.,  decluttering,  Family Life,  motherhood,  Parenting,  thrifting,  toddlers

Spotless would be great, but decluttered is good enough

Hi, my name’s Jenny and I’m a compulsive tidier-upper.

My bathrooms might have an easily distinguishable level of grime about them, but rare is the afternoon you’d walk into our home and see toys on the floor and laundry scattered across the family room floor. At least for more than an hour or two.

It’s not that it doesn’t get dirty. It’s filthy under the kitchen table, and the walls are slick with the evidence that we have 4 kids aged 5 and under, none of which are particularly domesticated as of yet. But I’ll be a goat in Joanna Gaines’ shed if my house is going to be untidy.

I think I was a minimalist before Marie Kondo was a glimmer in the NYT Bestseller List’s eye. While she grew up collecting organization magazines, I watched my mom get her A-game on with a garbage bag and full throated promises of one-way tickets to Goodwill.

(And she always delivered.)

Now that I’m grown with babies of my own, like any good country song would have it, I take their same bags of crap and worn out onesies and tchotchke toys to my own local thrift store, feeling a surge of pride as I empty another tailgate full of clutter in the name of “charitable giving” and a handy 20% coupon for my next visit. Dave affectionately refers to the thrifting life cycle as “renting from Saver’s.”

Close enough.

Over the past year, as the kids have morphed into more distinctive personalities and not so much an amorphous mass of basic biological needs (<– not a commentary on their inherent worth or fundamental human dignity, just an observation that small children are colossally inept at pretty much everything…so somebody please explain to me the difference between a fetus and a 1 year old, and why they aren’t equally eligible for handy dismissal for inconvenience. Geography isn’t a terribly compelling argument in my mind. But that seems to be the leading explanation. End tangent.) we’ve seen a growing affinity for keeping Lego creations intact for more than one afternoon, hoarding treasures in surprising places, and attempting to colonize bacterium in the downstairs bathroom in new and scientifically adventurous ways.

In other words, there is crap strewn about that I did not strew, and people mind if I move it.

I think they call this leveling up. So I now have more compassion for friends and readers who’ve said “but I can’t just take their stuff away” to the Kondo-esque advice of ridding the joy sucking detritus from one’s abode. Okay, okay, I get it now.

That being said, as these children grow and develop extensive leaf and rock collections and stuff apple cores and sucker sticks under their pillows, I’m seeing a greater necessity to cultivate the essentials, and let the “would sure be nice-es” fall by the wayside.

For me, as a mom with introverted type A tendencies who works from home and has nobody in school full time yet, that means an almost militant commitment to keeping our common areas open and airy…well, not exactly airy (looks pointedly towards diaper can) … but absent of piles and stacks.

But how?

Practical steps:

1. We’ve had a lot of success with training our otherwise basically feral children to put things away where they belong. Because they’re angels. Because I’m an amazing parent. Because they don’t have very much stuff to begin with, and everything has a home.

We have a single toy basket on our main floor, and a single book basket in the family room. They’re free to trash the family room with both to their heart’s content, and then clean the entire thing in a 2 minute fire drill. The key to this system succeeding is that they actually can clean it up, totally on their own, in 2 minutes.

I learned the hard way that having too many toys and a larger than average family could easily equal a crapped out living space. Because 10 toys out on the floor is messy, but 10 toys per kid out on the floor is like the library in the rich suburb north of us after Tuesday’s 10 o’clock preschool story hour. Looks like FAO Schwarz after a terrorism drill.

So they don’t have a ton of toys, and we rotate them out in a kind of toy library system. The trains and tracks live high up on a shelf and come down whenever they want to play with them, but they don’t live in easy reach. The hot wheels have a specific drawer they sleep in at night, and return there they do with every setting sun. The Legos live on top of the fridge, and I have a catch all spot in the kitchen I dump stragglers into throughout the day so I can rehome them at night. I figure it takes about as much energy to see and resent a Lego on the floor in the bathroom as it does to scoop it up and sequester it.

(They do not keep toys in their bedrooms. Just the stuffed animal lovies and the odd book or race car. But only the animals live there.)

2. The bigger headache has traditionally been books, which seem to be just too overwhelming to reshelve. I don’t really blame them: when I walk into the toy room and see 104 children’s tomes scattered open across the floor, I feel incapable of rectifying the situation myself.

This past winter I stopped shelving them, period, and just started keeping the daily selection upstairs in a basket in the family room and the rest dumped in no particular order into those ubiquitous canvas storage bins which fit neatly on the bookshelf. Suddenly they are able to clean them up, because dumping stuff in bins, as every mother knows, is the absolute easiest way to clean.

I’ve also committed to bringing them to the library every week or so, which has alleviated the guilt of donating unwanted/worn out/twaddly books. Yes, I know, I know … smart, well-adjusted future Nobel laureates all have one thing in common, and it’s an extensive home library. But, as a confirmed dweller of suburbia with 3 excellent children’s libraries within a 2 mile radius of our house, I’ve let myself off the hook. Why not let them hang onto the bulk of our books, and I’ll build up a little collection of true favorites and classics at home?

3. Their wardrobes are continually and scrupulously edited. Is something ill-fitting? Worth saving for a younger sibling? Best donated to our local Gabriel House or a cousin? I have a constant outgoing bag in our front hall closet for donations. I pull something out almost every time I’m doing laundry, and it helps keep their wardrobes manageable for me, the sole launderess. When they are running their own loads of whites and colors one day (soon, I hope!) they can have a dozen t-shirts a piece. But for now, they have like 5.

The other big factor is shoe containment. We’ve perfected a system of 2 pairs up, 2 pairs down for the big boys. They keep their mass shoes and school shoes downstairs in their closet (1 pair of each per kid) and their play shoes and sandals upstairs in the front closet on an IKEA shoe rack. In the winter, the sandals get swapped out for boots. They know where to put their shoes when they come in, and when they forget (which is 90% of the time), there’s relatively low drama when I point to the closet and remind them. The babies’ shoes live in their rooms, and they also own 3-4 pairs apiece. I do not save shoes unless I love them and they’re in great shape, because they’re so cheap at garage sales and thrift stores, and because my kids wear them hard, and generally they’re not in inheritable shape, baby shoes notwithstanding. Also, my kids are barefoot a lot, much to grandma’s dismay.

Finally, I’ve had to relax and admit to myself that nothing bad is going to happen if things look trashed at 1:30 in the afternoon. It is trashed, because 5 people are sharing space and trying to build a life together here during the daylight hours. I’ve tried to relax and look past (waaaaaaaay past, in the case of the bathrooms) the normal wear and tear of daily living.

And knowing that I can pick up the house (with a little help from my little friends) in 20 minutes after dinner, I don’t sweat the messes, the piles, and the puddles that accumulate throughout the day.

We’re in this together, me and these kids, and we’re getting better and better at putting the pieces back together before bedtime, even if the sink is piled real, real high.



  • AnneMarie

    I really like the idea of toy rotation! That’s super nifty. I think that there can be a definite struggle, in a world of thrift-stores and garage sales, to buy tons of toys because they are so inexpensive, but it really is important to lean some type of limitation so that we don’t all find ourselves swimming in toy clutter!

    I find it interesting you bring up the books, because I’ve started thinking along those similar lines. I love-absolutely love-books, and I think that collecting books is important. But, there are so many wonderful libraries out there, so I’ve started to see that I don’t need to own every book that I love reading-I can just support the local community by hanging out at the library! I’ve hit the point where if I see a book that I like, but is typically easy to find at a library, I won’t buy it and I’ll just get it from the library. Books that libraries may not have, books that I really love and want to mark up with notations for study (I’m one of those people who, after much reflection, has decided that it’s OK to mark up some books if there’s a good reason) or extra-special books are ones that I let myself buy.

  • Kathleen

    We live in an 800 sq foot 2 BR 1 BA cottage built in 1890 with little to no storage, so the ‘swapping out’ idea is hard for me, but I’m a fan of this method. there are a few items that we do this for (trains & Legos) & it works. I think the key to decluttering is to not have a lot of toys around, as much as possible, as you’ve mentioned. we definitely have more than 1 basket of toys, but if I purge regularly & keep their toys at a manageable level, I notice they play better because they’re not overwhelmed by clutter & they know where everything is: all toys have a home. I have a rule I adhere to pretty strictly & that’s that I refuse to buy more bins/storage containers. we have plenty of them and if the amount of toys exceed the storage containers, then we need to reduce the number of toys.

    • AnneMarie

      Kathleen, I just want to say that the “don’t buy any more storage containers” rule sounds really hard, but really, really excellent. Thanks for sharing that with us!

  • Kathleen

    p.s. and as for the ‘I just can’t take away their stuff’ mentality…I disagree. I have done a good amount of purging over the years and every once in a while, after I purge, one of my kids will ask, “What happened to …?” but they rarely, if ever, ask, and they don’t ask more than once. the kids don’t miss the stuff. I get that this changes when kids are older (my identical twin boys are 5), but then I think it also becomes an activity with the children and lessons in not clinging to material things and living with less etc etc.

  • Emily Fisk

    If there’s something they haven’t played with for a while, that I am thinking of giving away, I hide it for a couple weeks to make sure. If they don’t look for it in that time, then I go ahead and toss it.

    Also, my bathroom strategy is to have basic bathroom cleaning supplies in each bathroom and to clean a little at a time, e.g. sink one day, toilet the next, shower tile…um, almost never…

    Love your writing, Jenny — makes me happy!

  • Karyn

    The books are the hardest thing for me…..between library books, homeschooling books, and our “home library”, it’s A LOT. I never thought I would ever say that one can have too many books but….

    • jeanette

      Totally relate to what you are saying, Karyn. I am a book lover and so are my kids. We spent loads of time getting library books their whole life, but still had the whole load of homeschooling stuff plus an extensive library of books (not even counting my own personal collection). But we were lucky (or unlucky!) enough to be able to fit the large collection in our home. It wasn’t until my kids left home and my husband and I were making an out-of-state move that I had to gut-wrenchingly force myself to part with this vast collection. Truly it was more the memories of the time shared together than the actual books that I was parting with, as well as a pinch of grieving that those shared moments were forever gone. Grandkids were still not anywhere near on the horizon (which would have made it IMPOSSIBLE to part with the books), so I had a free giveaway event for the homeschooling group we had been connected with. They made appointments and came over and selected whatever they wanted. They were thrilled and it sure made moving easier. I only kept a very small number of the books we shared so many years enjoying so fondly together.

  • Diana

    I love this!! We do much of the same – keep the toys to a minimum with regular purges, making sure everything fits in the containers/baskets we already use. I need to get better about rotating toys, that’s a good idea I can never seem to implement.

  • Brittney

    I am the same way and we only have three little ones. I cannot stand the little piles of clutter on flat surfaces. I am also ruthless with the kids’ toys and clothes. I think the more pared down you go, the better. Around Christmas and birthdays, when the new toys start piling up, I can see their little heads start to get overwhelmed. They do so much better with just a few things to choose from.

  • Kayla

    Great great great advice. I’ve learned that this just isn’t the season in life to have a perfect cleaning schedule where a different room gets cleaned every single day, so there is dust and grime all of the time but I get STRESSED if there are toys everywhere all the time. My little one is still a little too little to pick up entirely by herself, but encouraging her to help and like you said making it accessible to them has helped a lot already.

  • Ashley

    You are me. Or I am you. Either way – you most definitely are in my head. Yes to it all – one toy basket, one book basket, rotating toys. My friends always comment on how “tidy” my house is, and “how do you do it with 3 little kids?” Um … I get claustrophobic with stuff. So that pretty much answers that. Limited stuff, happy mommy. And my kids seem shockingly well adjusted considering their “lack” of toys by today’s standards.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *