About Me, decluttering, design + style, motherhood

Working the KonMari Method with kids underfoot {in 9 easy steps}

March 14, 2016

One of my most popular posts of all time is the little “how to” I banged out around this time last year about how to hack the KonMari method with a houseful of kids. Except, as a few commenters have pointed out lately, it devolved more into a “why to” then a “how to.” Mea culpa, I guess I got distracted by grandiose visions of whole-family minimalism. (Which is very much my jam, but may not necessarily be yours, so click freely away if the thought of throwing stuff away stresses you out!)

This post aims to remedy that, providing you with some practical steps on how to implement my preferred lifestyle and home esthetic of choice, a movement I’ve dubbed “militant minimalism.”

I’ve little doubt my affinity for scarcity has a lot to do with my identity as a rare female INTJ, but I still firmly believe this homemaking style can work well for families, and in fact works much better than many more popular styles. See “drowning in Dollar Spot crap and permission slips” chic.

We’ve all been there (raises sheepish hand).

Here are some things I’ve learned by gleaning from Marie Kondo’s treatise on tidying (keeping the baby but throwing out the Buddhist bathwater, if you will).

1. “Spark joy” might be unrealistic for some categories. Let’s go with “isn’t paralyzingly irritating.”

When evaluating my children’s myriad possessions, including a mysterious and precious nightstand drawer full of “treasures” including chunks of concrete from the backyard and inexplicable scraps of roof shingles, I have to ask myself clarifying questions that go beyond the aspirational inquiry “does this spark joy?”

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throwback pic to when those Duplos did indeed spark joy. But the honeymoon ended and back to Saver’s they went. No shame.

Because what Marie Kondo fails to adequately address, through no fault of her own at the time of writing, is the issue that much, nay, most of the necessary and optional equipment accompanying tiny humans and their care is not inherently joy-sparking.

Stained Hulk Smash t-shirt, disgusting bath flutes, multiple tubes of diaper cream and random drawer of backyard detritus, I’m looking at you.

While it’s true that the usefulness of, well, some of the aforementioned items can and does contribute to their beauty, some things are just important to your children because they are. There’s no logic, and there’s definitely no reasoning with a passionate 4 year old with a ladybug fetish.

I concede that point. And so there are items in our home that are utterly worthless and even irritating to my spartan style, but I don’t live alone, so exist they must. The key here is scalability. So can my kids have a handful of crappy Dollar Tree treasures, a drawer full of random coins and old sticks, and a couple of creepy bathtub toys which are clearly past their prime? Yes. But the key is moderation. Extreme moderation, in this case. I could gather all of the truly offensive items in this category into a single laundry basket and it would’t be full. So yes, your kids will have a small, curated pile of crap that you won’t understand, and that’s fine and normal, so long as it’s limited to small, identifiable areas of your home. So a special drawer in their bedrooms and a ledge along the bathtub? Fine. A pile in every single room in the house and 5 piles in the backyard? Not fine.

2. Ask for help

When you first start out to attempt the purge laid out in “Life Changing Magic,” you will need time. I personally do a lot of my cleaning and decluttering after bedtime or during strategic and well white-noised naps. If your kids aren’t good sleepers, aren’t super young, or your house is too teeny for that to work, you’re going to need back up. Either hire a sitter for 2 6-hour chunks (or 4 3-hour sessions, whatever works better for you) or ask a girlfriend or neighbor to swap childcare with you as you help each other.

I just spent a long weekend with a dear friend and her 4 young children and my 1 lap baby milling about and even though it.was.insane at times, we managed to declutter her kitchen, family room, dining/craft room, walk-in pantry, and part of her master bedroom. In about 2 days. Was everybody wearing pants the entire time? Well, that would be telling. But we did end up with about 20 large cardboard boxes and trash bags FULL of stuff to donate, not counting furniture.

3. “One in, one out”

If your kids are little it might be relatively easy to start working with them to establish a “one in, one out” rule for toys and items of clothing. So deciding on a set number (maybe not a literal number, but a reasonable amount you eyeball and deem appropriate for your family) and then going forward in coaching them to consider what they’d like to donate, dump, or repurpose in order to accept some new gift or sought-after toy.

My kids know that when they get a new pair of shoes or jeans, it’s because the old pair(s) are in need of passing down or retiring permanently. Same goes for toys.

If my kids unexpectedly receive a new toy (neighbors, grandparents, happy meal, exhausted mother at Target) then I’ll make the call (because they’re still little and it’s my house) whether or not it stays, and for how long. I have zero guilt about passing along little tchotchkes and toys to the local thrift shop or doctor’s waiting room (ask first) if my kids have played with them and then basically abandoned them after a couple days or a week. Also up for grabs? Toys that just annoy you. If it makes my kids fight, ends up scattered in pieces everywhere every time it’s used, or is just plain ugly (or inappropriate) then out it goes. This is the mommy version of “sparking joy,” I suppose.

4. Paperwork/junk mail: don’t let it in, but if you must, get it out quickly

This is a huge one for most busy families, I know. I don’t have the perfect solution, but I think it can cut down significantly on piles. First, be extremely on guard about what comes into your house in the first place. I am ruthless with junk mail/solicitations/school paperwork. Our recycling can is right by the entrance to the house from the garage, so 90% of what comes into my mailbox or in school bags gets dumped before it ever crosses our threshold. If I’m not sure about something, I’ll file it immediately into a vertical file on my “office” shelf, and try to take care of it within the week. If it’s a piece of paper that simply contains information I need, like a school calendar or swim lesson schedule, I’ll snap a picture of it with my phone and toss it.

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We have a single designated spot for paperwork in our house, and I go through it weekly to fill out/pay bills/return to appropriate venue everything in the pile. That’s part of the glamour of having a stay at home parent: I’m my own (and our entire family’s) admin.

5. Artwork/crafts: your kid’s (probably) not Picasso  and you aren’t required to have a daycare’s worth of supplies on hand

I have a confession: a piece of my withered grinch’s heart thaws a little bit every time I hold a preschool masterpiece in my hands. But not enough to keep it. I have about 1 project per kid that makes the cut per semester, and then I try to incorporate it temporarily into our decor, either in their atrium space in the front room, or on the fridge. My kids are ruthless like me, so I’ve yet to see any tears over masterpieces hitting the circular file. We’ll see if that changes when her ladyship reaches a more sentient age.

We have a designated spot for a small collection of craft and coloring supplies. I don’t save broken crayons or dying markers. I buy 2 or 3 packs of high quality crayola stuff at the back to school blow out sales and hold extras in reserve as we go through it during the year. My children are, admittedly, not very into coloring or crafts (and I can’t imagine why not. Cackle.) but having a full set of fat washable markers, 48 sharp crayons, a bottle of glue and a pack of construction paper and regular coloring paper seems to satisfy them. We have a couple coloring books too, but that’s it. And they still manage to express creativity somehow.

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Our entire craft and Lego situation. (Alternately titled: what they don’t know won’t hurt them)

6. Have an ongoing “to donate” bag/spot, and pass along what you’re not currently using to friends and family

I hang a big blue IKEA bag in our front hall closet, and I can quickly fill it with old shoes, ripped jeans, rejected toys, outgrown t shirts, stained towels, annoying plastic cups, etc. The kids know it’s there, and it’s become entirely normal for them to see me add something to the pile. They’re not traumatized by it, and since we do most of our clothes shopping at our local thrift store to begin with, they know it’s going to a place where someone who needs it or wants it can buy it. I think we may have an advantage since I’ve been doing this for as long as they can remember, but I imagine older kids could be coached along with a firmly resolved set of parents and some time.

It makes physical space in our home which makes it a more peaceful and enjoyable place to be, and it makes space in our hearts for gratitude for what we do have, and trust that what we need in the future will be provided as and when we need it.

I’ve seen this more clearly in the area of baby gear/clothing than anywhere else. I’ve freely passed along 90% of what’s not currently in use by the resident baby, not because we don’t want or anticipate future pregnancies, but because it seems, to us, silly to hang onto things for 12, 18, 24 or more months between uses when another baby could be using it right now. So while I hope to have another little girl one day, my niece is currently almost exclusively outfitted in Genevieve couture. I save a couple sentimental items from each bebe, but everything else – including baby swings, boppies, exersaucers, bumbo seats – gets passed along or temporarily farmed out during its fallow season.

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Baby girls are fun to dress, but not when their closet is crammed. Less is more in toddler couture. And I’d rather do another load of laundry than match dozens of tiny my little pony socks or fold 100 pairs of jeggings.

My kids observe this and they recognize that if God sends another baby, He’ll also send the Fisher Price continuous-motion AC cord adapted swing. (And He has, every time.)

7. Have an ongoing conversation with your kids about needs vs. wants

My kids are normal toddler and preschooler aged kids. They want to keep everything. They’re like magpies with (some) higher reasoning function and immortal souls. But I don’t have to let them stay there. Part of my job is to train them into an appropriate sense of “want” vs. “need,” so they don’t end up with the absolute worst dorm rooms and the most frustrated future fiancées (or seminary rectors) ever.

Of course a 4 year old doesn’t want to part with any of his myriad superhero tees, threadbare though they may be. But I can help teach them “this doesn’t fit/isn’t in good condition anymore,” and show them how curating a smaller, more thoughtful closet makes laundry and cleanup so much easier, and helps keep us grateful for the nice, clean, well-fitting clothing we do own.

If your kids are struggling to clean up their closets/put away toys, it might be that there’s just too much stuff. We saw this in a big way last summer when I blitzed their already (I thought) modest toy collection down to about 80% of it’s former size. After the excess was bagged up and hauled out, my then 4 year old looked at me with relief and said (I kid you not) thank you Mommy, it was too hard to clean up all those toys.

Word.

(And if your kids are developmentally challenged or have behavioral issues? Even more reason to keep your space more spare. I have some close friends with little boys on the spectrum, and it’s immensely helpful to them if their physical surroundings are more serene and, yes, more spartan, to the extent that it’s possible, and that your spouse is on board with helping you maintain it. Goodness knows moms of high needs kids have enough on their plates. But visual clutter really does cause stress, even in little kids.)

8. Gratitude need not equal “we’re keeping that”

This is a big sticking point for people, and I get that. But it’s also the part of the whole KonMari system that I “get” the most intuitively: the gift is an expression of the giver’s love, but is not itself essential. Think of it as “love currency,” whether its a loaf of banana bread or a light up toy police car with a wailing siren: if you’re trying to lose weight, you might accept the loaf with gratitude and serve it to someone who isn’t counting calories.

The affection and thoughtfulness in the heart of the baker is in no way diminished by this!

Same goes with loud, unnecessary, or simply superfluous toys. It is entirely possible to accept the gift graciously and with real gratitude, and then turn around and either regift, repurpose, or rehome said gift. Grandma just wants to express her love to her grandchild, and your child can learn to express gratitude and contentment right back by writing (or scribbling on) that thank you note and then deciding either to give away an existing toy to make room, or deciding maybe they don’t like the new toy enough to do that, and thinking of a new home for it.

You can do that. You’re allowed to do that. It’s your home, and you’re the one (along with your spouse) who gets to decide what comes into it. And it’s so freeing!

If you’re worried about ruffling family feathers or hurting feelings, then take the next mature step and have a conversation about the family culture you’re trying to cultivate, and the simpler lifestyle you’re pursuing. Ask if they’d consider giving gifts of books or clothing or experience gifts like zoo passes or swimming punch cards. And if the barbies and hot wheels keep rolling in anyway? Smile, say thank you from your heart, and pass along what doesn’t work for your family.

9. Make it normal

Eventually this will become second nature. I think that’s where Marie Kondo herself claims “declutter once and never again.” That’s true…sort of. But only if you commit to mindfully curating and periodically culling through your stuff. Because we with families and children to care for are in a constant battle of accumulation and maintenance.

And that’s okay.

Acknowledge that the Dollar Tree exists, that your kids are going to go to birthday parties and on Easter egg hunts, that grandma is going to send a bag of squirt guns and bubbles, and have an automated procedure that kicks in as stuff comes in. As long as you keep if flowing out, (and get picky, where you can control it, over what comes in to begin with) this can totally work for you, even with a houseful of kids.

It’s a good life, I’m telling you.

Now go forth and Kondo your toy room, nursery, and basement storage room. It’s the easiest way to lose 20 lbs without breaking (much of) a sweat.9 step konmari

21 Comments

  • Reply Holly March 14, 2016 at 1:13 pm

    Father Alvaro told us to only touch a paper one time. I hear his voice every time I check the mail. (sometimes I listen, sometimes not). Nice post Jenny!!

  • Reply Elizabeth March 14, 2016 at 1:21 pm

    Oh, #8 is SO. HARD. at our house. I need to pull up my big girl panties and do more sticking to my guns when it comes to moving along gifts. But you know. In-laws. It’s hard. Thanks for this! Great encouragement for my 40 bags for 40 days + nesting.

  • Reply Karyn March 14, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    I don’t have any relatives or friends that are continuing to have babies and I don’t want to buy swings, seats, etc each time, especially since we’ve been blessed with a baby roughly every other year. How do you “replenish” your supply with each baby?

    • Reply Jenny Uebbing March 14, 2016 at 1:36 pm

      If I didn’t have friends and siblings around to farm stuff out to and then borrow back from, I probably would hang on to bigger ticket items like swings and carseats in between closely spaced sibs, so you’re probably right on! (But just among my mom’s group alone there’s a constant rotation of exersaucers and car seats and baby carriers. So it might be a matter of finding your village?)

    • Reply Molly March 14, 2016 at 3:23 pm

      I had a five year lull in between my first and second – as a way to deal with our infertility we gave away a lot of our “big items” to friends, family and those in need (it helped with the healing process). When I ended up with my rainbow baby who is not only a different gender, but being born in a different season than her older brother I found it was amazing what a shout out on your Facebook wall can bring in – cloth diapers, hand me down clothes, and even those big items. Don’t feel bad if you keep things like carseats, or big items because it’s realistic you’ll use them before they reach their safety expiration date…. but between Facebook friends, local FB “buy/sell/trade” groups, consignment stores and garage sales it’s possible to get the stuff out of your house and not spend a fortune when you need it again! =D

  • Reply jeanette March 14, 2016 at 1:40 pm

    On “collectible” art from your kids:

    My kids were avid artists, so I got a binder for each kid and punched holes in drawings and put them in the binder. A tidy way to save artwork. If the binder gets full, it can be thinned out in order to make room for more. For 3D projects, a single file sized box worked to store them (and only the best of the best). My kids were illustrated book makers, too, so same kind of minimal collection storage works (like one of those cardboard or plastic magazine holders that fit on a bookshelf).

  • Reply Emily March 14, 2016 at 1:49 pm

    I think my Mom has files for each of her kids where she puts artwork (like one piece for year or something) I always thought that was really cool and love to see what she thought was worth keeping.

  • Reply Meghan March 14, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    Just wanted to give you a shout-out because I am also an INTJ and don’t believe I’ve ever met another female with the same Myers-Briggs. Perhaps this is why I love/passionately relate to everything you write!

  • Reply Ashley March 14, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    Thanks for addressing KonMari for littles. My personal aesthetic is supremely sparce and functional, and stuff literally induces claustrophobia in me at times. So it’s been an adjustment to have 3 little ones who just don’t feel the same . We’ve instituted a “paper box” for our 6 year old who can’t stand throwing anything away. A ripped piece of paper with admittedly “not her best” artwork? Must save. Her classmates discarded homework? Yep – she brings it home. Aargh! But the paper box is a lifesaver – it’s just a small (probably 10″x 14″) Rubbermaid container with a lid, placed where she can access it. Anything she can’t stand to discard goes in the paper box, and when it’s too full to hold anything else, she has to go through it, discarding to make more room. It’s amazing how a month’s time will dull the “need” to save something, and discarding becomes much less painful. I keep her very best projects in a 3 ring binder – but everything else goes in the paper box. And it has significantly reduced gnashing of teeth over mommy being a minimalist.

  • Reply Lee March 14, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    My mom used to take photos of our artwork and keep them for us. I’m trying to do the same for my children. It’s very helpful with the clutter. 🙂

  • Reply Diana March 14, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    I loved all of this! I’m constantly purging and reorganizing things, something that definitely happens after Christmas and my son’s birthday. Small house helps because we just don’t have room for everything and I’m perfectly fine with that! And he’s still young enough that he doesn’t notice what we get rid of. I know we won’t be that lucky for long!

  • Reply Liz March 15, 2016 at 6:39 am

    I absolutely LOVE this post. Your kind of humor is just what you need to assess and deal with your child’s toys…

  • Reply Ally | The Speckled Goat March 15, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    My “I live with other people, so yeah, this has to stay” issue is my husband.

    Oh, my husband. I love that man to distraction, but for the love of Pete, why do we need that pile of broken bicycle parts?!?! (Because he’ll use them. And I actually know that someday, he probably will.) But they drive me crazy! Crazy!

    And he’s so not okay with KonMari. Apparently, his frugal view means that KonMari is the devil and is trying to lure his wife in to giving away perfectly good stuff that (gasp) we might NEED someday!

    • Reply melissa March 15, 2016 at 4:42 pm

      Haha YES. So far my 4 yr old and 2 yr old could care less but my amazing husband and his excessive piles of papers everywhere…oy. Love the man but it takes all the will power I have not to sweet everything in the trash.

    • Reply Jessica March 21, 2016 at 1:11 pm

      My husband told my children that KonMari is a mythical Japanese monster. My 4 year old will talk about “the claws of Kondo.” Toys are where my husband and I don’t see eye to eye…drives me nuts!

  • Reply Kristin March 16, 2016 at 7:47 am

    Brilliant. This is what I need right now. I feel stressed looking at the tornado that is our home. I would love to walk into a serene manageable space. Forward I go, with your steps in hand!

  • Reply Five mediocre mentions. | Mary Big Hair March 20, 2016 at 6:05 pm

    […] Lastly, this post by Mama Needs Coffee. Its called “Working the Konmari Method with Kids Underfoot”. […]

  • Reply Tiffany March 21, 2016 at 9:11 am

    Dude. Catholic All Year linked to you, and this was my first visit. You’re cool and I like you, and we could totally be friends… at your house. I have work to do.

  • Reply Jenny March 21, 2016 at 1:27 pm

    I’ve been working on this, and I love your tweak to the “does it spark joy?” question! Here’s a recent dilemma for me: broken knick-knacks that have already been repaired and rebroken a few times but are nonetheless cute and sentimental. Hard for me to part with, even though they are missing bits.

    Also, the regifting of family gifts is hard for a codependent like me. Esp. in our situation with my MIL, who doesn’t make enough money to buy things for our kids and therefore gives them free things she finds here and there (often of the trinkets variety or clothes not in great shape) and MANY stuffed animals. She also doesn’t like to have her things regifted and has always said that we must give back anything we don’t want. But that definitely feels somewhat mercenary to give back nearly everything she’s given us. I will admit that at times we’ve secretly passed along things to Goodwill without telling her, but it seems dishonest. A conundrum I have not solved.

  • Reply Learning to Love Housekeeping (Snippets), 4 – katherinegrimmbowers March 23, 2016 at 11:45 am

    […] I start to think about packing to move (ugh), this guide to implementing Konmari with kids is inspiring. (Right after reading it I snuck the books of Pippin’s I hate most into the […]

  • Reply Denise May 25, 2017 at 8:01 am

    This is exactly what I’ve been looking for… you found a way to write exactly what I’ve been feeling but couldn’t quite comprehend fully (blame it on the lack of sleep). I’ve felt a tug at my heart that something needs to change for my family, so I began to research minimalism with kids. I read a lot about HOW and even WHY but I couldn’t connect the concepts of minimalism and decluttering with my own feelings about faith, God, gratitude, guilt, and the complexities of motherhood and life with kids. I found myself laughing out loud at all the completely relatable absurdities of mom life and also having many AHA moments where you so eloquently hit the nail on the head about gratitude, giving, and how He will provide for us. You are a very talented writer, very funny and very insightful.

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