Ask Unclutterer: Receiving unwanted gifts

Reader Wendy submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

What do you do when you come from a culture where gifting is part of etiquette? For example, when my daughter turned one recently, my mother who happened to be visiting from our home country brought back TONS of clothing (whether the right size or not) and toys for my daughter. It was overwhelming. Most of the items are either not usable in the near future, or my daughter has no interest. I don’t have a problem going through and donating or re-gifting, but it takes so much of my time! Should I just talk to my mother although she may get upset? Thanks!

I know it can be frustrating to be bombarded with stuff you don’t need. And, the smaller your space, the larger that frustration can feel. As frustrated as you’re feeling, though, the last thing you should do is tell your mother that she can’t give your daughter gifts.

Showering grandchildren with gifts is one of the joys of being a grandparent. It is clear that your mother is thrilled to have your daughter in her life, and one of the ways she is expressing that is by giving her as many wonderful things as she can. As much as it feels to you like a burden, her generosity is a blessing. Not all kids have grandparents who show interest in them or give gifts or are alive.

Remember that it’s the act of gift giving that is important, not the gift itself. Tell your mother thank you for being so generous with your daughter. Accept the gifts, write her a note of appreciation (have your daughter do this when she learns to write), and then decide what you want to do with the items after your mom has returned home.

Keep the things your daughter wants or that you think she can use in the near future. Donate to charity clothing that won’t ever work for your daughter. Re-gift toys that weren’t a hit with her. If your mother purchased items in the states, see if you can return the unwanted items for ones your daughter can use. It does take time, but not more than a few hours, and it won’t damage your relationship with your mother.

Although you can’t tell your mother what to buy for her granddaughter, you can suggest to her what your daughter needs and wants. Two months before the next gift-giving holiday, let it slip into conversation if your daughter needs or wants specific items like a new bed or new shoes (and what size) or a membership to the local zoo or dance lessons. If she’s computer savvy, create an Amazon wishlist and let her know about it to help her brainstorm gift ideas.

Don’t pressure your mom into buying things your daughter needs or wants. Don’t give her a guilt trip or hint in any way that you have been disappointed with gifts she has given in the past. Just let her know what your daughter could use, and then let it go. Whatever your mother decides to give is up to her, and her act of gift giving should be sincerely appreciated — irrespective of if you keep the gift or not.

As a final note, I want to point out that some of my son’s favorite things are gifts generous friends and family members gave to him that I never would have purchased or thought my son would have loved. Conversely, some things we put on his wishlist that we thought he would love, turned out to be total duds.

Thank you, Wendy, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Sitter information forms

When you leave your home, you may have a babysitter, pet-sitter, or house-sitter watch over your children, pets, or things. Completing an information sheet with important contact and vital data can keep you and the sitter organized and ready for anything.

You can print and fill out these forms exactly as they are, or use them as inspiration for creating your own.




Sleek and streamlined diaper bags

Diaper bags — like purses and wallets — can be magnets for clutter. I speak from personal experience when I say that things go into them and rarely, if ever, come out. The smaller the bag, usually the easier it is to keep it clutter free and stuffed only with essentials.

I’m quite fond of the Pronto! Changing Station because it comes in fun, modern prints and it has a wrist strap for easy portability:

Small bags like this also can be slid into a larger bag, if you need food or blankets for a longer trip.

Fisher-Price makes a very similar product for about half the price, but without the wristlet and it is adorned with cartoon animals:

Both options are great for reducing the bulk and the clutter that plagues so many traditional diaper bags on the market.

Multifunctional children’s furniture

Now that my son has outgrown his Jumperoo, my husband and I have been on the lookout for a child-size chair. Like most toddlers, my 15-month-old son is insistent upon asserting his independence, and so he wants his own chair. If you try to sit on the same chair or couch he’s on, he’ll go to great lengths to get you to sit somewhere other than his piece of furniture.

We considered getting the Kapsule Chair because it is cute, inexpensive ($49), and doubles as toy storage. Ultimately, we didn’t buy it because when our son outgrows it in a couple years, the chair becomes another thing cluttering up the house.

In the end, we decided to get the Candu Chair, which can also be transformed into a playtable/desk, bedside table, easel, step stool, rocking chair, and magazine/book rack:

It’s 21″ x 18″ x 18″ and weighs 16 lbs. It’s certainly more expensive than the Kapsule — the Candu Chair is $125 on Amazon — but it’s a piece that should have utility for at least the next 17 years. For families like ours that live in small spaces, the more multi-functional the furniture, the better.

Workspace of the Week: Computer desk makeover

This week’s Workspace of the Week is Apostrophe Lover’s transformed desk into a baby changing and storage station:

Apostrophe Lover explained the redesign in the comments to the photographs:

It’s actually a repurposed computer desk. I’m a working, first-time parent (as is my spouse), and I wanted to have everything organized and accessible for those bleary-eyed baby changings. The trash can (the step function is essential) sits where the computer once did.

When closed, the baby station just looks like an armoire. The baby’s laundry basket is just to the right (soiled items can be tossed in even when the station is open).

On the inside of the right door is a hanging organizer “For those extra things that don’t get used every day, but that need to be nearby: nasal aspirator, cotton swabs, corn starch, Desitin, and nail clippers.”

Check the Flickr pool for more photos and even the cutie baby boy who “works” here. Thanks to Apostrophe Lover for this great office transformation.

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

Uncluttered baby: The EZ Bundle

This is an item I really wish would have existed a year ago when we were outfitting our home with baby gear:

The EZ Bundle 4-in-1 Baby System from Fisher-Price is an infant swing, high chair, newborn seat, and toddler seat all in one unit. You don’t need to buy four different items, just the one that transforms into the four different uses. Brilliant. And the suggested retail price is only $150.00 — which is less than many individual swings.

Ask Unclutterer: Organizing child-related documents

Reader Victoria submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

My husband and I our expecting our first child in July. Being the responsible adults we are (ha?), we took the child-birth and breastfeeding classes to prepare. Now I’m overwhelmed by all the handouts on everything from heartburn to pre-term labor to when to start feeding solids, etc. I’m at a lost at what to do with it all. Should I keep some of the handouts for future reference, or recycle them and look toward other resources for answers when needed? Help!

A giant congratulations to you on your expectant little one! The first thing to do is remember that thousands of years of women have given birth and raised children successfully without any of those pamphlets. So, if anything happens to them, you’ll be fine. I’m not saying you should get rid of them, but if you do, you’ll easily be able to ask your doctor, friends, and family for advice, as well as consult numerous books on these same topics once your child is born.

That being said, a nice resource guide is never a bad thing to keep around, especially if it provides advice you trust. I recommend getting a three-ring binder and filling it with sheet protectors. Sort through all the pamphlets and handouts you’ve received, and put those that you think are worthwhile into the sheet protectors. You might also want to store important numbers, track your child’s measurements, and keep any valuable papers related to your child in the same notebook. A three-ring binder is perfect to take with you to all those doctor’s visits you’ll make the first year and easy to use when you need the resources at 2:00 in the morning when your child is crying for no apparent reason.

I think you’ll be surprised, though, at how rarely you consult those resources. I really only looked at the chart I had about when to introduce certain foods and how to identify possible allergic reactions. The notebook was more of a security blanket for me. I’m glad I had it, but now that my son is about to turn one, I’ve already recycled the vast majority of papers in it.

If you’re worried that you’ll need something after you’ve recycled it, simply scan it and just keep the information digitally before dropping the handout into the recycling bin. Also, the notebooks are great to keep even after your child reaches his or her first birthday. They’re perfect for keeping track of your child’s sports schedules, preschool phone tree, and all those random papers your child will acquire. If you have another child, get a new three-ring binder for him or her, too.

Thank you, Victoria, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. And, again, congratulations on becoming a parent! Be sure to check out the comments for more ideas from parents about how to organize your child-related documents.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Ask Unclutterer: Simple baby-proofing solutions

Reader Liz submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

My husband and I recently bought our first house, and we’re really looking forward to all the space, especially with our 20-month-old son! However, we have an issue I haven’t seen addressed here (or anywhere for that matter) — what is a good computer set-up that can also be locked away to keep little fingers away from the keyboard, mouse, and tower? We’re looking for something relatively inexpensive, but we haven’t found a good solution that would also fit in a living room, since our computer/monitor also functions as our TV/DVD player. Any suggestions?

My eight-month-old son is about a week away from taking his first, unassisted steps. The past month has been a giant lesson in baby proofing our home as he has learned to pull himself up to standing and toddle along next to any surface that will support him. I wholly understand your dilemma.

We found that making items “invisible” is the best thing to do with the things that can’t be set on high shelves. If my son doesn’t see the breakable and expensive electronics, he has no interest in messing with them.

For cords and cables, we used Kwik Clips to secure them to baseboards, support beams, the desktop, and along the back of furniture. Not only are the cables secured, but they become “invisible” because they’re no longer obviously there. We also put down area rugs to hide our surround sound speaker wires and then ran the wires up through the speaker stands. For your computer table, a large mouse pad might work in a similar fashion.

For your electronics, you can hide these items by installing cupboard doors or screens to an existing desk or media center, or purchase a new storage system that already has doors. If the doors open, simply use childproof latches to keep them closed. If you’re buying something new, I recommend checking out the desks and media centers at Ikea. They’re inexpensive and you can easily unload them on Craigslist if you ever want to upgrade. At least in our area, there is a huge community of people always looking for Ikea pieces. Armoires are also great for hiding desks and equipment — check out Mark Coggins’ office that we featured as a Workspace of the Week. Using a closet might also work, and you can simply shut the closet door when your son is in the adjoining room.

If you want to make your own screens to use with your existing furniture, I recommend purchasing art canvas frames or large picture frames and then stretching a material similar to panty hose across them (check your hardware and fabric stores, there are a few different fabric styles available). This way, your child can’t see the electronics, but your IR remote can still communicate with the hidden devices. Once your child loses interest in pushing buttons, you can permanently remove the screens.

I’m sure that there are other solutions out there that our readers have used, so be sure to check the comments for more baby-proofing solutions. Thank you, Liz, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Creating two bedrooms in a small space

Dwell magazine featured a “Kids’ Room Renovation” project recently on their site that shows how a small room can be transformed into two unconventional, yet spacious, bedrooms:

Rather than simply building a partition down the middle of the 140-square-foot bedroom, which would have created two constrained rooms, the architects decided to build up and within. “The idea of putting the bed on a higher level came up quite quickly in order to win space,” explains Santiard. “At the same time we decide to incorporate many ways to use the bed/partition (storage, office, climb, hide with interior windows, doors, etc).”

The bed seems to soar above the playing space, held up by bookshelf columns and a carefully angled staircase.

The result is a massive piece of what is essentially furniture, crafted out of several large sections of painted MDF and secured to the ceiling to keep it from toppling. Six-year old Eva plays and sleeps in the upper level, while small cubbies hold her toys, books, and dolls. There’s also a built-in desk for schoolwork and drawing. Jean, now almost two years old, mainly scampers around on the bottom level, where easy access to his bed and toys defines his area.

Building up provides for each child to have a designated area, without having to feel cramped and claustrophobic. The built-in storage and bookshelves also keep the rooms clutter-free and organized. I think it’s a very creative solution for a small space.

(Image from the Dwell article. View the complete slideshow.)

2009 Gift Giving Guide: Gifts for kids

In our seventh installment of Unclutterer’s 2009 Holiday Gift Giving Guide we’re discussing gifts for children.

I’m coming to find that creating a Guide for kids is more difficult than expected. The things we want for our son now are very different than the things he’ll want when he can pen his own letter to Santa Claus. My husband and I want practical things for him that will help us cover the expenses of raising a child — diapers, a new crib, and baby gates. By the time he’s in elementary school, however, I’m sure that he’ll want toys, gadgets, and even more toys! I can’t even fathom what will be on his list when he’s in high school.

So, instead of breaking it down by age, I’m just going to give an over-arching theme and one or two examples that might work with the category. Parents with jr. high and high school children should feel more than welcome to add ideas to the comments section as I feel that I’m not doing this age group much justice in my themes.

  • Experiences. We’ve written about these types of gifts in the past, but they’re certainly worth mentioning again. Zoo memberships, movie passes, event tickets, etc., are great gifts for the giver and receiver to both enjoy. If Aunt Jane buys a pool pass for little Billy, then the two of them can swim together on summer afternoons — or go to the zoo together or see movies or whatever the experience.
  • Gifts with storage solutions. I’ve become a big fan of gifts that come with storage or gifts that are storage. Toy bins with a new toy, video game storage console with a new game, a puzzle rack with a new puzzle, or a block set with a block box, like the one below, are examples that would work for younger kids.
    Melissa & Doug 60-Piece Standard Unit Blocks
  • Vacations. Technically, this is a subset of Experiences, but I thought it warranted its own line item. Growing up, I took a vacation each summer with my grandmother. I’ll never forget riding the train with her across the country or going on road trips to crazy roadside attractions. My cousins also have fond memories of flying to see her and spending two weeks playing on the farm without their parents. Showing children the world can be a rewarding experience for everyone.
  • What the child wants. Sneaking a peak at a child’s letter to Santa Claus before it is sent in the mail can be a good way to learn what a child plans to play with in the next few months. It’s not clutter if the object is used and loved.
  • Hints from mom and dad. If parents have created wishlists for their children (especially new parents with young children), it’s extremely kind to buy from that list. Great thought and care usually go into creating these lists, and buying from them can help the parents to provide for their child. It’s not very creative, but it is incredibly generous. If mom and dad are running on such little sleep that they can’t find the energy to create a list, pick up the phone and ask.

Please add your ideas to the comments. Also, don’t forget to check out our Unclutterer’s 2009 Holiday Gift Giving Guide Index Page for a listing of all the articles as we publish them.

Your children can have toys and you can have an uncluttered home

A few times after speaking and writing about having an uncluttered home, people have said to me:

You obviously don’t have kids.

I know that these are lighthearted statements meant to let off a little steam about one’s personal experience, but they always rub me the wrong way.

Simply stated: Having children and being uncluttered are not mutually exclusive endeavors. You can have both. Problems occur when people (of any age) have more stuff than they can store and routines do not exist to take care of the things they own.

If a child has so many toys that they are strewn in every room of the house, it’s time to get rid of a large selection of the toys. If the child doesn’t have a toy chest, cabinet, or closet to properly store his toys, then he needs one. Lay out all of your child’s toys on the living room floor for him to review. Next, have him pick which toys will be kept and which ones will be donated to charity (or recycled or thrown away, if necessary). Have your child go with you to make the charitable donation so that he can see the children who are benefitting from his generosity. Then, after returning home, organize the remaining toys in a designated storage area.

A reader on the site recently left a comment that I agree with wholeheartedly:

If a child is old enough to get out a toy to play, she is old enough to put it away.

Yes, it takes diligence to monitor a child’s behavior to know when to encourage her to put away her things after play time, but it’s not impossible. If you’re unable to keep on top of toys being put away at the end of every play time, then have a routine in place where the child walks through the entire house and puts away all errant toys 15 minutes before starting her bedtime routine. Teaching children these life skills at an early age will help them to always live an uncluttered life. Yes, there will be times when your encouragement will be met with resistance, but such are the ways of parenthood.

Be sure to check out our previous posts in the Baby and Children categories to get even more ideas and suggestions about keeping toy clutter under control.

Swap baby goods

My daughter is going to be three years old in less than a month. The amount of clothing and other baby products that we have gone through in those 36 months is pretty extensive. We have donated a lot of items to local charities, consignment shops, and friends, but it seems like we still find ourselves behind the curve in the accumulation battle.

Reader Tina wrote us to recommend a website that focuses on swapping baby goods. From the Swap Baby Goods site: is the first web site of its kind, providing a friendly place for parents to swap, buy or sell baby items that are no longer needed. Our philosophy is very simple – Why buy when you can swap? Our product focus is baby items; for this reason, our users can enjoy the website, knowing that they are part of a community. Our primary goal is to provide a platform that brings together willing sellers, buyers and swappers in an online marketplace, benefiting everyone involved.

Babies grow so fast and so do their needs. Before we know it, the cute little outfits, baby toys, and other baby items we once could not live without become outgrown and underused, taking up an inordinate amount of space in our homes. The baby item one family is ready to put in the attic or out in the garage sale might be just what another mom or dad is looking for. Our ultimate goal is to help parents all across the nation save money and the environment by providing them an online venue to swap baby items.

While there are many options to buy, sell, or donate items, this looks like a pretty good resource for tracking down some must-have baby products. It also looks like a place to get rid of clutter that your little one no longer wants or needs.

Do you know of other baby goods swapping websites? Let us know about those resources in the comments.