Family Life


8 min Read

How you and your family can conquer clutter

Stuffed animals - how you and your family can conquer clutterWatching 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.

a man carrying two children

Related Articles