In Rita Emmett’s excellent book The Clutter-Busting Handbook: Clean It Up, Clear It Out, and Keep Your Life Clutter-Free, she has a great story about how one parent helped her children learn to de-clutter, which I would like to quote and analyze.
Sandra wanted to get her kids on board in clearing their house of clutter. “I wanted to reduce the clutter in our home, and I knew if the children were not on my side, it would never happen,” she explained. “Many times before, I tried to ‘raise the bar’ in keeping our home neat, but those kids just limboed right under it.”So she decided to start by clearing a spare room in the basement, and she asked each of her four children, one at a time, to give her a hand. Typically, the teenager, Randi, decided to “give her a hand” by applauding, and the others just laughed and made jokes. Finally, after much joking, begging, and groveling, Sandra persuaded her eight-year-old daughter, Shayna, to take pity on her, and together they sorted and tossed. They both thought the project would take months and were surprised to be finished after three cleaning sessions.Sandra was delighted, and to celebrate she took her daughter out to lunch and a shopping spree. When Shayna showed her siblings her new swimsuit, suddenly they all became interested in helping their mother.Randi was recruited to help clear Sandra’s closet because she is the oldest of the four and knows the most about clothes and what looks good on Mom. Sandra made it clear that this wasn’t a job or a punishment; anytime the kids helped, they could simply sit with a soda and just cheer her on. She explained that she needed a lot of encouragement to get rid of the things that she had no use for and never used, but which she found hard to part with.After she finished her own clutter-busing, Sandra planned on asking her children if they wanted her help with their clutter, but she wanted to wait at least two weeks. Otherwise, she feared she’d seem manipulative. But she was surprised that within days, Randi asked Sandra to go through her closet with her. They played music (with Randi introducing her mom to her’s), chatted, bickered over decisions, and because Sandra’s attitude was loosy-goosey instead of high pressure, they had a good time. Again, when the project was completed, Sandra had a celebration with her daughter and a bit of a shopping spree.When Sandra asked, “Who’s next?” the others just went along with the clutter-busting. Two of the girls helped each other. After everyone felt they had de-cluttered their bedrooms and closets as much as possible, the whole family had a garage sale, ending with a pizza party and watching a favorite DVD.When you have the kids help you with your clutter, make a big deal about saying good-bye to some of your old favorites. Pretend to cry when throwing out your junky, smelly sneakers or slippers. Blow kisses, act as if you’re leaving a dear friend. Let the drama flow. This helps them understand that even though it’s not easy to say good-bye to old things, it’s still necessary. Your acting job might open them up to getting rid of their own clutter.Sandra used that tactic, and even now, years later, her kids will make a big deal out of bidding a fond farewell when they decide to get rid of some of their excess stuff. The good news is that even though the house still occasionally sinks into a clutter mode, it is never as bad as it once was.” (p145-147)
A number of important principles can be found at work in this story.
First, comes the principle, “The parent leads by example.” Sandra led by focusing her initial efforts on improving her own organization. This showed her children what it was like to clean, organize, and de-clutter. They had nothing to lose from helping their mother; their possessions weren’t on the line. She put them in a supporting role where they could both learn and encourage from a position of safety. After learning from her, they could begin to do it for themselves and even help each other.
Second comes the principle, “Reward your children for good behavior.” Sandra rewarded her daughter Shayna for the support she had given by taking her on a little shopping spree. I bet the reward was especially effective if Shayna didn’t know it was coming. Also, the reward given to one of her children quickly taught her other children there were benefits to helping their mother de-clutter. Once they saw a reward was to be had, they learned to do it too.
Third comes the principle, “Explain what you need help with.” Sandra explained to her kids what she needed help with and why. This helped them learn what belongs to the duties of a supportive role in organizing. She taught them about giving encouragement and she taught them about the difficulties that she faced in trying to make de-cluttering decisions. (It is likely she also verbalized her reasoning about the things she went through so that they could learn from her about what criteria to use to judge whether something should be kept or not.)
Fourth comes the principle, “Express emotions about objects you are letting go of.” Sandra used this tactic as she let go of old favorites. It helped her children understand that they could choose to let go of things they were emotionally attached to, even though it might be very difficult. It showed them they could express their feelings about their attachment and that even playfully exaggerating the drama of the moment while still making the right choice could make it easier to bear. The effect of this principle is that the playful exaggerations become a fun family tradition that is appreciated more than the stuff that is discarded. This keeps emotional attachment on people more than things, and builds strong pleasant memories.
After that comes the principle, “Respect the choice of your children.” Sandra helped her teenaged daughter de-clutter her closet when her daughter asked for her help. (Sandra’s previous example and opening herself up to her daughter in previous organizing sessions made this possible.) Even though she could have switched into commanding parent mode, Sandra stayed true to the supporting role and kept her attitude “loosey-goosey” instead of high pressure. I suppose that Sandra probably asked her daughter different evaluating questions about her stuff if it seemed like her daughter wasn’t considering all the angles that would help her de-junk, yet, at the same time, she allowed her daughter to make her own decisions and didn’t force her.
When you want your children to de-clutter, you need to realize that they don’t know how until you teach them. They learn best by example, and they need to see into the reasoning process when their stuff is not what is being examined. They need to see it is possible to make difficult decisions, and they need to be rewarded. (And so do you for teaching them, so reward yourself too!)
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