Getting rid of someone else’s stuff

Last week an article by Nicole Hong in the Wall Street Journal focused on cargo shorts: their fans and their detractors. I don’t have any strong opinions about cargo shorts, but I did have an opinion about the following anecdote:

Dane Hansen, who operates a small steel business in Pleasant Grove, Utah, says that throughout his 11-year marriage, 15 pairs of cargo shorts have slowly disappeared from his closet. On the occasions when he has confronted his wife about the missing shorts, she will either admit to throwing them away or deflect confrontation by saying things like, “Honey, you just need a little help.”

Mr. Hansen, 35 years old, is now down to one pair of cargo shorts, and he guards them closely. He has hidden them in small closet nooks where his wife can’t find them. …

Mr. Hansen’s wife, Ashleigh Hansen, said she sneaks her husband’s cargo shorts off to Goodwill when he’s not around. Mrs. Hansen, 30, no longer throws them out at home because her husband has found them in the trash and fished them out.

I have no problem with someone discretely disposing of anything that is theirs, including gifts from a spouse or partner. But getting rid of another person’s items? That’s generally a horrible idea.

There are some specific circumstances when it’s okay to toss or donate another person’s possessions, including the following:

  • When that other person has given you explicit permission to do so. For example, sometimes one spouse will accept, or even appreciate, having the other manage his or her wardrobe. Or an elderly parent might appreciate some help with uncluttering — perhaps giving you general guidelines but otherwise allowing you to decide what stays and what goes.
  • When the other person is a child who is too young to make such decisions. But even children as young as three can be involved in an uncluttering effort, and parents are sometimes surprised at how much their children are willing to discard.
  • When you have the legal authority to make decisions for someone who can no longer make decisions for himself or herself.

But in general, it’s disrespectful to get rid of another person’s belongings, and it can build up resentment and distrust that have a wide range of negative repercussions. What can you do instead? The following are some suggestions:

  • Have a discussion about the items in question, where each party listens respectfully to the other person’s position. There’s always a chance that if you calmly explain why you’d like something to be discarded you can convince the other person to go along with you. Or maybe, when you fully understand why someone wants to keep something that you want to discard, you’ll change your mind and decide it’s fine to have it stay.
  • Reach a compromise. Maybe he keeps the cargo shorts but agrees not to wear them when the two of you go out together. If there’s a disputed item of décor, maybe it can be displayed in a spot in the home where you rarely go.
  • Agree on boundaries, where anything can be kept as long as it fits within a designated space: a dresser drawer, a storage box, a shelf in the garage, a basket for stuffed animals, etc.
  • Bring in a professional organizer. An impartial third party with recognized expertise can ask questions and make suggestions while avoiding the emotional landmines that can be triggered when a spouse or partner makes suggestions.

Apps for your student

Technology is routine for the modern student. And that technology can help your favorite student to stay organized and productive this school year.

Tinycards from Duolingo helps young students learn a language with engaging, fun, and effective lessons. My daughter’s Spanish class started using it when she was in 7th grade. Now, the company has released Tinycards, a flashcards app (free, iPhone only) that’s as handy as it is beautiful. There are thousands of pre-made decks to choose from, or you can make custom sets to support specific course material.

By late elementary school, students take on the extra responsibility of managing their time and duties. myHomework Student Planner is an app that will help them do just that. Available for iOS devices, Android, and Windows, this comprehensive solution lets tech-savvy students toss out the paper planner and go digital with a nearly ubiquitous access to all of their assignments that’s synchronized across devices for them. Students can get reminders of what’s due, browse their class schedules, and check in on assignments. Plus, it looks great.

Speaking of college students, EasyBib quickly creates bibliography citations for use in an academic paper. There are hundreds of styles available, from APA to who-knows-what. You can even use it to scan a book’s bar code to create the citation. EasyBib is available for both iPhone and Android devices. As someone who wrote a lot of papers in APA format, I can say it’s quite nice to have an organized and portable style guide like this.

My last pick has a bit of environmentalism built into it. Forest (available for iPhone and Android), lets you set aside time for concentration and study. Simply pick your work time and get started. As you work, a small on-screen seedling grows into a beautiful tree. What’s very cool is that a real tree results as well. As you use the app, your earn in-game currency that you can spend to plant real trees. Forest’s developers have partnered with Trees for the Future, a non-profit organization that will plant a real tree for every 2500 currency you “spend” in the app. Neat.

The new school year is upon here and finding the right app for you or your kid can help make the year more productive, organized, and educational.

Staying safe while organizing with tall bookshelves, dressers, etc.

Bookshelves, armoires, and dressers are some of the common furniture pieces we use to organize our possessions. But if they aren’t used properly, they can cause serious problems.

You may have read about the Ikea recall of a number of its chests and dressers, which are “unstable if they are not properly anchored to the wall, posing a tip-over and entrapment hazard that can result in death or injuries to children.” Two types of items are included in the recall:

  • Children’s chests and dressers taller than 23.5 inches
  • Adult chests and dressers taller than 29.5 inches that do not comply with the performance requirements of the U.S. voluntary industry standard, ASTM F2057-014.

The recall followed the death of three toddlers in three years. While the dressers and chests all shipped with wall anchoring kits, the items involved in these tragedies were not anchored.

While the Ikea recall got a lot of press attention, it’s certainly not the only product that has this kind of tip-over potential. Other recent recalls include Bestar Dream Dressers (juvenile five-drawer dressers) and a dresser and nightstand in Bernhardt’s Marquesa line.

How big a problem is this? The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a report in 2014 (PDF) that included the following statistics:

  • An estimated 38,000 emergency-department-treated tip-over injuries in 2011-2013. Of these, 56 percent involved only furniture falling, 41 percent involved televisions (or TVs plus furniture), and 4 percent involved appliances falling.
  • 430 reported fatalities related to tip-overs between 2000 and 2013. Of these, 37 percent involved TVs falling, 27 percent involved a TV plus furniture, 28 percent involved only furniture falling (with the largest category being chests, bureaus, and dressers), and 7 percent involved appliances falling. Children from 1 month through 10 years were the victims in 84 percent of the fatalities.

The CPSC launched an “Anchor It” campaign in June 2015 with a lot of common-sense advice, including the following:

  • Existing furniture can be anchored with inexpensive anti-tip brackets. New furniture, such as dressers, are sold with anti-tip devices. Install them right away.
  • Anti-tip devices are sold online and in-stores for prices ranging from $5 to $25. Consumers can visit their local home improvement, electronic or mass merchandise store to purchase anti-tip devices. An online search for “anti-tip strap” or “anti-tip kit” will result in a variety of purchase options. Install the anti-tip devices according to manufacturer instructions, and always double check the attachment points to make sure the device is secure.

The campaign also has a poster (PDF) showing how to anchor furniture.

While tip-over dangers are often associated with children, who like to climb on furniture, the CPSC report makes it clear that they aren’t the only ones who get hurt by tip-overs. And those of us in earthquake territory have an added incentive to secure our top-heavy furniture. The Earthquake Country Alliance provides good information on just how that can be done for filing cabinets and for bookcases, china hutches, armoires, etc.

As Rain Noe wrote on the website Core77:

If you live in a household with children and own tall furniture of any variety, PLEASE take the time to anchor them to your wall. If you have friends who are parents, please urge them to do the same. And if you or they don’t know how to do it, you’ll find plenty of videos on YouTube demonstrating the process. You might need to spend a few bucks on a drill, a studfinder and/or some wall anchors, but it’s money well spent.

And I’d add: If you don’t know how to do it and you aren’t horribly handy, you can always hire someone to do it for you. That’s what I did, and it was worth every penny.

Organizing summer with a professional organizer

“Disorganization is a delayed decision.”

That was the most valuable quote and pervasive theme of my conversation with Heidi Solomon, the woman behind P.O.S.H., or Professional Organizing Systems by Heidi. Now 10 years into her organization business, Heidi took some time to sit with me to discuss best practices and creating a summer organization system that will last well beyond the warm weather.

After a little New Englander bonding (Heidi is in Boston), I asked about her definition of an organized person. “A big part of [being organized] is deciding where does something go, do I actually need it, etc. early and often. But truly, the systems you employ are irrelevant.”

“I’m an organized person” means life can erupt and not cause an immense amount of stress to reset your space.

Summer is starting, so we discussed strategies for being organized after coming home from a vacation or a trip. When you already have established locations for all the things you own, unpacking and returning to normal can be accomplished in a couple of hours, as opposed to living with suitcases for a few days.

My summer kicks off for real on Wednesday, as that’s when my kids will be out of school. The end of the school year, Heidi says, is a perfect time to evaluate the systems you’ve got in place. “Kids’ interests and developmental and physical changes are rapid. A system that worked six months ago might be breaking down as these changes occur. Take this time to look at what’s working and what isn’t. Are there clothes that no longer fit? A play area or toys that are no longer appropriate/receiving attention?”

“Plan along the natural calendar schedule of the school year,” she advises. “In August, set aside a day or two to go through belongings and identify what’s no longer relevant. As the year progresses, for example, they outgrow boots or hats. Have a bin that’s a destination for these things — again, we’re back to making decisions early. Christmas and summer are also great opportunities for a check-in.”

To me, summer means using a lot of towels. We live on a lake and that means the back porch is continually draped with towels. And bottles of sunscreen. Plus a few swim masks, beach toys…you get the idea. For many, summer introduces a unique mass of stuff. How, I asked, can we create a system for “summer stuff” that will last beyond August 31? She said it starts with what’s available to you.

“If you have a closet that can accommodate these things in clear, labeled containers, great,” she told me. “If not, a door hanger works so well. Put the kids’ stuff at the lower level. That way everyone can just grab and go (and replace!) with ease.” Why clear containers? To help the young ones see what goes where.

“For many of the younger set,” Heidi said, “items are out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Simply being told the sunscreen goes on the back of the door might not be as effective as it would with an adult. Using clear storage lets them see what is where, and fosters recall of where it goes when not in use.”

As far as creating a sustainable system that will work for everyone, a little conversation goes a long way. “Not everyone organizes in the same way. It’s based on the way you learn, which is, in part, a function of how you process information. Ensure [to use] each ‘user’s’ preferences and learning style. Kids are often visual learners, so the see-through containers help them.”

With a little thought, frequent re-evaluation and consideration for everyone in your organizing system, you can get through the busy summer — or any season — with solutions that work effectively. Big thanks to Heidi for taking time to chat with me.

Organizing the end of the school year

June is upon us and if your kids (or you) aren’t already out of school then the last days of school are right around the corner. It’s time to say goodbye to homework and celebrate an end to the 2015-16 school year.

With a little prep you can wrap up the school year with a tidy bow and prepare for next year now. Imagine staring the summer knowing that some of the work for back-to-school 2016-17 is already sorted. The following will help you get started.

End of the school year

I’m all about avoiding clutter, so identify what we won’t need over the summer and put it away — now. The items on this list will depend on the age of your student(s).

Young kids:

If your student attends a school that requires a uniform, make sure it’s properly stored away for the summer. (Be sure to properly store off-season clothes.) Before you store it away, however, consider if your kid will likely wear that size next fall. Will it fit in September or will the uniform requirements change when the kid goes back? If it’s not going to work, see if your school accepts donations of gently used uniforms or uniform components (vest, skirt, etc.).

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself bemoaning the fact that I’ve got to buy a new batch of pencils, erasers, sharpeners, and so on each year. Chances are there are some good, perfectly useable options in Jr.’s bag. Set them aside for the “First Day Back Box,” which I’ll explain in a bit. They’ll be easy to find and save you a few bucks.

It’s also a good time to sort through the bin of artwork and papers from the year and only store the best of the best items. Everything else can be photographed and some can be shipped off to grandma or an aunt or someone who would love to have one of your kid’s creations.

Older kids:

For high school students and college kids, the list is certainly different. Sort through papers and materials and get rid of anything that won’t be reused or needed in the next school year.

College students may find some textbooks invading their spaces. If the textbook is one you’ll need in the future for reference material, find a convenient but out-of-the-way location for it. If you’ll never have use for that Art History book again, sell it back to the bookstore or an online retailer (if you haven’t already).

Special topic: Bags

School bags can be used all year. A backpack, for instance, can follow a younger student to camp or family outings, like hikes. For older students, a shoulder bag could be useful at a summer job. Store these, however, if you don’t foresee a need.


Let’s not forget the teachers when it comes to end-of-school! You folks work hard all year and now that those 180 long days are gone, it’s time to enjoy the summer sun. First, get organized from the year and prep for September.

Teacher gifts:

It’s always heartwarming to receive gifts from students and families you served over the last several months. If you’re a veteran teacher, however, they tend to accumulate. Have a plan for where these gifts are going to go if you choose to keep them. I know one teacher who uses a bit of hot glue and some wire to turn smaller gifts into tree ornaments. Her “teacher tree” is quite the sight each year. Others can be re-gifted (be honest, it happens). Just don’t let them take over your space.


For some reason, teaching generates huge libraries of stuff, some of which never gets used. That draw of toilet paper tubes from the late ’90s? It might be time for them to go. Have a good, honest go-round in your classroom and ditch, donate, or hand-off to another teacher anything you probably won’t use.

Take a photo:

It’s likely that the custodial staff will give your classroom a good cleaning over the summer. You might return to find the furniture neatly stacked in the center of the room in September. Today, take a photo that shows how your room — each area — is set up. That way, you’ll have a reliable reference when you’re setting back up. Speaking of….

The “First Day Back Box”

This is a clearly-labeled, accessible box that will be the first thing you open when you’re getting ready for school to resume in the fall, be you a teacher or a student (any grade level).

Fill it with the most essential items that you’ll need for the start of school next year. That might include scissors, a stapler, paper clips, pen and paper, or thumbtacks. Maybe you’ll need some cash for a week of lunches, or pocket-sized tissues.

High school students might add a USB flash drive or binders. Perhaps a college student will need an ID or course catalog. In any case, take the time before hitting the beach to think of the must-have items that will make your first day a breeze, collect them all, and create your (labeled) First Day Back Box. Finally, keep the box accessible as you will likely get a list of items necessary for the next school year during the summer, and you can easily add those items to the box.

With a little forethought and elbow grease, you’ll have organized you stuff from the current school year and prepped for the fall.

Organize a staycation

A regular weekend or an extended one can be a great time to have a staycation — a vacation where you enjoy the sights and activities that are found in and around your hometown. If this sounds like something you’d like to try, the following post describes how to organize for a great staycation and includes several ideas to get you started.

Make a list of what not to do on your staycation

First and foremost, you’ll want to make your staycation feel like a vacation as much as possible. While it’s true that a staycation isn’t the same as a zero-responsibility stay in a remote hotel, it can be a restorative and enjoyable time. To that end, you’ll want to limit your typical day-to-day responsibilities as much as possible, including:

  1. TV
  2. Time spent staring at phones
  3. Laundry
  4. Worrying about this and that
  5. Cooking
  6. Excessive cleaning

Create a list or a set of rules as to what you won’t do on your staycation to help you better define what you will be doing. Having this reminder will be exceptionally important if you will have other people participating in the staycation.

Plan activities

Since you’ll be staying at home, you might be tempted to think you can pull off a nice staycation without planning. “We live here, I know what’s around.” But time spent planning what you’ll do, how much money you’ll need, acquiring tickets, etc. will pay off in the long run and help you to feel more like you’re on a real vacation.

If you have kids and they’re old enough to have opinions, get them in on the planning discussion. If the ideas are really flowing, write them on strips of paper and stick them in a jar. Then draw one (or more) to determine what you’ll do each day. Create a staycation calendar to hang up or distribute, so everyone will know the plan.

Plan meals

It’s a staycation after all, so make necessary reservations and go out to dinner. If going out isn’t your style, gather menus from favorite spots or places that deliver. If you’re not interested in eating out, prepare freezer meals ahead of time that can be prepared with minimum effort and mess during your staycation.

Take care of small details

In the days leading up to your staycation, make sure laundry is caught up, outstanding school projects are done, and the house is tidy, so you can enjoy your staycation without those burdens. Be sure to mark these on the calendar so you actually get these things done ahead of time.

Staycation ideas

One activity my 11 year old came up with is an ice cream tour. Each day, we’ll drive to a new spot, try out what they’ve got and take photos as well as our reviews of what we try. Not the most healthful staycation idea, but definitely one everyone in our family would enjoy.

What is your area known for? So often we don’t do the fun, “touristy” things in our own back yards. For example, I lived on Cape Cod, Massachusetts for 21 years before taking a seal tour. I’d wager there are fun, tourist destinations to see or do in your hometown that you’ve never tried.

Visit a National Park (or two). National Parks are educational and set up to entertain all sorts of visitors. For additional fun, get a National Parks Passport that you can fill with stamps during your visit.

Find a minor league sporting event to attend. These are often less expensive than their major league counterparts and in smaller venues, so you can get closer to the action. I love minor league baseball, for example, and have had a great time seeing the Pawtucket Red Sox play.

Create an outdoor family film festival. Let everyone pick a favorite movie, set up a simple outdoor theatre, and settle in for fun.

Lastly, I’ll suggest looking for a local festival. These are typically a short drive away, inexpensive, and a lot of fun. In my neighborhood, we look forward to the Cranberry Festival, Oyster Festival and Scallop Festival. They’re always a good time.

Most importantly, just try to enjoy your time with the other people participating in your staycation. It’s a great opportunity to connect and bond. Relax, laugh, and do something a little different.

Organizing video games

I really enjoy video games. My favorite one is, “Where am I going to put all this bulky junk?” Wait, that’s real life and it’s far from being a fun game. Along with playing video games comes games boxes, consoles, controllers and more cables than you’d ever want to see spread like locust around the TV, the entertainment center, and the house at large. If you’re a gamer, the following advice may help you to tame the swarm and organize your video games and accessories.

Game boxes

Games sold on physical media (that is to say, not games downloaded from a digital app store) typically come in decorative plastic boxes. They’re stackable, uniform in size, and clearly labeled with the game’s title. Still, finding the one game you want can be a hassle. Here’s what we do at home to keep things straight.

  1. Put all game discs in their proper boxes. It’s so easy to grab a disc and pop it into the nearest box, saying, “Eh, I’ll put it in the right box later.” In my experience, “later” never comes. Take the extra few seconds to store the game properly. Make sure you eject any disc in your console/computer before you begin this task.
  2. Spread out all of the boxes on a large table or even the floor.
  3. Sort alphabetically. Put all games starting with “A” in one pile, “B” in another and so on. And then again within each pile, “Marvel Nemesis” precedes “Medal of Honor.”
  4. Find a home for the alphabetized lot. In our house, we line them up on a shelf like books, but you might find it easier to put them in a box or drawer based on your space.

Those with a lot of games may want to sort by category. For example, after step two above, sort games by type: shooter, racing, educational, etc. Then do the ABC sort. Next, make labels for wherever you store the boxes so you can jump right to the category you’re searching and so it’s easier to put the discs away after use.

Game controllers and accessories

This is most likely where things get messy in your home, at least it’s that way in mine. Controllers are bulky and vary quite a bit. Some have wires, some don’t. Many have replaceable batteries, others don’t. Certain models must be charged regularly and/or require protective cases.


Video games are often played by kids, so a kid-friendly shelf is a good way to go if this is the situation in your home. An easily accessible shelf puts devices within reach and also out of the way. (A basic, no-frills option on Amazon, if you’re interested.) I also like wall-mounted models, as they’re one less thing on the floor and can hide cords more successfully than a shelf.

There are personalized game controller tubs on Etsy, which are cool, and look great while keeping unwieldy controllers in one place. Additionally, Instructables has a tutorial for wall-hanging your controllers, which is well done.


As nice as these solutions are, they don’t account for devices that need to be charged. A hidden drawer is a great way to go, as you can charge up the devices without having to look at them in the meantime. You may need to drill a hole in the back of the drawer for cables, if there isn’t enough space to run the cables currently. A converted storage box is another great-looking and effective option.

Game consoles

Xboxes, Playstations, Wiis, and other gaming towers are usually bulky and are stored on a shelf of the media center. There aren’t many options when it comes to disguising them while keeping them useful, however, there are some things you can do to keep them from being an eye sore.

First, keep them clean. A game console is just a powerful computer, and as such they give off a lot of heat. Make sure they’re stored so that all vents are unblocked. Additionally, dust them periodically as a build-up will hinder heat dispersion.

Keep cords in the rear separate. Twist-ties work very well here, and labeled ties are even better for keeping your cables organized.

Try to keep them clear of areas with heavy foot traffic or bounding pets. Gaming systems really don’t like to be suddenly flung onto the floor.

Really, the best thing to do is to get all of the gamers in your house into the habit of cleaning up after saving the universe, offing a zombie, or rescuing the princess. It only takes a minute and is a lot more fun than playing “Now Where Did I Put That?”

Storing a casual comic book collection

My 10-year-old has taken to comic books in a big way. I never had more than a passing interest as a kid, but my son is a fan. What was once a very small collection of a few issues on his dresser has become a full-on collection that needs organizing attention.

One note before I get too heavily into this topic: my son’s comic book collection bears no resemblance to the investment libraries that many older collectors have amassed over a longer period of time. For those folks, specialty materials and practices are required. In this article, I’m talking about a casual collection that’s maintained for fun. I’m not talking about a super rare Batman comic that’s worth a pile of dough. In my case, these are low-cost comic books that a kid wants to read and show off to friends. A few steps will keep them enjoyable for years to come.

Bags and boards

Even for casual collections, I recommend keeping your comics in protective bags. These thin, plastic coverings will keep books safe from spills, dirt, and grimy “kid hands.” The three most common materials for bags are mylar, polyethylene, and polypropylene. For my uses, polyethylene bags are fine. Reserve mylar bags for your more costly comics ($30+).

Boards slip into a bag with the comics themselves and help prevent bending and corner wear. Just like with the bags, there are several types of boards. For a casual collection, I’d recommend .24 millimeter basic boards. They’re inexpensive and will do the job. Again, if the comic is more valuable, use a better grade of cardboard.

Boxes for storage

Find some good, acid-free storage boxes and be careful about where you store them. A damp basement is a bad idea for storing cardboard. If you can find a storage spot that’s a moderate temperature with low humidity, you’ll be good. Also, make sure the box does not rest directly on the floor. Put it on a shelf, but not a high one. And don’t forget to mark the exterior of the box to list what’s inside.

Organizing systems

How the comics are organized inside the box is up to the user, but instilling a system will definitely save its user time retrieving and returning comics to the storage box. A trip to a few comic book stores might provide ideas for how to organize the issues. Could easily organize by publisher and then subdivide by series and issue number. If the collection is small, could organize by year or series only. And, in addition to bags and boxes, you can also buy dividers and label them to make the organizing system obvious.


If you or your kid likes to haul a handful of favorite comics around to enjoy or share with friends, you might wish to invest in a comic notebook. The harder cover helps to protect the comics inside of it. This is also a great option for people who only have a few comics and wish to store them on a bookshelf.

Children and age-appropriate chores

When I was a kid, my parents didn’t give me any household chores. My mother, who handled most of the household activities, hoped I would see her doing housework and offer to help. Being a fairly normal child, I was oblivious and never offered.

As an adult, I look back and think assigning chores to me would have been a much better strategy. I would have learned more about maintaining a home, and my mother would have had some help in keeping the house organized. Everyone would have been better served.

But what chores are appropriate for what ages? I’m not a parent myself, so I went looking for resources to help answer that question. I found some lists in a brochure I bought years ago entitled Ages and Stages of Getting Children Organized (available in PDF format) by organizer Marcia Ramsland. The following is part of what Ramsland recommends (with ages added when needed to make comparisons easier):

Toddler, ages 1-3

  • Pick up toys in a small area (floor, shelf, table) and put them away
  • Put books on shelves, clothes in hamper

Preschool/kindergarten (3-5 years)

  • Make bed daily with help
  • Carry belongings to and from car
  • Help set table and clear dishes

Primary grades (1-3rd grades, which would be 6-8 years)

  • Make bed before breakfast/school
  • Put away own things (backpack, lunch box, coat)
  • Empty dishwasher

Upper grades (4-5th grades, which would be 9-10 years)

  • Put clean laundry away
  • Keep room neat

Middle school

  • Be more self-reliant with homework, activities, carpool rides
  • Clean bathroom, closet, and drawers
  • Vacuum and dust

Organizer Geralin Thomas included the following suggestions (and more) in her book Decluttering Your Home: Tips, Techniques & Trade Secrets:

3 to 5 year olds:

  • Sort laundry by color
  • Pick up dirty clothes from around the house
  • Carry newspapers/old schoolwork/magazines to the recycling bin

5 to 8 year olds:

  • Make the bed
  • Help with folding laundry by matching socks

8 to 11 year olds:

  • Clear the table after meals
  • Load the dishwasher
  • Put dishes away
  • Wheel the trash bin to the curb
  • Do a load of laundry

Jessica Lahey, who wrote The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, suggests that younger children can often do more than we might expect. The following are some of the items on her lists:


  • Put their dirty clothes in a basket or hamper
  • Fold simple items of clothing or linens such as pillowcases or washcloths
  • Put their clothes away in drawers
  • Throw trash and recycling away in the proper place
  • Put toys away in tubs and baskets when they are done playing with them

Kids between ages 3 and 5:

  • Make their bed
  • Straighten their room
  • Sort and categorize items, such as utensils in a drawer or socks in the laundry
  • Clear their place at the table

Between the ages of 6 and 11:

  • Laundry — all of it, from sorting to putting it away
  • Replacing the toilet paper when it’s gone
  • Setting and clearing the table
  • Vacuuming and mopping floors
  • Helping to plan and prepare grocery lists and meals

Suggestions like these can help you develop a chore list that’s right for your family. As you’re deciding what chores you want your children to take on, be sure the scope of each task is clear. Something like “straighten the room” needs to be broken down into specifics, so your children understand exactly what that means.

Of course, children will need to be taught how to do these tasks, and this might well mean repeated lessons. Written how-to reminders will often be helpful. Regarding the laundry, Lahey suggested: “Post a list on the washing machine and dryer after you’ve conducted the requisite one-on-one lessons in order to provide reminders for all the steps. One mom pointed out that dry-erase markers write and erase well on the side of washers and dryers, so she simply writes instructions on the appliance itself.”

Another thing to consider: Leave your children as much latitude as feasible in how tasks get done, as long as the end results are fine. They may approach something a bit differently than you would, but that’s not necessarily a problem!

Organize for a sick day at home

Autumn is that dastardly time of year that gives way to cold and flu season. Sick days can be disruptive, no matter who you are. However, there are a few steps you can take now, while everyone’s feeling fine, to prepare your home for a day on the couch with some tissues and a movie.

For the kids

Keep a list of telephone numbers on your phone but also in a handy binder or taped to the inside of a kitchen cabinet or on the refrigerator for their pediatrician and the local pharmacy. You’ll also want the number for their school’s attendance call line and any child care providers. (For adults, it’s also good to have your doctor’s number and your boss’ number in the same location so it’s just as simple to retrieve.)

Be prepared to record information a doctor or nurse might need for your child. Years ago when I worked at a residential school, my colleagues and I were taught to monitor a fever by writing down the patient’s temperature and time it was taken. It’s a good practice to get into, because doctors or nurses will find it quite useful when you’re on the phone or at the clinic. I simply use index cards and a pen.

Regularly check and record your child’s weight. Many medications for children base dosage amounts on this information.

For everyone

Ensure you’ve got a working thermometer in the house. If you use an electric one, it’s a good practice to test the battery twice a year. Daylight Savings Time switches are a good reminder for this.

Multiple boxes of tissues around the house in convenient locations are great to stock up on now. I also love those small, travel-sized packs of tissues. They’re less obtrusive than standard boxes, and easily fit in small spaces (like the car, a bag, and a drawer of the nightstand).


When everyone is feeling better, the work isn’t done. The following are some things to help spreading the germs around the house.

  1. A few spare toothbrushes so it’s easy to replace the sick person’s toothbrush when he/she is feeling better (especially with things like strep throat)
  2. Disinfect surfaces like doorknobs, the TV remote, cell phone, refrigerator door handle, light switches and so forth
  3. Wash the sick person’s bed sheets and blankets alone in hot, hot water.

Finally, consider making a “sick kit.” Tuck it away and save it for a stuffy, achy, rainy day.

Encouraging kids to do chores

If you’re a parent, the idea of children completing chores likely makes you tense. Getting the young ones to adhere to their given house chores can be like asking a human-size slug to take the trash out. It will eventually happen but, well …. not quickly. My wife and I recently tried something that worked quite well, and I wanted to share it with Unclutterer readers: The Hour of Clean.

The concept behind the Hour of Clean really couldn’t be simpler, and I was surprised by how effective it was.

We told the kids, “At 5:00, the ‘Hour of Clean’ will begin.” We listed the available jobs: dust, vacuum, put laundry away, general tidying up, cleaning the bathroom, etc. Everyone made their choices as to which chores they wanted to complete, and at 5:00 we started.

The best part of the Hour of Clean: there was no complaining. There was no slacking off. The result, after an hour, was a tidy house. The camaraderie from everyone working (mom and dad included) at the same time, was a great motivation. The set time limit also worked well because everyone knew there was a limit to how much of their day would be spent cleaning.

In subsequent weeks, my daughter made an observation. “If we keep the house tidy all week, the ‘Hour of Clean’ might be the ‘Half-Hour of Clean.'” I tried to hold back the tears of parental joy at this. “Yes,” I simply said, my heart full of parental pride. “Yes it can.”

A 15-minute House of Clean might also be something to do each day, especially if you have young children who need more supervision while they complete chores or if you need to wear a baby while you work.

The sense of “we’re all in this together” and the clearly-defined work period have helped it become successful in my house. Give it a try and let us know how it worked for your family.

Book Review: Minimalist Parenting

As someone without children, I’m always in awe of the many parents I see raising remarkable children — and dealing with the added stresses that parenting can bring to already busy lives. Minimalist Parenting by Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest is a book filled with advice intended to help alleviate some of that stress.

While “minimalist” often brings up images of Spartan surroundings, that’s not what the authors are advocating. Rather, they focus on “editing out the unnecessary” — whatever that is for you and your family — in “physical items, activities, expectations and maybe even a few people” so you can focus on the things that are most meaningful.

The book is comprehensive, covering daily routines, meal planning, uncluttering the toys, managing the holidays, and much more. It’s showered with examples from the authors’ lives and from the lives of other parents who’ve commented on their websites. (Both authors have sites that deal with parenting: Boston Mamas from Koh and Parent Hacks from Dornfest.) It has a friendly voice and was easy to read.

While much of the advice in this book is similar to that you’ll find in other books and on websites such as Unclutterer, I still found much to admire. I was delighted to see the emphasis on finding solutions that fit with each family’s values and the personalities of the individual family members. There were some “everyone needs to do this” parts — for example, everyone needs a shared, portable family calendar and a to-do list — but these were kept to a minimum. The authors also emphasized the need to follow your gut feelings, which they referred to as your “inner bus driver.”

I also noted and appreciated the continual emphasis on working toward making children self-sufficient through assigning age-appropriate chores, having kids use an alarm clock, letting them do homework independently, etc. This doesn’t mean children are left to flounder — with homework, for example, you would be available to consult and guide your children, but “the plan is to gradually remove yourself from the process.”

Sometimes there were ideas that I hadn’t heard before, such as the secondhand baby shower. One of the authors found herself pregnant with her second child after giving away all her baby things, and when friends wanted to throw a shower she asked that everything be secondhand. This allowed her friends, who almost all had young children themselves, to unload things they no longer needed and wanted to pass along, anyway. Those who didn’t have little kids and hand-me-downs were welcome to just come and hang out or to bring diapers or gift cards.

The authors continually emphasized that “course correction beats perfection.” Looking for perfect solutions is a waste of time, they say, since perfect solutions simply don’t exist. (The author who spent ages researching cribs found they all had something that made them less than perfect. She could have saved time by just finding three cribs that were highly recommended from reliable sources and then picking one of those.) They recommend you go with something good and adjust as necessary — tweaking new routines, for example, or adjusting a family spending plan. This sounds like solid advice to me.

The one disappointing aspect of this book is that while it’s called Minimalist Parenting, the book is definitely geared toward mothers. Much of the advice applies to any parent, but many of examples are mother-focused. I especially noticed this in the section on self-care. Adding some voices from fathers would have made a good book much stronger.