“I don’t know why I even bother buying you cute clothes when you always wear those ratty gym clothes.”
This was a comment my aunt made to me when I was 12 years old. At the time, her words didn’t bother me — especially since she's my cool older aunt who I looked up to. In fact, I didn’t think much of it again until I overheard a very similar comment made to my kids.
“You didn’t use the gift we got you? We really thought you’d enjoy it. I hope you didn’t just give it away.”
This got me thinking about whether or not we are programmed at a young age to keep clutter.
When children are young, they are showered with gifts. I know my kids were. Heck, they still are. They might not always like what they're given, but we've taught them early on to be appreciative of any gift they receive (yes, manners are important).
Yet somehow along the way, our kids learned they had to keep those gifts no matter what. After all, who knows when Aunt Linda will come to visit. So we keep the ugly sweater she knitted just in case. We have to dig deep into the closet to find it buried among other castoffs when she's in town. We couldn't bear the disappointment on Aunt Linda's face if she discovered we'd given it away.
You're probably thinking, "What's the big deal to just hang on to what's given to us as kids? It's not that much stuff." Except that most of us probably still have totes full of this stuff at our parents house long after we've moved out. As adults, we still can't get rid of some items because they were gifted to us.
It's a big deal because a belief starts to form where physical possessions carry emotions. Some are good emotions, but others, such as guilt, aren't so good. That belief, when started so young, is hard to break as an adult.
So how do we let go of the guilt and stop perpetuating the cycle with our kids? It starts with us. As parents, we can lead by example and set the standards for our family.
In our family, we have a new routine around the holidays. My kids go through their room to gather up toys that don’t bring them joy anymore. They are left alone for this gathering process — free of judgement and side comments. The toys are then donated so they can bring joy to another child.
When my kids are thinking of new gifts they'd like to add to their wish list, we also encourage them to include experience-based items, such as a movie theater gift card, a membership to a local museum or money towards a vacation. The benefit of this type of gift is twofold. First, the amount of clutter is reduced and, second, it provides an opportunity for a memory to be made.
It's possible to let our kids grow up free of guilt when it comes letting go of physical possessions. We just have to start the process when they're young — and continue by setting examples in our own adult lives.
Haley Rogers is a professional organizer and women’s life coach. She uses her personal experiences of decluttering along with her Type A and structured personality to help others simplify their homes and lives. She often taps into her professional experience of advising and project management to keep her clients motivated and on track. Find more about Haley here.