With March just around the corner, you can practically smell the Pine-Sol in the air. The urge to spring-clean is real, but good luck finding a surface to scrub buried under… So. Many. Stuffies. Art projects. Toys and clothes. Goody bag trinkets.
I’m pretty sure someone sneaks into my house at night and deposits clutter while we’re sleeping. It's hard to remember that in the B.C. (before children) years, I was a minimalist who stored a couple of empty boxes in my otherwise empty closets.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard of the polarizing neatnik Marie Kondo and her “sparking joy” purging method. Good for her, but you’ve got kids, i.e. no time, no energy and way too much junk. No wonder you’re overwhelmed and constantly stepping on tiny Barbie shoes.
With kids in the house, keeping the clutter at bay is a never-ending struggle. We reached out to the Marie Kondos of Seattle for tips on how to manage the chaos.
Live with less
“It works every time!” says Vivian van Vriesland, owner of The Dutch Touch and a Sammamish mom of two.
“People often hold on to things ‘just in case,’ but usually ‘just in case’ means never. And all that stuff is just taking up prime real estate, and our time and energy dealing with it.”
The ideal home isn’t about having as little as possible, van Vriesland says, but about only having the things you use and appreciate, and letting go of things that you don’t need.
Don’t go running to The Container Store and buy a ton of pretty baskets.
Don’t go running to The Container Store and buy a ton of pretty baskets. That’s the last thing you want to do. Start by being really critical about what you let into the house.
Do we really need this? Where would I keep it? While you’re at it, unsubscribe from all the promotional emails so you’re not tempted by sales.
“The pitfall I see in every single home is that people simply have too much stuff,” says van Vriesland. “It can kind of sneak up on you, until one day you realize your stuff has multiplied while you were busy and sleepless being a new parent.”
Get the kids involved
Help kids figure out which things are their true favorites by implementing a rating system, says Pam Kopec, founder of Happy Nest Professional Organizers.
The kids can sort their toys into buckets. Maybe this pile of stuffies gets 10 hearts, and that pile gets two hearts. Teach kids there is a limit; the buckets can’t be overflowing.
Another bonus of having kids sort their own things?
“Raising discerning children,” says Kopec. “‘I like that, I don’t like that’ — that’s huge when they can do it with their toys and their belongings and their friends. And know how they feel about things. That’s such a great skill to have.”
Honestly, though, sometimes you have to just plow through the playroom when they’re away at school. You know what they never play with. Tuck it away, and if they haven’t asked about it after a month or two, it can go.
“These things will fall out of favor, I promise you. We have to be stewards for their possessions,” says Kopec.
Rotation, rotation, rotation!
The smaller the kid, the bigger the toys, and it doesn’t take a lot to make your house feel crowded. But not all of the toys have to be in the living room at once. If you have the storage space, start a rotation process, Kopec suggests. When new things rotate in, it’ll spark joy for little kids.
Make sure your kids have access to a nice balance of toys. Mix up the kinds of playthings that are out at any given time. Is it an educational toy? Does it inspire creativity? Is it designed to comfort?
Have a system for incoming paper
Phinney Ridge mom Merrily Matthews gives each of her two boys an under-bed bin for all the papers that come home from school. At the end of every school year, the bin comes out and they go through it.
“You have one bin. What are you going to take out it? It establishes for them a way to evaluate what they have and what they want to keep,” says Matthews, owner of Merrily Moves.
Sometimes there are papers the kids would throw out (report cards!) but mom wants to keep them. So Matthews has a bin under her bed for that stuff, but there’s just one bin so she has to edit the contents, too.
What about your prolific Picasso’s stream of artwork? Look at it, maybe take a picture of it and recycle it, says Matthews. Or display it in frames with a hinged front so it’s easy to swap in the newest masterpiece.
Give and feel good about it
The nurse’s office at the elementary school might need spare clothes. Construction paper can go to the art teacher. That frilly dress your baby wore once for a picture? Take it to Mary’s Place or Wellspring, where another beautiful baby can use it.
It helps people get rid of things if they know it’s not just going to Goodwill, says Matthews. On her website, she has a terrific list of places where you can take things to someone who really needs them.
And don’t feel bad about getting rid of hand-me-downs.
“Just because someone gives you something doesn’t mean you have to keep it or use it,” says Matthews. “You can say, ‘Thank you very much,’ and pass it on.”
Keep it real
The ideal house should have all-white furniture, with blush and gold accents, right? That’s what HGTV would have us believe.
But being organized looks different from home to home, says Rachel Corwin, owner of Spruce With Rachel. In her own lived-in Ballard home, there’s a messy kitchen table covered with receipts, a planner, a laptop and a cup of tea. Those Better Homes and Gardens interiors are the result of many, many hours of purging, organizing and designing.
“You can achieve this, but everyone’s home looks different,” says Corwin. “And we all have different habits, hobbies, lifestyles. What does tidy look like in your space?”
This article was originally published in February 2019, and updated in February 2020.