my dad had “cleaned up” the garage & backyard – and they had gotten rid of my BIKE! Seems they decided it was the wrong size for me (?!) and I never saw it again. My favorite bike ever!

    My mother also would go into the drawers of my desk and get rid of books & papers in seemingly random fashion. I had nothing to hide, and could not understand what this was about. She never saw why her behavior was a problem, and she never once apologized for doing it.

    As an adult, I now hang onto many sentimental things I don’t really “need” – just to prove to myself that it won’t happen to me again.

  9. posted by Talley_Sue_NYC on

    I’m working w/ my college age daughter to get her to clear out stuff from when she was younger. I have sometimes (but rarely) gotten rid of stuff for my kids when they were little, when I felt more confident to know what they didn’t much value.

    I had offered (threatened?) to do it for her, thinking I could be conservative. So I was mentally playing a game with myself, predicting which she would toss and what she would keep. I’ve been wrong about 90% of the time!

  10. posted by Jennifer on

    I’m getting our house ready for a big cross-country move right now and am dealing with this. My husband is a collector – he has record albums, CDs, musical instruments, knick knacks galore. I am struggling with the idea of packing all of this up to move it across the country just to collect dust. I am coordinating just about every aspect of this move and I resent having his stuff complicating this move. But I also recognize I should be more sensitive to his emotions and attachment to these items. My practical side is just screaming out that this is not a good use of our resources.

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