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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.