The Secret to Not Fighting With Your Kids About Their Messy Room

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The Secret to Not Fighting with Your Kids Over Their Messy Room.jpg

Want to know the secret? Get rid of all the toys. 

Ok, ok, not ALL of the toys. Just a few garbage bags worth. Seriously.

After weeks of begging, threatening, and fighting over the kids’ messy room, we finally wised up and realized that they weren’t trying to be uncooperative little stinkers, the task was overwhelming. When our five-year-old sat down in the middle of his room and cried that he couldn’t clean it….he was telling the truth. I’m kicking myself now for all the times I was irritated and grumpy having the same argument every day with him. He couldn’t clean it. Because there were TOO MANY TOYS. He felt paralyzed.

So, when the kids went to grandma’s house for a slumber party, Daniel and I went through the kids’ room (our 2-year-old and 5-year-old share a bedroom) and filled up some big groceries bags with things to donate or throw out. There was A LOT of stuff. Toys they never use. Toys that were broken. Toys missing pieces. Half of the stuffed animal collection. Gone!

We saved the following:

  • LEGO
  • Duplo
  • MegaBlocks**
  • Dollhouse (furniture and dolls)
  • 4 puzzles
  • Mr. Potato Head**
  • Play kitchen/food/pots/pans
  • Tea set
  • Baby dolls and doll high chair and stroller
  • Art supplies
  • Wooden baby blocks and a few assorted baby toys
  • Wooden Noah’s ark
  • Favorite 5 stuffed animals

Most of the kids around the globe play happily with far fewer toys. Our kids still certainly have more toys than they need and we may end up getting rid of the Megablocks because they don’t get much use and they take up tons of room.

But here’s the funny thing: the kids haven’t noticed that anything’s gone. Truly. They haven’t missed a thing. They both said thank you for organizing the room and have been able to tidy it up easily since the big declutter (two weeks ago). No more fighting. No more whining. No more tears. It’s doable and they know they can clean it in a matter of minutes.

Hope that saves some of you many tears and arguments. I sure wish I’d wised up sooner. But, as I said before, I take lots of detours as I find my way with this parenting gig.

Any advice about keeping things organized in the kids’ rooms? Share in the comments!

**UPDATE: We got rid of the MegaBlocks and Mr. Potato Head and the kids didn’t notice for weeks so…..they apparently weren’t desperately attached to them.

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  1. Katherine says

    We do this, only we utilize the attic too. So every few months they get “new toys”. We also consign toys in good shape for credit for new toys or clothes they need.

  2. says

    YES! Haley! I so agree! My daughter gets so overwhelmed if too many toys are out. I always have one kind of blocks put away so they don’t get mixed. And once she does the great dump of the blocks or kitchen toys, we pick those up before anything else or she can’t even play. All she can do is whine and not know what to do with herself.
    It’s true of us big kids too. If we could just get rid of stuff, we’d be able to function a whole lot better.

  3. says

    I should do this with my room. Well, my whole house, truly. I married a “keeper”- anything with any potential worth or anything that could poooosssibly be made into something with any worth is something we obviously need to keep. Ugh, it’s bad. After the summer! I’m determined!

  4. says

    My biggest advice is to train kids that things that go together, stay together and are put away as soon as they are finished with. Puzzles, games, art supplies, anything with little pieces….it’s very important to teach kids that htey need to put those away all together as soon as they are done. Otherwise, it’s a mess. I don’t mind if bitter toys get left out, but anything small that goes together, needs to be put away together.

    • Angela says

      YES! We do that too. We have clear stacking drawers. Each drawer is for specific things. Costumes in one, play dishes in another, food in another, cars/trucks in one and so on. That way, it makes it SO easy for the kids to put their toys away because they know where they go. Also makes it so easy to FIND the toys they want to play with since they have a spot.

  5. says

    Here is my insane problem. Most of my kids toys were gifts and I somehow have a crazy sentimental attachment to them. I feel guilty tossing or even donating things that relatives gave to us. How do I get over that craziness?

    My son (who just turned five) also always tells me that he can’t clean up because there are “too many toys to pick up” (his exact words). So, I (and probably I shouldnt do this) say “Okay, lets give some away.” and he flips out. He has a really good memory and I am afraid if I did get rid of some of his toys he might notice. But, it needs to just happen, and soon.

    • says

      If you can manage try doing the purge clean while he is away; then store the bags (not the broken stuff) somewhere ~ if he misses anything you can ‘find it’ and the rest after perhaps 2 weeks get donated.

    • Alison says

      Or don’t get rid of the toys but just rotate them through storage… that way the toys stay exciting and “new” as you swap them every few months.

      • deltaflute says

        That’s what I do too. They still have a lot, and before I rotate out to the next set, I get rid of all the broken stuff. Inevitably something will break. It also helps to wash them during cold/flu season or if they’ve been playing outside a lot. That way they are playing with one set while you’re sorting and cleaning another.

    • says

      I rotate stock too – then after a year or so I can usually look at things we haven’t played with in a year and get rid of it with an easy mind. I do this with baby clothes that may or may not have a sentimental attachment – if after a year I can’t remember why I kept it I get rid of it.

      As for sentimental toys from family – just double check with people that it isn’t a toy from their childhood or sentimental to them. If you ask “Remember that toy you got Bobby for his 4th birthday?” and they say “No” then it’s probably safe to pass it on. =)

    • Olivia says

      We say, “Let’s bless somebody else with it.” My sister works with refugees, who come to this country with little more than the clothes on their backs. A friend visit sick kids at a children’s hospital and takes them toys. It helps to have a focus for where the things are going, and how if we don’t need it or love it, we should let it go to someone else who may need or love it.

      • Jennifer says

        I love this suggestion, thank you! We donate often, and the kids really enjoy it, but I also like the specific phrasing, “Let’s bless somebody else with it.”

    • kathy says

      try the rotation idea….keep some in the attic or basement in a box and rotate them out. Also, if they are not missed or looked for…safe bet you can donate them. Just don’t open the box to become attached again!

  6. says

    I need to do this with clothes. Right now, my 18mo daughter has an entire closet full of clothes, a laundry basket full of clean clothes, and I’m washing a full load in our washer. Her closet is packed and she has a full adult-size six drawer dresser filled with her clothes.

    The funniest part? I have only bought her three outfits in her entire life. They’re ALL GIFTS.

    But I have to get real and get rid of stuff because I can’t keep her room clean and feel behind on laundry so much because I’m constantly washing clothes. Ugh. What would Auntie Leila say!?!

    • Katherine says

      I had this problem with my daughter. I spent a couple of days putting her in each outfit and taking her picture in it and sent the picture to the person who gave it to her. Then I sorted by size and kept only seven of each thing. Seven shirts, dresses, & play outfits and doubled for underclothes, pajamas and socks. I had to limit because I was spending so much time managing her clothes, and she would grow out of clothes before I had used them. Once a week I tried on the next size outfits and passed on the smallest/least favorites. I did this as they grew older too, when school started we hung up a week’s worth of outfits on Sunday evening. A friend of mine did one church outfit and one grubs outfit for each kid, plus ten school outfits. It worked for her.
      Later on we limited gifts for the kids for birthdays and Christmas to only seven each.
      We found that more than that made them overwhelmed and cranky.

  7. Katherine says

    Good job Haley. Get rid of anything that is not earning it’s place on the shelf or in your child’s life. Passing it along means some one else gets the joy of it for a while.

  8. Margaret Kelly says

    I always go by the William Morris maxim “Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” I don’t have children, but I think it would still apply?

  9. says

    I can’t tell you how many times I heard this exact same advice without truly truly believing it…until I tried it for myself. We moved about 2 months ago. During the move, a good amount of toys got donated. The things that were left are mostly packed away into one closet, and so far, the kids haven’t even thought about 90% of them. I know we could purge more if we wanted to.

    Totally get rid of the Megablocks. I feel like they’re more or less a Duplo knock-off, but of poorer quality. That was one of our first toys to purge!

  10. Laura F. says

    I have already told as many family members as possible to please NOT buy our seven-month old daughter toys for her birthdays/Christmas. We have a jillion toys, and at least twenty stuffed animals (which consist mostly of my favorites from childhood). I love your idea of buying children things they need for Christmas/St. Nick’s Day (or Nikolaustag as we call it), such as shoes.
    Coming from a very privileged childhood, it’s difficult for me to purge like this, and difficult for me to not buy my daughter that really adorable (fill in the blank). It seems so obvious, and I can readily intellectualize it, but when I’m standing in front of whatever it is that I want for her and don’t already have, I still struggle! It is an area of my life in which I really have to pray for strength.
    Good for you and your work ethic, Haley!

  11. Allison says

    Such a good reminder! We actually started toy rotations a few months ago. We sorted like toys and then divyed them up equally in storage bins. We found little P was not as overwhelmed and played longer (and more creatively) with just a few toys. We rotate every few weeks. Of course we keep out a few of the favorites at all times, but everything else gets swapped! We love it!

  12. June says

    This is so true. We found the biggest culprits were…the grandparents! They love our kids so much and always want to show up with toys and we finally suggested they give “experiences” instead. Rather than buy toys they give museum passes or a trip to the pool or just let them come over and dig up part of the garden to look for bugs. Holidays and birthdays are still tricky because they can’t resist All The Toys! but for the rest of the time it works pretty well. Also, my mother in law stopped buying all the little toys she used to bring and put it all towards music lessons for our son which was the greatest ever! Having this no-toy talk with them also helped our kids learn that grandparents are people we have fun with and learn from and not just people who show up with gifts. No more “what did you bring me?!” when they show up.

    • Jennifer says

      This is great, thanks! It’s our twins’ birthday in two weeks, and I was already nervous about the deluge. I will remember to suggest experiences instead 🙂

  13. says

    Love it. My Lucy is only 10 months old and I’m already amazed at how many toys she has acquired. We’re getting ready to do a toy purge of our own – keeping the little baby toys that she actually used to store for the next baby, getting rid of some toys that she never used or probably will never use. I’m actually pretty excited about it.

  14. says

    Ha! Success! The toys my children currently have left after our last purge is precisely what’s on your list (minus the Legos since our boy is just a baby so we haven’t gone there yet). It’s definitely an improvement and they still spend almost all of their time coloring and dressing up and just generally flitting around and making cushion houses. Plus when we go to other kids’ houses they get totally absorbed in playing with the ten gazillion toys they inevitably find there and I enjoy my coffee talk without a single disruption.

  15. says

    Every month or so I help them clean up with a trash bag. Anything broken, anything paper, loose puzzle pieces, unidentified pieces, etc. goes in the trash–along with anything cheap plastic that they may have picked up from a friend, or junk from birthday parties, etc. Everything we keep goes in 5 labeled bins (Heroes, Dragons/Dinos, Vehicles, Animals, Pretend/Dress Up) or the box for wooden blocks. If they get something new, it has to fit in the right bin or we have to get rid of something old to make room. (Only exceptions are books and legos, which are kept somewhere else.) Even if they dump EVERYTHING out to play with at once, clean up only takes 15 minutes.

  16. Lisa says

    I’m a no clutter freak! I get rid of too much probably. What I’ve started doing is packing up all I think I can get away with and putting it in the back of the van. I wait a week and if nobody says…..hey, where’s my xxxx? I drop it off at Goodwill!

  17. Leigh says

    Our kids are similar ages and we periodically do something similar. What remains, most of it stays up on shelves and gets rotated.
    They really play better with just a few toys. Except the baby, she likes variety and toys in all the locations. But her definition of toy is quite expansive.

  18. says

    We try to purge toys regularly too, and stem the influx as much as possible. My favorite thing that we’ve done to organize their toys is to use labels on their toy bins with PICTURES of the contents as well as words– that way non-readers (which are all we have for now) know clearly which toys go where, AND where to find what they’re looking for.

    We’re also lucky enough to have space for a playroom, so the only toys that Faith has in her bedroom are her dollhouse and a few favored stuffed animals, and a basket of books. Josie has no toys in her room, except a couple stuffed animals in her crib (which only made their appearance after she was out of the SIDS risk window, of course). If we’re blessed with a third baby anytime soon, then Josie will move in with Faith, but I don’t think the toy situation will change much.

  19. says

    I got a good reminder of this this past weekend where were on vacation for 5 days and my 3 year old entertained himself with just a bag of Hot Wheels, a piece of molding he uses as a ramp and about 5 books. Made me really reconsider why we have the toys we do. Going to work on a toy/book purge and storage system this weekend – time to reclaim my living room!

  20. says

    YES! I don’t have anyone to fight with about this yet, but I’m 32 weeks pregnant so it’s coming before long. And a secret that I know but don’t do a great job of practicing? This is also the key to keeping your grown-up house clean. 😉

    I grew up always getting in trouble for a messy room. Guess what? (My mom freely admits this now…) we had way too many toys! There was NO WAY to get them all put away. It was IMPOSSIBLE to have a clean room, so the basic “put it back together and put it away” habits were not needed, which have been hard to institute in adulthood. All in all, there were many tears and many fights that we could have avoided.

    This is good motivation for me in settling in to my new house… if I haven’t had a certain room clean now, after six months, I probably need to get rid of some stuff in it. (I decluttered a bunch before moving, swearsies.)

    Thanks for this good lesson for me… time to flex those ruthless declutter muscles before baby comes this summer!

  21. says

    We started the practice of culling our son’s toys twice a year – birthday and Christmas. We told him he had to make room for new toys and bless other children. We also involved him in it when he was old enough (about 4 or 5). We divided everything into 3 piles: Keep, Give Away, and Maybe. At the end, if he had done well at sorting, we let him ‘rescue’ 3 toys from the Maybe pile.

  22. Stephanie says

    Great article! We do this in our kids’ every few months too. It seems like I go through and get rid of a couple bags and boxes once per season change. But, like you, I keep the more “creative” toys, Legos, Lincoln logs, blocks, tea sets, dress up dresses, books, etc. Also like one of the earlier comments said- I love consigning things and having a running account so that come the next season when the kids will need new clothes it won’t be a big hit on the family budget.

    We’re pregnant with our 3rd now and although we still have lots of room to grow into our house I started feeling a little crowded in our storage areas. I took advantage of my 2nd trimester energy boost and did a whole house decluttering. It was SO liberating!
    I didn’t stress out about and try do it all in a day either- I spread it out over a month or 2. Whenever I had “extra project time” (because really, what mom ever really has down time?) I would choose a closet, cupboard, pantry, or corner to just go through and organize. By the time it was all said and done we had enough for a small yard sale! (Proceeds of which provided the final payment to our midwive birthing center. Win win win situation up in here!)
    So now we have some empty cupboards, shelves, etc that we can continue to expand into- and we made a little $ on the side. Anyway great article and I love the freeing feeling you get from shedding some unecessaries!

  23. says

    I remember fondly the first time my ma took away a bunch of our toys “as punishment.” We didn’t even care – in fact, we seemed relieved. And that’s when she started to realize that we just had too much stuff.

  24. says

    I was just about to lose my mind the other day over this issue. I was going to search out help from the Catholic blogging community, and you just came in on a stallion!

    I LOVE to purge, and this motivates me.

    My big tip for people who are afraid kids will be upset: don’t throw the toys away just yet. Store them out of site for a while. If they don’t ask for them or remember, then go ahead and get rid of ’em!

  25. says

    Oh man. This is so a thing for me. You should hear my rants :). For a little while I was doing a toy rotation thing,but then, like you said–most kids in the world live with so few toys, and we have toys in the closet? That we don’t even use? Whhaaaaat?
    Grandparents have heard my cries of frustration this past Christmas, and have stopped giving lots of stuff. Our last round of birthdays was wonderful.; both kids got lots of clothes, but my daughter only got a stuffed rabbit, and my son got a pass to the Children’s Museum–I am starting to heavily stress experiences over physical gifts. I’m so thankful they’re coming on board. It has been such a huge stress reliever!

    • says

      Love this! I asked for clothes, too and still got a ton of toys at my sons last birthday. Aunts and Uncles and Grandparents all want to spoil him and get “the cool gift”, I think. I love the idea of experiences over things!

  26. Renee says

    I needed this encouragement. Our basement is a constant disaster area. Our three-year-old twins are often gifted two of each toy, which equals WAY too much stuff!! Lately they don’t even want to go down there to play, and the mess is probably the reason why. Time to make it right. Thanks!!

  27. says

    SAME conclusion over here, girlfriend! Year before last we moved our family of 6 into a tiny bungalow that was 40% the size of our prior one. We got ride of nearly three-quarters of the kids’ items and it was bliss, I tell you. For all of us. My bulleted list looked a lot like yours.
    In the end it came to me that all that purging was really a REDUCTION. As in – when you boil down a sauce and make it less ample but more flavorful, more the essence of what the taste truly is. That’s what evaporating out the clutter and unnecessary toys felt like to me…. More at Simplifying and the Reduction Process
    Thanks for the post!

  28. Sarah says

    We rotate around here, too. We only have a couple shelves around the house that have toys on them and the rest live in the attic. The babies, dress up clothes, blocks and the play kitchen are really the only things that are always out.
    During lent we did a big purge and I asked the girls (3yo and 5yo) to pick out a few toys, dress up clothes, books and clothes to give to children who don’t have any of those things at home. They were super excited about the idea of helping others out. I think it will be a Lenten tradition for us.

  29. says

    I can’t wait to do this at my house! The toys drive me nuts because there aren’t enough places to put them away, let alone where they belong. I just need the kids out of the house long enough to do it!

    Lose the Megablocks. They’re not as good as Duplo and not worth your space.

  30. says

    Thank you, thank you for sharing this, Hayley!

    Even though I’m not a little kid anymore, I also get overwhelmed by too much stuff! It does make it so much harder to clean!

    I know it is probably easier said than done, but I would love for my kiddos to have very few “toys”, and instead learn to play with whatever is around them (easier because we live out in the country), and to “play” by helping me with things around the house. My mother was so wonderful about including us in so many of the household chores before we were old enough to really be helpful—I’m sure it took her at least twice as long to do all those things with our “help”. But the beauty of her way was that by the time we were actually old enough to be helpful, we didn’t mind doing those things, and we were trained that we were an important part of the household. It was, and is, a huge blessing!

    Growing up, my brothers and I rarely played with our toys (except for a select few), and instead played with each other, with my mother’s tupperware and measuring cups and spoons (yes, we would make a mess), and as we got older, we would read, and spend hours outside playing together. Such special memories… (although I’m sure they are a bit idealized).

    Our culture has an idealized idea of the value of “stuff”. Possessions can be a wonderful thing, when used properly, and not unnecessarily clung too, but they can also be a weight, a burden. I’ve been grateful to live in a small home for most of my growing up years, and a tiny house in my early married life. It really helps give a better perspective on what we actually “need”, and makes it easier to keep from accumulating extra stuff when you simply don’t have room for more!

  31. Mary says

    Just cleaned out two bags of toys from the kids’ toy room/closet. Whew! It feels so much better. Thank you for the encouragement! You are right that they weren’t even playing with those toys. Love the organization.

    • Haley says

      Thanks, Mary! I ended up giving away the Megablocks and Mr. Potato Head at a garage sale today! They just weren’t using them and the Megablocks, especially were getting everywhere.

  32. says

    Fabulous post! It sometimes takes some kind of “insane” common sense to figure out a simple solution. Some great ideas shared here in the comments too!
    Most my family regularly sort and purge. I have one child that is a bit of a minimalist, so it is easy for her, but I have a very sentimental 12-year-old daughter who loves to “parade” her stuff … even old papers and wrappers. It all looks like junk to me. But if I ask her, she usually has a pretty good reason for keeping things. I suggested she could only keep as much stuff as her containers allowed. And she has to limit the stuff on her dresser to only 5 of her most precious things. She now rotates her own things and keeps the stuff she can’t bear to part with in the box in the top cupboard. I have insisted on just one rule – nothing on the floor! And it works for us both.

  33. Lynn says

    I smile because my kids are 15 and 19 and I remember the struggles with putting away toys. When our 15 year old was 7 we took away all his toys, except Legos and matchbox cars, and he didn’t even miss anything. Guess what, he still has those Legos and cars in his room. We did the purge thing at Christmas and birthday times. We also did that with clothes at the beginning of winter and summer to see what they out grew.
    Just keep purging toys they don’t use, broken and outgrown toys and you will be good. Also, one child’s favorite toy will not necessarily be the next child’s favorite toy 🙂

  34. says

    I love it! I actually do the “toy clean up extravaganza” now before Christmas and Birthday. Those grandparents LOVE giving LOTS of new things… are there tips on how to say “thanks but we dont need anymore – ahem – crap. but we love you bunches!” Suggestions?

  35. Rachel says

    This is our strategy too. Every year around this time I do a massive purge because we have two birthdays and Christmas coming up. They have NEVER noticed anything missing. Not even when I got rid of all of the trains and tracks and the TRAIN TABLE. I’ve also started telling people who ask what to buy as gifts to get consumables like art supplies, books, and outdoor toys.

  36. Megan says

    I don’t even have kids but this article has helped me reason the reason I can’t keep my own apartment clean, haha! I’m about two seconds away from pulling out some garbage bags and taking my junk to a secondhand shop. It doesn’t help with all the materialism that the media pushes, always thinking that we want the newer version of something. Does anyone else end up with multiples??

    • Haley says

      I totally tend to lose things and then desperately need them and buy them again (tape, scissors, light bulbs, etc). Getting better now that we’ve given the house a full declutter! You’re not alone! 🙂

  37. says

    we do the same thing! every few months we need to re-do it because the grandparents get a little crazy with toy gifting, but I think this may be the only system that works 🙂 It’s very Konmari haha

  38. says

    Hallelujah. Love reading stuff like this because it just confirms my theory that “30% of the toys my kids have are never even noticed or played with.” It’s the lower level of toys that rest underneath the ones they are actually enjoying. So I get sneaky and I take a bag and collect up a bunch and then hide them in a safe/hidden location (i.e. our crawlspace). If no one asks about them after a month of so (and they never do), then they go to goodwill.

    • Haley says

      Love it, Maggie. After traveling all summer, we arrived at our new apartment and had only LEGO, DUPLO, books, dress-ups, and art supplies. No complaints! 😉

  39. Mel says

    We’re currently fighting the “but we like to play with it all messy!” argument. But we’re moving and I fully intend to NOT put everything back at one time and to ensure the room is organized and kept organized.

  40. Sarah says

    We have also started getting our four kids involved in the whole process. We have a certain amount of space for toys (ie 2 contains) which means that the kids need to decide what they don’t want or use anymore before they get new toys. This also helps the kids to start thinking altruistically regarding what they’ve got and what others don’t have. Then we let the kids decide where things go. To the poor? To a family we know who has little kids? Can something even be re-purposed? It’s helped our kids to start thinking about others, their needs vs wants, as well as helping our little monkeys to detach from stuff. It’s been a game changer!

  41. Mel says

    I know this is not an option for everyone but I met a refugee family through work and discovered they quite literally had nothing. I went home and spoke to my family about their need and the first thing the kids did was start looking through clothes and toys for things to donate. My partner and I had been talking about upgrading the dining set (we had a four setting and needed 6) and our lounge suite and did it that day. We then took the children with us (with the families permission) to see the joy our things brought to another family. It was a life changing experience for us all.


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