Minimalist Kids? Teaching Kids How to Let Go of Their Stuff

too much stuff

How much stuff do your kids have?

If you’re like me, your immediate answer is, “Too much!” And if your kids are anything like mine, they’re in complete denial that they have too much stuff and exceedingly reluctant to let anything go. Case in point, when I asked my youngest why we couldn’t get rid of one of her fifty thousand stuffed animals (just one!) she wailed, “Because I’m attached!!”

In recent years, there’s been plenty in my news feed about minimalism, how to live without all the things we think will somehow bring us happiness. Personally, I have dabbled with a capsule wardrobe, picked up a few tips from minimalist moms, and done my best to cut back on the clutter by weeding out toys regularly. The result? Initially, I feel great! With fewer things and toys about, I am less stressed and less grouchy at the end of the day when it’s time to pick up the house with the kids. Less is more!

A few weeks after one of my cleaning frenzies, however, and the girls’ stuff, once again, starts to pile up. It would start small with maybe the contents of a goodie bag from a birthday party, or something they’d find at a yard sale down the street, but it never took long for their toy boxes to, once again, overflow. Why did this keep happening?! My kids, I have come to realize, have not read all the articles I have. They haven’t drunk the minimalists’ kool-aid. They’re just not interested in the life-changing magic of tidying up. It occurs to me that unless I find a way to convince them to cut back on their stuff, we are just going to continue an endless cycle of accumulation and purging until they leave for college.

For the sake of my sanity, here are some of the things I’ve tried, and am trying, to teach my kids about how to live with less stuff.

Toy Jail

When the kiddos were really little, and I was really cranky, I set aside a basket on top of the fridge that I labeled, “Toy Jail.” In it went all the toys my girls neglected to clean up at the end of the day. I didn’t bother to draw their attention to these toys because at the end of a week, if they hadn’t noticed, these were the toys that I relegated to a box for the GoodWill. It seemed to me, that a toy that they could live without for a week, was likely a toy they could live without for longer. If, on the other hand, the girls went looking for a particular toy or noticed it peeking out of Toy Jail, they could earn its freedom by completing a chore for me.

less is more
With less stuff in her way, Libby plays with her toys more.

This simple, concrete system sadly did not cut back dramatically on the stuff in our house. Either the basket was too small, or my girls were too observant. In any case, I did not notice a big difference in the number of the girls’ possessions. What Toy Jail did do was to make the girls more aware of their stuff. They learned not to leave their toys lying around (as much) and, on more than one occasion, that a particular item was not worth their effort to rescue. Plus, I got some chores out of them.

Toy Choice

A few weeks ago, I found myself at capacity with the number of art projects my youngest had piled up around the house. Many had been shoved underneath beds after a previous hissy fit of mine, others were piled high on dressers and shelves, and still more were sitting on a bench by the front door awaiting ME, it felt like, to find a place for them. “Libby,” I snarled, “tomorrow you’re getting rid of all of these boxes! I’m sorry, but there’s just not room for them, and they HAVE to go!”

What followed was an epic crying session, where an inconsolable Libby wailed for an hour on a wide range of topics, but 45 minutes into her melt-down (some days, my mom brain is just slow) I realized the problem was actually less about her hurt feelings and more about me not letting her have some control over the process.

“What if,” I asked her, “you decided what to get rid of? You can keep the art projects, if you let go some stuffed animals. Or some dress-up clothes? Books? You decide. It just all has to fit in the one toy box you have because that’s all we have room for.”

The next day, Libby was on fire! To my surprise, art project after project was broken down into pieces and recycled or thrown away. Dress up clothes that no longer fit were happily placed into a basket to be passed on to a friend. She finally selected three projects and happily loaded them into a now empty toy box for storage.

We all like to have choices in our lives, right?  The minute I empowered Libby to take the lead, not just in choosing which things to get rid of but in helping me solve a problem, she was much happier and engaged.

Cutting Back

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to know that the attachment to material objects my girls exhibit is not good in the long run. And while I’m pretty good at making a financial argument with the girls, I have to work harder to address what really is a spiritual issue.

The fewer things we feel the need to buy or own, the more we shift our focus away from being consumers, the lighter many of us feel in our soul.

As the girls get older, I am finding that they’re more receptive to conversations about the things that are important to them that aren’t actually things. For example, when we’re picking out birthday presents for each other, we try to talk more about experiences we might enjoy together than the things we might buy. This means we’re more likely to give a movie gift card or to offer them tickets to a play over whatever the current most popular toy is.

I won’t mislead you that they’ve given up asking for toys after just a few talks. Libby still wants a spy kit for her birthday this year. But I’m leaning towards just picking out a secret decoder ring for her, the better to hide tickets for her to the International Spy Museum for when we’re in DC this summer. She would be perfectly happy with a whole kit of plastic spy gear, but I know, even if she doesn’t, how quickly her delight would fade with these items. The experiences we have together, on the other hand, are the things she’ll remember and enjoy for much longer.

If I’m being really honest with you, I have to say that cutting back on the things we purchase is easier said than done.

The Story of Stuff
Where does all this stuff come from? Watching The Story of Stuff

Sometimes, I’m as bad as the girls when it comes to wanting to buy something (I have a serious love of shoes). To help us with our efforts to cut back on the things we buy, our family joined Mother Up!, a parenting group sponsored by 350Vermont. We meet once a month with other families trying to find ways to make better choices for our kids and the planet. Finding a group of like-minded parents has both inspired me to do things that just feel hard sometimes, and has helped me to shape the conversations I have with my kids about what kind of people I hope they become.

There’s still plenty of stuff coming into the house. Last week, the girls, despite my frowning, both brought home plastic bracelets and pencils from the prize box at the dentist’s office (how do you say no to that?!). The bracelets broke in less than five minutes before falling beneath the seat of the car and the pencils still sit in a paper bag next to the sink. Two days ago, we donated three bags, but tonight, the sight of the things piled up on the bench by my door causes me apoplexy.

What I’m learning in the war against too much stuff in my home is that I’m going to lose some battles. I don’t know if it’s human nature or what, but we all tend, by choice or inertia, to accumulate things in our lives. What I hope will ultimately bring us, if not to victory in this fight, but to a better place is our new family motto, picked up from watching the video, The Story of Stuff: “More fun, less stuff!”

What about you? What tips have you found for working with your kiddos to cut back on all the stuff in your home?


  1. we just started in our house that if my girls ages 4 and 6 want a new toy then they have to donate or sell one of the toys they already have. It helps to save money since they are buying new toys with the money they make from selling their old toys.

  2. I love these ideas, Emma! It makes me think that shifting our focus from the things in our lives makes us so much more open to the community as a whole. And toy sharing?! What a fantastic way to both cut down on the number of toys we own and offer our kids note variety. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Here are two more ideas to add to a great topic: use the library more and share books with friendsmore . Toy sharing can also work well when kids”outgrow” a toy. Help kids see that they “out grow toys and clothes and shoes and THEN they can get somethiing to replace them. It can be something an older cousin or friend has outgrown or second hand from a fhtrift shop that you donate your things to. I have seen this work well with age 3 and up and it helps to start young.
    Also spending more time outdoors and playing games and exercising can help.
    Collecting natural objects and making litle fairy houses in the yard is an alternative play activity.
    Even if you live in the city, getting outside and spending time at a park or playground or community garden is important for ages 2 and up. Older kids can learn to help younger kids and interact with strangers and adults can get fresh air , exercise and meet neighbors. Sometimes one parent can take a nap with ayounger child while the older one gets t po spend time with a grandparent or working parent outisde or at a park or museum or pool. We are lucky to have a YMCA set up for families with sliding scale in Greenfield . Bratltleboro has many nice parks and the KIDS PLayce and a library and activities,on school holidays. Geting out of the house can be helpful,especially if you can walk there and get some exercise.

  4. I still have some of your stuff. But you have me believing in paring down stuff, just not fabric.


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