How to convince your reluctant family to declutter with you
June 12, 2019
At my elementary school we had a biannual community garage sale. Items were tagged and donated by each family, so that 20% of each sale went to the PTA, and the rest to the donating family. It was a great way to declutter, raise money, and share resources.
When I was about six or seven, my mother gave me some pocket money and told me I could buy anything from the sale that I wanted. I went up and down the aisles of the toy area before I spotted it—a plush Hello Kitty doll, identical to the one I had at home. I was so excited to find it!
I brought it home and showed my mother with delight. “Now I have two of them and they can be twins!”
But instead of smiling at my joy, my mother grew quiet and sheepish. She admitted that it was the same doll, which she had decluttered without my consent because she hadn’t seen me playing with it in a while.
I don’t remember my specific reaction, but that moment stuck with me. I had trouble trusting my mother with my belongings after that, and began hoarding my stuff. And just when I thought I had gotten over it and let my guard down in my 20s, she went through my belongings and gave things away without my permission—twice.
I love my mother. She always means well. She really thought I didn’t need them and was doing me a favor. But it made it difficult for me to let things go, things that otherwise I would have come to let go on my own had I been allowed to do so at my own pace.
Belongings are a funny thing.
Objectively they hold very little monetary or sentimental value, unless they happen to be yours. You don’t even have to really like something to think it’s worth more than it is. That’s why people tend to list things too high when they try to sell them online. This couch may be sagging a bit and the cat scratched one corner, but it’s otherwise a great couch and totally worth $300! …well, not to the person who sees a beat up couch instead of all the memories made sitting on it as a family.
That’s why we look at the cheap plastic toys—half of which are broken or missing pieces—that our kids never play with and wonder, “Why do they freak out when I try to throw these out?” Or we want to get rid of a couple of shirts our husbands love but are ill fitting, faded, or have a couple of holes. And yet they are adamant that we leave them alone. Why? It’s all junk!
Not to them. Not yet.
So, what? We’re supposed to live with this junk forever? But it’s driving us crazy!
No, not forever. But just like we can’t force a picky child to eat, even though we know they’d love it if they would JUST TRY IT, we can’t force our families to see the benefits of decluttering.
How does a picky child learn to eat unfamiliar foods? By repeated exposure and by watching our example. If you think it’s delicious and make that known, you serve it often, and you involve them in the process of its growth or preparation, the picky child will gradually become less resistant to trying it, and perhaps even learn to like it.
But it’s a long game; it’s not an overnight fix. The same is with our stuff.
Focus on your belongings, and only your belongings. Talk about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Talk about the joy and relief you feel after you’ve decluttered. Don’t gripe about the process. Show how you can buy one really great thing you LOVE instead of a bunch of cheaper things you just like. Display and preserve things that you keep because they’re sentimental, and treat them with respect.
And then, after you’ve done this to your stuff, let them know that if they’d like, you’re available to help them with their stuff.
And then WAIT.
Keep focusing on maintaining your decluttered belongings. Keep expressing your joy over your organized things and why you’re benefiting from a decluttered space. But don’t pressure them into decluttering theirs. Don’t shame them for their stuff.
Joy is contagious. They will want what you have and will come around slowly (remember, it’s a long game). If a long time passes and you see they’re honestly oblivious to mess, you can offer to help them declutter, but only if you do it WITH them, and you abide by their wishes to keep or dispose.
I did this with my own children for the first time when they were preschoolers. With one child, it shocked me how much he wanted to get rid of. “Even this?” I asked. “Are you sure? But you love this book [or toy].”
That was a mistake on my part. I pressured him into keeping things he didn’t really want and he came to resent it later. If I could go back, I would have just set those aside in my closet or the attic to see if he’d ask for them back. If not, he was right and I could donate them at that point. If he did, then the items would be safe from the immediate donation bin.
My other child wanted to keep almost everything. He even struggled to part with things that were broken and he could no longer play with. I kept my patience (most of the time) and returned to the toy bin anything he wanted to keep. Out of a whole box he agreed to part with one small item. I praised him for being willing to part with what he no longer wanted, and then let him be.
I have been repeating this process with my sons about every six months ever since. The first child doesn’t get rid of as much anymore, but he is the first to say, “Mom, we need to purge this weekend. It’s getting too hard to put things away at clean up time.” He’s only seven!
My other child gradually gave up more and more with each process. He came to trust that I wouldn’t get rid of his things if he wasn’t ready, and that he was the one who made the choices. He still keeps more than I would, but he’s made a lot of progress. When we moved and it was important to get rid of more than he was initially inclined to, I offered boundaries: “You can keep any stuffed animals you can fit into this box. If it can’t close, you’ll need to choose which ones go in and which ones we’ll say goodbye to.” It was hard for him, but by the time we taped the box shut he was confident in his choices.
He also found it helpful to say a proper goodbye to the items he discarded, à la the KonMari method. A hug, a verbal goodbye, an acknowledgment of the good times shared, a wish for a happy new home with another child… any or all of these things made it a little easier for him to let go.
My husband is what I lovingly call a maximalist. He is not a messy person, but he loves having lots of things. Freebies and steep discounts are particularly his weaknesses. Through trial and error (lots of errors—my poor husband), I’ve learned that if I treat his belongings with respect, then he’ll respect my requests for him to periodically go through a category of items for anything to purge. And just like with my kids, I don’t make him get rid of anything he doesn’t want to. Sometimes he grumbles about having to go through his movies or his clothes or whatever, but he always finds a handful of things he no longer wants, even though I’ve made it clear that he is welcome to keep every single thing if he truly wants them. I’m just asking him to actively check.
I realize that not all families function the same way, and in some cases you won’t receive back the same respect you show others. If this is the case in your relationship, please take care to protect yourself. But in most families, spouses will mirror back the respect shown to them, and children will mimic their parents’ behavior. It may take time, but with consistency and patience, they will start to come around.
So, to recap:
Focus on just your things. By being ruthless with your own things but patient with theirs, your family will come to trust you as a guide to decluttering, rather than becoming defensive against a tyrant trying to snatch away their stuff.
Express your joy, not your annoyance. People respond to the delight of others, but become resistant toward guilt or shaming tactics. Talk about how happy decluttering your things makes you, rather than how frustrated you are with their stuff. Also, keep a cheerful attitude as you work. This IS hard work and that’s fine to acknowledge, but if you’re moaning, “Uuuuugh, I have to declutter the bathroom today,” then they’re not going to want to declutter either. Who wants to do something that sounds so terrible? Be the evidence that the hard work is worth it.
Show respect. By respecting their feelings, their belongings, and their ownership, they’ll come to trust you and be open to future suggestions. This takes patience, but is key to cooperation.
It was well into my process of becoming a minimalist that I realized I was nagging and secretly discarding my family’s belongings like my mother did to me, and I was tripping them up the same way I had been. Let me tell you, it is NOT EASY to change those habits. It’s much easier to hide forgotten items or sneak things out of the house than to wait for someone to be ready to let it go themselves. But let my experience of learning patience encourage you to do the same, because where we would always fight before has become a nonissue in our house.
I want that for you, too! I don’t want the stuff to cause fights between you. I don’t want the stress and overwhelm you feel from the piles to warp your relationships. Because in the end, your people matter more than the stuff. Respecting one another’s feelings and boundaries reaps rewards a tidy house never could.
Your feelings matter. Your need for a manageable home is valid. But not at the expense of their feelings or their needs. So, show them the respect you’d want them to show you. With patience, you’ll see it mirrored back to you.