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Cleaning Out Your Child’s Room: How to Decide What to Keep and What to Throw Away

There are many parents who believe that every drop of glitter-covered glue their child recklessly throws down on a piece of paper is a precious relic of their child’s life.  From the age of two until the age of eighteen, when one hopes their child will be packing their bags for college, a child will accumulate a staggering amount of artwork, toys, homework, clothes, papers from school, notes, projects, and mysterious crap that defies categorization.  Every single year my son has gone to school I have ended up with at least two grocery bags’ worth of paper crap from the school year.  That’s a lot of crap.

Those parents who view everything their child touches as a precious relic and never throw anything away will not benefit from the advice I’m about to give.  There’s nothing wrong with keeping everything if that’s what’s important to you.  In the early days of parenthood I found it incredibly difficult to decide what to keep and what to throw away.  If I threw away any of Max’s pen scribbled “art” would he resent me when he grew up?  Would it make me a bad mom if I didn’t want to keep the piles of returned Kindergarten homework I accumulated?

Let me tell you right now: what you keep or don’t keep of your kid’s stuff is NOT a question of good parenting versus bad parenting.  So if you’re keeping everything your child spit on because you’re afraid that throwing it away makes you a bad mom – stop it!  And if you’re the sentimental kind of mom and you see someone like me ruthlessly throwing my kid’s stuff away and you wonder if you’re hanging onto things you shouldn’t – stop it!  There is no judgment of parenting here.

I happen to be pretty sanguine about throwing stuff away.  I am easily overwhelmed by stacks of paper and cartons full of old toys and clothes and I start to feel choked by the accumulation of things.  So for me it’s important to curate my son’s belongings every year.  Especially the accumulation of school stuff.  If you’re like me and want to save some things for your child but don’t want to save everything and you don’t know how to decide what to keep and what to toss, I have some guidelines that may help you.

How to decide what to keep and what to throw away until your kid is old enough to help make these decisions with you:

Favorite baby toys.  Pick just 2 or 3 to pack away and ditch the rest.

Save just the most loved ones.  “But Jonny loved ALL of his toys equally!”  No he didn’t.  You know that’s not true.  Pick two or three to represent the lot.  Donate the rest of them to: other friends with kids, social workers who work with kids who have no toys, the Good Will, or your church.

Clothes.  Only keep a few items to remind you of how tiny he/she was.

I have kept a tiny t-shirt my sister gave to Max when he was born and his first pair of Vans shoes that my brother gave him, and a silly felt strawberry hat a friend made for him.  That’s it.  Everything else he’s grown out of I either threw away (because they were in a mostly destroyed state) or I gave to others who needed them.

Curios.  Not toys but not relics either… what to do?  Save no more than one book sized box full over the course of your kid’s childhood.

My son loves to pick up rocks and screws and rusted things and save them forever and ever and ever.  I’ve saved enough of them so that when he’s an adult going through his kid stuff he’ll see that he was the kind of kid who liked rusted nails.  But I definitely throw out the bulk of it.  He doesn’t notice this culling of his things because there’s always still some of it around.  I throw out all the plastic doo-dads that he brings home from kid birthday parties and classroom events.  Those little 1 cent cheap-ass stupid plastic thingy-ma-bobs.  Let them hang around for a year and then throw them out.  I promise your kid will not remember that little plastic parachute guy.  Or the other 20 of them either.

School work.  Save everything that has personal information that will be interesting for you and your kid to look at when he/she’s grown up and toss the rest.  Such as:

  • Keep:  star student posters with a snapshot of your kid (probably with a fake smile plastered on his face) and that funny information the teacher asks them such as what they want to be when they grow up and what they like to do with friends etc.  Saving these shows you how much your kid changes every year and are interesting.  Other examples of this are “all about me” type projects.
  • Keep:  short stories or personal essays from school.  These can be very enlightening about your child’s imagination and they will probably enjoy reading them as adults because they are often very funny.  Only save the ones that shed some light on who your kid really is.  Generic assignments are toss-worthy.
  • Keep:  school art projects that required some muscle flexing creativity.  Foam boards with a bunch of foam stickers?  If you really love them, keep one.  Focus on keeping drawings and paintings where your child was using their imagination.  You’ll have a lot of those too.  If there are 20 that all look essentially the same (like my son’s paintings he did when he was a toddler) keep only 10.
  • Keep:  cards made in school for mom and dad.  Keep the ones you love the most.  Especially where they have written something for you.  I found a few generic construction paper hearts with glitter on them and threw them away.   It was clear they were meant to be given to mom and dad but they aren’t personal enough to warrant taking up space.  I keep all the ones with notes to me or his dad on them.
  • Keep:  cards from other kids to your kid and cards from relatives to your kid.  If your kid wants to throw them out when he/she grows up – let that decision be on them.  Cards are reminders of the people who liked/loved your kid as they were growing up.  We can all use those kinds of reminders once in a while.
  • Toss:  homework drills.  All those papers where wee Madyson’s hands were first practicing how to make the letter “a”?  That’s just work your kid had to do and I’m not convinced she’ll want to be reminded of every assignment she labored over while wishing she was doing something more fun.
  • Toss:  assignments stapled up in construction paper and full of cut and pasted information gathered for a report on tarantulas?  Unless you think your kid will never learn to use Google and will need to go back and reference that quaint report.  They don’t reveal anything personal about your kid.  Not even if they got an A+ on it.  You have report cards to trace their grade history.  Unless there’s a memorable story attached to such pieces of school work they shouldn’t take up valuable closet space.

Awards, ribbons, trophies.

I think these are always worth holding onto because achievements, even small ones, are worth celebrating and remembering.  But you didn’t need me to say this.  It’s just that the list would be incomplete if I didn’t include this category of stuff.

Books.  Set aside your child’s favorite books from the baby years.  Just a few.  You know which ones they are.

Max told me that he wanted to keep his favorite kid books to give to his own kid some day.  He’s only 11 years old right now but I thought that was a reasonable request.  I involved him in the sorting out.  I promised him I wouldn’t throw any out that were important to him but that we needed to pick some to give away to other kids to enjoy right now.  We weeded out about half of all his little kid books and are keeping the rest of them for him until he grows up and either wants them or really doesn’t.  Now he’s collecting books in his own right and it will be up to him to decide if he wants to get rid of any at all from this point on.  There comes a time when they start having a very strong sense of what’s important to them to keep or not.  Max had no opinions on this a couple of years ago.  He didn’t want to get rid of ANYTHING.

And that’s the thing – once kids get to be about 10 or 11 years old they should get to be part of the culling process when it comes to their own stuff.  When they’re babies up until about that time they have little sense of discernment about what stuff will be valuable to them when they’re older and what stuff is just going to molder and take up space and depress them when they move out and mom forces them to deal with it all.  So your job until then is to be the curator of their relics.

I hope that this guideline helps keep this task from being overwhelming.