What I Learned About Life by Cleaning the Kids’ Room

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What I Learned About Life by Cleaning the Kids’ Room

Toys and clutter and stuff... oh my!

Toys and clutter and stuff... oh my!

When my boys were little, the hardest thing for them to do was to keep their room clean.

It was my fault.

As a young mother, I thought they needed toys and books and “stuff” to be happy. Of course the “mature, educated, enlightened” side of me knew better than that, but the modern, consumerist part of me (that functioned on auto-pilot because I was exhausted and had two boys less than two years apart) forgot when I was out shopping.

I learned something from my little guys back then… something I still use today when it’s time to clear the clutter

It’s Not a Bargain, If You Didn’t Need It

Sure, when the boys were little my shopping places were yard sales and thrift shops, but the stacks of stuff came in at the same rate (or possibly faster) than if I had been a typical retail shopper. I still shop secondhand shops and love the thrill of the hunt, but I’m substantially more discerning now about what (and how much) I drag home.

Back then, it seemed I was always fighting the “clean your room!” battle. One fateful day, the situation had become so dire I couldn’t handle it anymore and I wasn’t going to do it for them because they were old enough to be responsible for cleaning their room.

They had arrived at the point that they were actively avoiding their own room. They did that when it got too messy. Instead of spending time in their room, they would drag their favorite things out into the living room or the kitchen and play with them there. Even kids prefer neat spaces. Even messy kids. Go figure.

Clutter-Busting Rules for Kids

In an attempt to keep their clutter contained, I made the rule that their things stayed in their room. They could bring out only ONE item, but the second it left their hands, it had to be returned to their room. Second rule was that a “collection” of items (like their entire Lego collection) was not one thing. One lego was one thing.

They were NOT allowed to put down any of their personal things in any other part of the house. Yes, I was an absolute ogre — so sue me. The rules meant they could read a book in the living room with me or play with a toy in the kitchen while I was cooking, without “clutter creep” occurring. (It also reduced the number of times I squealed and did the “stepped on a Lego” dance at 3 a.m.)

I also noticed that when their room was clean, they preferred to play in there.

The Room Cleaning Struggle

On one particularly bad day, after asking them for three days to get their room clean, I noticed that the room actually looked worse, instead of better. For the previous day, they had been sent to their room anytime they came out other than meal times and for bathroom needs — with strict instructions that they were NOT going to go outside and play or even go into the living room to play until that room was cleaned. Mommy was at the end of her rope.

Both of my boys got depressed. It was no mystery why… I couldn’t even see their floor for the mass of toys and papers and string and bits of this or that only children can collect and deem important. I walked into the room and saw the boys had “blocked off” the nasty room by pushing everything off the lower bunk of their bunkbeds and stretching sheets around the two exposed sides. Inside, I found my boys in their “hideout” playing with a toy apiece. They were hiding from the mess! I could relate.

The Ah-HA! Moment

I felt like a prison guard and a horrible mother. I sat down on the bed beside them and stared at the mess, as depressed about it as they were. Then, I had a brilliant idea (if I do say so myself)! I told them that they didn’t have to clean their room, it was a huge job and I didn’t blame them for not wanting to do it. Their little faces brightened up. I told them they only had to pick up and put away those things that were most important to them and I’d take care of the rest.

I got up and cleared off their bookcase (it was lightly littered with papers and crayons and a couple books). I told them to put anything they wanted to keep, anything that was really important to them on the shelf and to leave the rest of the stuff in the floor and I’d dispose of it.

Their little faces sunk.

They started to plead their case that they didn’t want all their stuff “throwed” away. I told them they could keep anything they wanted, so long as they put it on the shelf, and that if they didn’t want it enough to pick it up and put it away, then it would be better to get it out of their room so they didn’t have to deal with it anymore.

The Transformation

What followed was amazing. They picked up and put away what was most important to them. The rest, they pushed to the middle of the floor. It was surprising what mattered most to them. It was NOT what I would have guessed. The things that I thought mattered most to them was in the pile on the floor.

Some of the items still on the floor hurt my feelings a little, but I never said a word to them. What mattered was they had made decisions. They had chosen. When they were finished putting away their important stuff, I told them they had done a good job and could go outside and play.

Why Toy Boxes Suck and Shelves Don’t

That day I eliminated the toy box. It’s a horrible invention which only encourages kids to be messy. After all, they have to dig down into the bottom to find what they want and usually toss out everything else in the process. The search for a single toy can trash a whole room. Open shelves are much more efficient.

I dutifully handled the rest of the stuff, putting garbage in one bag and donation items in another. When I was finished, I swept the floor and looked at the nearly empty room. I took the bags to the car for Goodwill and to the garbage can for trash. Then I called them inside to see their room.

The Unveiling

I thought they would be shocked, I expected them to whine that they forgot this or that and that their room was empty and all their stuff was gone. Instead, my little boys squealed with delight, spun around in their room with their arms all extended, and immediately started playing with the items on the shelf.

For a week, they played happily in their room. They weren’t constantly dragging things out into the rest of the house, they weren’t whining that they didn’t want to play in their room (I had to pry them out of it!) And then it hit me…

They were no longer in a physical environment they found oppressive. They actually LIKED their personal space and without all the extra stuff, they enjoyed what they still had… the stuff that was most important to them… even more.

How To Painlessly Purge: Just Change Your Perspective

This experience changed my view of possessions and space and the human condition forever. And now, so many years later, I’m applying that lesson to my own space. I’ve done it before to a much smaller degree… but now, I’m clearing the shelves and putting back only what really matters to me and the rest of the stuff… what’s left in the middle of the floor of my cabin… is being discarded.

Whew! What an experience! I’m looking forward to spinning in my cabin, arms extended, giggling and free. Then… I’m looking forward to pursuing the few projects I’ve retained and having more time to do what makes me happy. 🙂


  1. Leanna says:

    I just wanted you to know that I loved this! Thank you for sharing!

    • Angela Allen says:

      Thank you Leanna! I appreciate the comment and love having you on the site. Come back and visit me again soon 🙂 Now, I have to go over and poke around on your site… it looks pretty interesting!

  2. Emmy says:

    I think this is my third time reading this and I still love it. It applies to kids and adults and is something to really remember when faced with clutter. Thank you for writing it!