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August 31, 2011

Organizing with Your Kids: How to Get Kids to Let Go

When I launched my Organizing with Your Kids workshop earlier this summer, some great questions were asked in the comments. As we get ready to start the next session of this workshop, I thought it would be fun share some ideas and answers to some of the most common questions people have about organizing with their kids. Sound fun? Okay…here we go.


Questionmark_copyright_simplify101 Question:  How do you get kids to give away or throw away things they no longer use or love?  
I love this question because, just like with everything else organizing, there really is no one-size-fits-all answer. I have two kids, and I’ve worked with a number of kids in my one-on-one organizing, and what I have found is this:  every child (just like every adult) has different motivations when it comes to getting organized. The trick when working with your own child is to try different things until you pinpoint what motivates your child to let things go. 


My two kids are terrific examples. One of my kids is like me in that he likes things to be organized. He has very little trouble letting go of things. Along with his natural inclination toward order, he is also very entrepreneurial. He loves to earn money. So he is very motivated to let go of things he doesn’t use anymore, especially when he can earn money on these items. He is very practical when it comes to his room, and only wants to keep the things he uses and loves. Plus, the money he makes off of old stuff he doesn’t use any more can be put toward new things he does want and will use. 


Donate-bin-simplify101 My go-to solution for letting go of things is to donate them, which doesn’t play in to my son’s natural motivation to make money. So when my son was younger, I would pay him by the pound for items he let go of. This worked great. And you can bet when I do have a (rare) garage sale, my son is the first one to get in on the action. At last summer’s sale, my son sold a bunch of stuff…and he made close to $100. With my son, however, it isn’t just about the money. (At least not anymore.) He now also really loves how an organized space looks and feels. He will rearrange and reorganize his room and closet on his own now, and he is also in the habit of handing me items that no longer fit so I can donate them. For my son, it has been a combination of starting with his primary motivation (making money) and then, talking to him about how great an organized space looks and feels. Now he is as motivated to let things go simply because he likes the end result of an organized space.  


Bucket-animals-simplify101 With my daughter, it has been a different journey. She is a naturally sentimental person and she isn’t motivated by money. She loves her stuff (especially her stuffed friends) and if it were up to her, there would never be a reason to let go of any of it. Finding her motivation has been a bit trickier. But here’s one thing that works really well. She enjoys spending time together doing things—even organizing her room. Because of this, it has been mission critical that I make the organizing process fun and enjoyable for her. Since organizing together is fun, we organize and declutter her things rather frequently. Using this little and often method, over the years, she has gotten better and better at letting things go.


As with my son, I always have made it a point to talk my daughter about the organizing process and the end result. And my little stuff-lover does admit that she likes her room much better when it’s organized. (Although it truly doesn’t bother her when it’s not.) 


So how do you get your child to let things go? Here are some things to try: 


1) Try different approaches until you figure out what motivates your child. Don’t be frustrated if your first attempt doesn’t work great…just try something different next time. 


2) When your child’s room is organized, ask him what he likes about it. How has it helped him? For example, maybe now he can find and reach his favorite toys more easily. Or maybe now he can get dressed on his own. Does he like how it looks? Help your child connect the dots between letting things go and an end result that he likes.


3) Take baby steps. Don’t set out to organize the entire room in one sitting and don’t set out to transform your child into an organized person in one day. Instead, give it time. Work on just one area of a room at a time and for a short amount of time. Work on helping your child create new habits…one habit at a time. 


4) Make it fun. Set a timer and see how much stuff your child can let go of in fifteen minutes. Can she fill the donation box? Can he let go of ten match box cars? Can she let go of five stuffed animals?


5) Maintain a long term focus. I’ve been organizing with my kids and involving them in the process for seven years. And over those years they have learned so much about getting and staying organized. It didn’t happen overnight, but it has been well worth the time and energy we’ve all invested in the process. 


So that’s what has worked for us. I’d love to hear what has worked for you…or what isn’t working for you and your child. Thanks so much for sharing!  (By the way, check back soon for more questions and answers.) 


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My 4 yo son seems to be heading in the right direction when it comes to organising. He has no problem putting things away and will tidy a massive mess (currently still with help) when it needs doing. My 12 yo daughter however is the opposite. While she loves a tidy and organised room she doesn't keep it that way. I try to get her to do little things at a time or we'll spend time together, but she won't do anything of her own initiative. I'm going to try the money incentive and see how that pans out.


Thanks for your comment, Robyn! For your daughter, try the money incentive...or ask her what would make it more motivating for her. Perhaps it would be earning an outing with friends, or a new outfit (after a series of completed projects or after she keeps her room picked up for a period of time.)

Good luck! It's definitely worth the time invested to try different things until you figure out what will work for her. :)



I had to giggle when I read this post. Our sons sound very similar with respect to their money motivation. I get him to work with me purging, sorting and organizing his stuff. And I love it now when he spontaneously gives his toys away when friends or cousins come over. He loves wrapping them up as "just because" gifts.

I agree with you that it takes time and if they see you modelling the behaviour they become comfortable with letting go. You may enjoy a really interesting article linking kid's materialism with self-esteem:



Great suggestions! Another one is to start young. My four-year-old son already understands the idea of giving away items and organizing. He knows about donating things (via a local charity and Goodwill) and selling things (via Craigslist). I’ve told him there are some little boys and girls who don’t have as many toys, so he can help them by giving them toys he no longer plays with. We also go through his books periodically and bring ones he doesn’t want to his daycare, where they’re happy to have the donation. I let him give them to his teacher who always gushes with lots of thank yous. Every so often he even comes to me unprompted carrying an item and says he wants to give it away, so I guess it’s working!

As for organizing, we recently added Ikea Trofast units to his playroom (love them!) We involved him in everything – going to Ikea, loading up the drawers on our cart, deciding what would go in each drawer and even helping me pick a few things to photograph from each drawer for labels I put on front. The system has worked great for us so far.

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