Clean Up

"It's just too much."

My daughter, who is newly 5, said this to me for the first time this week. She asked me to come clean up her room with her and when I walked in she sighed and said, “it’s just too much”. We don’t have a lot of toys, but she manages to accumulate stuff. Although this was the first time she has put this into words, her behavior has been telling me this her entire life. 

Rarely will our kids be able to verbalize their overwhelm with stuff. More often, they will speak with their behavior. They will be able to feel the overwhelm, but they won’t be able to articulate or comprehend the solution. Which means we have to steer the ship.

Episodes Mentioned:

My Messiness

Too Many Toys

How to Use a Reward Chart

How to get kids to clean up their toys. Maybe you've Googled this. In fact, many, many parents have Googled this. You aren't alone. We struggle with this in our house too. My daughter, who is newly five, came to me and asked me to help her clean up her room this week. And when I walked in, she sighed and said, it's just too much. Now we don't have a lot of toys, but she manages to accumulate a lot of stuff, whether it's rocks and pine cones, that she finds outside creations that she's made out of clay and cardboard and Lego, even though we're not buying and accumulating things on behalf of her, the stuff still finds its way into our house. Now, although this was the first time in her life that she has put this into words by telling me it's just too much. Her behavior has told me this throughout her entire life, rarely will our kids be able to verbalize. They're overwhelmed with stuff. More often, they will speak with their behavior. They will be able to feel the overwhelm, but they won't be able to articulate it or find a solution. And the result is messiness and struggling to clean up the age old battle of getting kids to clean up their toys. It might be familiar to you. So that's what we're going to talk Out today.

Hi, this is Denaye. I'm the founder of Simple Families. Simple Families is an online community for parents who are seeking a simpler more intentional life. In this show, we focus on minimalism with kids, positive parenting, family wellness, and decreasing the mental load. My perspectives are based in my firsthand experience, raising kids, but also rooted in my PhD in child development. So you're going to hear conversations that are based in research, but more importantly, real life. Thanks for joining us.

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Personally, I love the simplicity of having a box show up at my doorstep, knowing that I'm guaranteed high quality ingredients, the boxes are packed, fresh, shipped, frozen and vacuum sealed. So it stays that way. Right now ButcherBox is offering new members, ground beef for life. That's two pounds of ground beef in every box for the life of their subscription. Go to butcherbox.com/families. That's butcherbox.com/families. Now, if we want kids to clean up, we have to understand why they're messy. My first child, my oldest is incredibly tidy.

I've talked about in the podcast in the past that I am by nature, a very messy person in episode 235 simplefamilies.com/episode 235. I talk a little bit about my own messiness growing up and even present day, I would love to take credit for my tidy son. I'd love to say, you know, it's all nurture. It's all my parenting at play here, except for the fact that my daughter is pretty much the polar opposite. She is messy. She struggles to tidy and clean up her things. I do think that nurture and parenting plays a role here, but I think we don't give nearly enough consideration to nature, to the inherent characteristics and personalities of our kids and how that plays into their abilities to clean up. Why are some kids messier than others? There are lots of reasons. Some kids are internally disorganized.

Their brains are really messy. They may have executive functioning problems. They have trouble planning things out, following multi-step directions, knowing how and where to put things. Sometimes that internal messiness in the brain reflects outwardly with the way they keep their things. A kid like this needs a very simplified space. They need it to be really easy for them to clean up. In fact, they still may struggle to clean up. Even in simplified spaces. This will feel like a constant work in progress as they grow part of their journey. Now, some kids are fast moving and are full of ideas. This is my daughter, and this is how I was as a kid, too, jumping from one thing to the next, leaving a trail every step of the way. Now, these kids also benefit from simplified spaces to make cleaning up really easy. They also benefit from learning and practicing, slowing down and resting and pausing just in general life.

This is more of a whole life or big picture type intervention that will eventually spill over into cleaning up. You can't expect overnight success. Now, if you have a kid that's fast moving and full of ideas and always on the go, moving from one thing to the next or a kid that seems sort of mentally disorganized and has a hard time remembering where things go and following directions, any, and all of these kids are going to benefit from simplified spaces so much. But if none of that resonates with you, you might just have a kid who has too much stuff. A kid who has enough stuff that you as an adult feel overwhelmed when it's time to clean up. This kid will also benefit from a simplified space to make cleaning up really easy. Are you seeing a pattern here? All kids benefit from simplified spaces from having less stuff.

And often as adults, we can see that our kids are overwhelmed with stuff and cleaning up is really hard. If as an adult, you walk into your kid's space where they keep their toys or their things, and you feel overwhelmed and you feel like it's too much stuff your kids do as well, regardless if they can articulate it and put it into words or not, kids are more easily overstimulated and overwhelmed than adults. So if it feels like a lot for you, it feels like even more to your kids. So first we have to understand why is it so hard regardless of how your kid's brain works? Chances are there might be too much stuff. Then we have to declutter and collaborate and maybe even do a little motivating. And we'll talk about all of these things. Now, as far as decluttering, it might feel like a near constant process.

My son is not a collector and he tends to be pretty tidy by nature. So I'm rarely decluttering his stuff, but my daughter, it's constant a couple of times a week, I'm in her room picking up scraps of paper stickers, a bobblehead that she got on Valentine's day from school. She crawled into bed with us in the middle of the night, last week. And I woke up next to her and a conch shell. It's so important that we only give kids as much as they can handle and finding out that amount that they can handle can be tricky to do all too often. Our kids have too much stuff and they make a huge mess and we end up shaming them for it and ridiculing them for not being able to clean it up for not taking care of their things. This really came to light for me.

When my daughter started collecting Pokemon cards and they were just always all over the house. And I finally made the executive decision that she was only going to have 10 cards. It wasn't punishment. It wasn't punitive, but that was all she could handle. And when I give her 10, she took amazing care of them, kept them in a case, cleaned them up easily. And then little by little, I gave her a few more and now she has a decent sized stack. She's a little older, she's a little more practiced and she's able to manage it. It's been a constant back and forth. There are many times where I give her a lot of things and then I have to make the hard decision to scale back. There are many times I've given her things and then I ended up having to take them away. Markers is a perfect example.

She loves markers. She has loved markers from the minute that she's been able to hold one. But for impulse control reasons, she has a very difficult time managing markers because usually she ends up painting her body. Now I decided when she was three, you know what? We're going to try this. I'm going to put markers out for you so you can use them whenever you want. Markers all over the clothes, markers all over her body. All right, I'm going to put these up when you need them. I'll get them down for you. Just ask not punitive. But she had showed me that I had given her more than she could handle. Not just quantity, but type. She was not ready to handle markers yet. So again, not punitive, but I put them away. And she only used them supervised. I probably gave her markers at least a half a dozen times and took them away again because I wanted to give her for a chance to try taking care of them, to try managing the markers and using them appropriate.

But time and time again, she showed me she wasn't quite ready yet. And that was okay if you have given your kids more than they can handle or certain types of things that they're just not ready for, don't be afraid to scale back. Don't be afraid to take things away and hold off until they're a little bit older or don't be afraid to take things away and downsize them. When it comes to cleaning up and getting our kids to clean up, we have to make it easy. We have to keep the stuff really minimal. It needs to feel easy for us to clean up as adults. And that's probably gonna mean getting rid of some stuff. And as adults, we have to steer the ship, this for the well-being of your kids and your whole family. I'm always happy to collaborate. When it comes to cleaning up and decluttering with my kids, like I said, at the beginning of this episode, my daughter came to me and said, will you help me clean up my room?

Yes. I would love to collaborate with you and help you clean up your room. Let's do it together. I think this sets the tone for the whole family, working together, taking on challenging things. When I say, yes, I'll help you clean up your room. I hope that someday, when I say, Hey, will you come help me clean up the kitchen? She'll say, yes, I'll help you clean up the kitchen. Now, if she had an overwhelming amount of stuff in her room and cleaning was daunting for me, I would not be nearly as willing to take on this task. Her room gets messy, but it's manageable. So we clean it together. Most kids cannot communicate. They're overwhelmed verbally, and even fewer kids can comprehend the solution, which is often minimizing the stuff. It's a much higher reasoning and problem solving process at work to understand that having fewer things is going to make it easier to take care of them and easier to find what we need need when we need it.

I mean, I know it took me until I was like 30 years old to figure this out. If it's something that she loves, we'll often start with a 50 50. So if she, you had an overwhelming amount of stuffed animals, we'll go through and pick one that she loves. And one that she can donate and share one that she, one that she can share approaching the stuffed animals. Like this will minimize the stuffed animals by 50% right away. I'm setting some structure and boundaries that works really well when it comes to toys and things we need to donate. But when it comes to garbage and stuff, that's going into the trash and the recycling. I often just pick this stuff up and throw it away in front of her. If I stopped and asked her if she wanted to keep or get rid of every scrap, every rock, every shell, every precious, tiny thing she would absolutely say yes, but we talk a lot about how these things are special to us because we had fun collecting them.

And we had fun creating them. It's more about the process than the final product. And when we get rid of them, we're making room to collect and create more things, throwing the stuff away. Isn't something that we need to overanalyze. We toss it out and we move on throwing stuff away. Isn't a big deal. If we live in, in fear of our kids' response to throwing stuff away, we often end up making it a really big, which makes it even harder for them to get rid of stuff. And then it becomes this cycle where they never want to let anything go. So it starts with us being brave and modeling that we can let stuff go. It's not something to be afraid of. It's not something that we're going to regret. Just part of life. I'm not making a big thing out of it, not saying, pick your favorite pine cones and we'll keep those and get rid of the rest.

I'm just getting rid of the pine cones. She sees me throwing things away easily, which intern will show her. It's okay to let things go. Now, there are some things that I know are extra special to her. She has this cardboard house that she made and some sticks that she drew faces on. And it's been in a room for a week or two, and she's played with it a little bit. Yeah, but not that much. So I said to her, you can play with this cardboard house today, but tomorrow I'm going to recycle it. So I didn't give her control over whether or not we were going to recycle it. She knew she had a last chance to play with it. And then we were going to be recycling it. If it's something really, really special that I know she's going to have a hard time letting go of, I might say, let's take a photo of it and you can play with it today.

But tomorrow we're going to recycle it. I'm acknowledging that this cardboard house is really special to her, but there's going to be more cardboard boxes and making them is half the fun. But the vast majority of things just go right to the garbage. It's only occasionally that I give warning that I'm about to throw it away and give them a last chance to play with it. So notice in this process, I'm not doing a lot of asking. I'm steering the ship, I'm leading the way I'm making the decisions, but I'm also realizing that deep down the decluttering process is hard for kids because they don't have the reasoning to really understand the value of simplicity. It's even hard for a lot of adults to wrap our heads around. Now, if you have a good understanding of why your kids are messy and you declutter, maybe you're constantly decluttering like we are. And you collaborate. When I say collaborate, you remember you're steering the ship. You'll probably find that the stuff becomes much more manageable. You might not even have to motivate your kids to clean up, but if you do choose to motivate your kids to clean up, here are a couple of tips. First of all, you can't punish your kids into cleaning up.

So by saying, if you don't clean up your toys, you're going to get a timeout. Most kids are going to pick the timeout. I would pick the time out. Or if you say, if you don't clean up your toys, you're not getting any dessert that might work in the moment. But the reality is research shows punishment doesn't motivate behavior, punishment, decreases behavior. But if we're trying to get our kids to cooperate, we're trying to get them to do something. We need to motivate them. Now again, remember I recommend decluttering and collaborating with our kids to clean up. But if you choose to do a little motivating, that's okay too. Perhaps you give an allowance and you say, if you clean up your room every day, you get a dollar a day, whatever it is, that's really generous. There are a lot of people that believe we shouldn't give our kids extrinsic rewards because they only learn to behave and do these things for something tangible.

And there is some truth to that, but a clean space is internally rewarding. So if we motivate our kids, give them an allowance to clean up their room or give them ice cream, whatever they're going to find that that clean space really feels good. They're going to get lots of experience with that feeling of living and breathing in a clean space. They're going to get lots of practice on how to make it happen, how to pick up after themselves, and eventually the ideas that they'd start to want to do it for themselves. So if you decide to do some kind of reward, like an allowance for cleaning up, I think that's fine too. If you're going to do this, I would highly suggest you listen to episode 211 simplefamilies.com/episode211, how to use a reward chart to make sure you're doing it as effectively as possible, but understand that if your kid still has too much stuff, no amount of allowance is going to help them have a clean room.

If they're overwhelmed, they're not going to know where to start. Actually, that kid is probably just going to shove everything under their bed and then throw a blanket over their bed. I know that's what I did as a kid. So if it feels like your kids are incapable of cleaning up after themselves, rest easy, you are not alone. Some kids have a harder time at this than others. This issue is near and dear to my heart because I struggled with it for 30 years until I found minimalism. Even if you have to cluttered, you probably need to declutter some more. Providing our kids with a simplified space is a gift. It helps to support their emotional wellbeing, and it helps to support ours too. And the wellbeing of your children, the wellbeing of your whole family is the most important thing. We can't let that be compromised by the stuff. Sometimes that means grabbing the wheel, steering the ship and taking action. If you're feeling really overwhelmed at de-cluttering the toys and the kids' stuff, and you're not sure where to start. I do have a workshop, simple families.com/toys that will give you a step-by-step approach. It's prerecorded. You can watch it anytime again. That's simple families.com/toys as always, thanks for tuning in and have a good one.

Denaye Barahona

Dr. Denaye Barahona is a loving wife and mama of two. She partners with families to tackle the challenges of raising children. Denaye is a minimalist who claims to be a decluttering expert (don't let her near your closet). She loves to travel, talk health-and-wellness, and give unsolicited advice. She has been featured on the likes of The Today Show, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, The Minimalists, Motherly, Becoming Minimalist, and numerous other media outlets. Denaye holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and is a Clinical Social Worker with a specialty in child and family practice.

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