How you and your family can conquer clutter

By Lisa Evans on September 16, 2013
Watching Candice Olsen’s Divine Design one night, I scoffed at the eloquent living room panning across my television screen – the simple white couches, carefully placed throw pillows, and the round minimalist coffee table with gold criss-crossed legs that prohibited storage. “These people clearly don’t have kids,” I said. “Where are all the toys? Where’s the clutter drawer?”

It’s easy to blame clutter on the kids. After all, it’s plastic barber shops, train sets and teddy bears that are blocking the way to the hall closet. But, TV has a lot to teach us. While you, too, may view a toy-filled hallway as the mark of a normal family home and dismiss designs like Olsen’s as unattainable for a family with children, programs like Hoarders and Consumed are at the opposite end of the spectrum, warning us that a house bursting at the seams could be a sign of unhealthy consumption patterns that could turn children into lifelong pack rats. Perhaps Olsen’s minimalist designs have something to teach us and our children. But first, how do you stop the clutter?

Stop the cycle

The process of de-cluttering starts with having an understanding of what you really need. “If you want less stuff, you have to be on a stuff diet,” says Jill Pollack, de-cluttering expert and host of HGTV’s Consumed. “What I love about the show is that you literally take everything out of the house,” says Jill. Once participants have had the experience of living without all their “stuff”, they are forced to think about what they missed. While removing everything from the family home is done in extreme circumstances where clutter has taken over a family’s life, the principle applies to all on the packrat spectrum. “It’s taking inventory of your life,” says Jill. She tells parents the first step to combating pack-rat tendencies is to take control over the amount of stuff entering the family’s space.

As a mother, Jill understands the challenge many parents face when trying to manage the endless flow of “stuff” into the home, which is why she implemented a zero gifts policy for her son’s birthday parties and asks guests to bring gift certificates for the local bowling alley instead. “As a parent you have to model the behaviour,” says Jill. While it may be kids’ toys you’re tripping over, the children are not the ones responsible for bringing stuff into the home.

Stop the guilt shopping

A mommy on the move, Jill is no stranger to the guilt that follows her on every plane ride and car trip that take her away from her four-yearold son. “I travel a lot for work and on my first trip, my instinct as a parent was ‘I’m going to get something for my son’. I stopped myself right at the first trip and I said, look, if I do that, then I’ll have to get him a gift every time. Also, what am I going to get him that’s going to mean something, that’s not going to fall in the back of the car in two minutes?” Now she greets her little boy after long absences with a hug and chocolate. The chocolate is eaten, so doesn’t add to the clutter, and is much more fun than saying “here’s another stuffed duck or weird hat or some tchotchke that I bought at the airport because I felt guilty about being away,” she says. “When you’re not there enough, you buy a lot of toys and clothing because toys and clothing can be a transference of love,” says Jill.

Time to purge!

When setting your family on a de-cluttering spree, think about the functions of each space. Susannah Coneybeare, professional organizer and President of The Sorting House, says families should discuss the function of each room and how the family operates in it before purging any of its contents. If the dining room also functions as a homework space, discuss how you will store school supplies when the family is eating or when company comes over.

Take the “Number One” challenge

When purging, Susannah recommends moving through each room, one at a time, sorting items into like groups. Once items are in categories, she invites kids to take the “number one” challenge, asking: of all these teddy bears, which one is your favourite? Asking “do you want this, do you want that” is likely to result in tears and tantrums, but talking about their favourite and least favourite toys is an indirect way of asking kids to decide what they want to keep and what they can live without.

While you may think it’s easier to send the kids to grandma’s house while you purge your home of everything you don’t need, Susannah says involving kids in the decision-making process is an important step in teaching kids to take pride in their space. “De-cluttering is a learned life skill that will follow children into adulthood,” she says. Moreover, throwing things out without their consent can result in a sense of traumatic loss. “I’ve had parents who have de-cluttered when the child isn’t there and the child has really suffered because he or she has come home from school and the favourite hockey puck is gone,” says Susannah.

When you ask kids to decide how important something is to them, it allows them to process the emotional attachment they have to certain items. “Sometimes the one that is kept is not the newest or the nicest, but the one that has the most important story,” says Susannah.

Make it a pattern

Whether it’s every birthday, Christmas or every six months, make de-cluttering a routine. “Because children are always changing, they’re moving into a new phase, but because we’re so busy, we’re not getting rid of stuff on a regular basis,” says Susannah. If you wait for the closet to be so stuffed with outgrown clothing that the doors won’t shut, you end up with a large backlog that seems impossible to tackle. De-cluttering regularly allows you to get control over your family’s living space.

Create memories, not clutter

While every finger painting, plaster hand mould and handmade mother’s day card may have a special place in your heart, hanging onto everything your child ever made is an unhealthy pattern that prevents parents from living in the present. “People hang onto stuff because they’re afraid,” says Jill. In her experience, parents’ fear of their children growing up and not needing them anymore is at the root of many families’ clutter problem.

Susannah recommends placing crafts into a special box and going through it at the end of each school year, picking the pieces that mean the most to you. “When you’ve got a huge volume of it and you’re looking at it, you’re going to feel really different about it,” says Susannah. Laminating items into a scrapbook is a great way to save those treasures while not adding to the clutter and is a nice gift to give to your children when they’re old enough to appreciate it.

Remember, de-cluttering is not about getting rid of things, it’s about living in the present and surrounding yourself with the items you use and love so you, and your family, can enjoy them.

Garage sale tips:

The age-old proverb “one person’s trash is another’s treasure” is the driving force behind all yard sales. Replace your junk with treasured cash using these simple tricks:

Plan ahead

You don’t have to wait until spring to plan your yard sale. Any change of season is a great time to go through outgrown clothing while Christmas and birthdays provide an excellent opportunity to purge unwanted toys.

Join the neighbours

Street sales draw larger crowds. Ask your neighbours if they have anything to contribute and organize a large yard sale.


A yard sale is only successful if people know about it. Use brightly coloured paper and a thick marker to make signs and tape them to hydro poles in your neighbourhood where they’ll be visible to approaching traffic. Posting an ad on Kijiji or Craigslist is also a great way to generate traffic to your sale.


Clean all items before putting them up for sale and display like items together.


Yard sale customers are impulse buyers. If you have mid to high-range items, print the store listing so shoppers can compare what it would cost to purchase new and justify your price. Yard sale shoppers are experts in the art of haggling. Price a bit higher than you’re willing to sell so you can appear to give the buyer the edge when negotiating the price. Be careful not to price too high, or you’ll risk people walking away. Be prepared to offer a better deal to customers buying several items. Start slashing prices towards the end of the day to clear left-over items.

Lisa Evans is a freelance writer from Toronto. Her father once packed up all her toys and hid them in the garden shed when she refused to put them away. Since then she’s been somewhat a neat freak.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2013.

By Lisa Evans| September 16, 2013

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