A Baby Boomer’s Guide to Sorting Through your Kids’ Stuff
The tears began on the second day. It was after I’d already cleaned out the unwanted “junk” that had found its way into the far corners of my full to the gills, packed like sardines, up to the rafters, saturated attic. I had started sorting through those random broken picture frames, prehistoric lamps, unused diet books, a Furbie (remember those scary creatures that randomly began talking in the middle of the night?), puzzles and board games with missing pieces (did I really move four times with this crap?) that I had saved and one time must have thought, “One day I’ll use this” or “One day someone will want this.” Really?!
As a baby boomer, I realized that I had been conditioned by my own parents to “save stuff,” who in effect were conditioned by their parents, otherwise known as the greatest generation. They had raised their families during the Great Depression and out of necessity had saved everything from string and rubber band balls to safety pins, buttons, and used coffee cans. “You never know when you’ll need this.” “Don’t throw it away!” The original “sustainability” generation. (Kudos to them in oh so many ways … from recycled glass bottles, cloth shopping bags, and home gardens to borrowing instead of buying and fixing instead of replacing.) For years I had let these heaps of stored items sit and gather dust in multiple attics, as mounds of anxiety and guilt piled high on my shoulders and wreaked havoc on my mental well-being. I truly didn’t want all of these unnecessary possessions, yet the guilt of disposing of them and the anxiety this caused left me with a constant monkey on my back. I realized that rather than me owning them, they owned me. Evidently there is an undeniable psychology to how our possessions have a hold over us. This is known as the endowment effect, where you value things more simply because you own them. This is true even if there are issues with them. Keeping something and holding on to it makes it seem more special. Then there is what is known as loss aversion. We simply do not want to lose our stuff. So, this makes it quite hard to part ways with our things.
Yet, when I was finally able to dispose of these dust and space collectors and have them out of my attic and into the trash can (they weren’t even worth donating) it was extremely cleansing. At the end of that first full day in my attic, I felt really good. I felt lighter. I was smiling.
Then came the crash.
Once I disposed of the items I really had no emotional attachment to, the reality of what was about to happen set in. Day two was about to commence. Preparation was necessary. This extended not only to the task of organizing, but also to my mindset. I was prepared to feel guilt, loss, sadness and angst. It was now time to sort through my children’s things.
I’m the sentimental fool in my own family who desired and inherited all of the old family photographs, household items that my grandparents had owned, books that they held and have read, things that would remind me of them. Objects that I felt I couldn’t let go of, thinking that somehow if I did, I’d lose a connection to these people I had loved so much. Now add in the memorabilia I had saved from my own three children, and my emotional barometer was registering off the charts. I saved EVERYTHING. It was time to let it all go! To let most of it go! To let some of it go? There was turmoil brewing between my heart and my brain. Sentiment was raging a battle with practicality. Which would win?
What led me to finally delve into this project that I had put off for many years—besides reading Marie Kondo’s AWESOME book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing? My three kids (now adults in their thirties with families of their own) had recently told me that they really didn’t want any of the mementos and memorabilia (what I considered “treasures”) I had carefully stored away for them in those Lillian Vernon drawers that were so popular in the 1980s. You know, those cardboard stacked containers that tend to bulge and bend when overloaded with kiddie masterpieces. They held a single drawer for each of the years from Kindergarten through twelfth grade, to hold all of those creative works of art from finger-paintings, clay creations and turkey hands, to composition masterpieces and report cards. I had two of those towers for each of my three kids.
I had found myself going through quite a few handfuls of tissues while spending the next three full days hunched over those many receptacles bulging with nostalgia which have lived in not one, not two, not three, but four of my attics. As Marie teaches, I held each individual item in my hands to see if it sparked joy! These treasures have probably cost me hundreds if not a couple of thousand dollars in moving fees and storage. A Caribbean vacation could have been had! That would have sparked some joy!
I had started creating scrapbooks for my kids, beginning with my oldest son. I had gotten to third grade and gave them to him for Christmas … seven years later. They were adorable and elaborate. I had spent a fortune on stickers, plastic sleeves and paper inserts. I spent HOURS sitting cramped on the living room floor cutting and gluing and oohing and ahhing and crying and cramping. I was emotional. I was proud. And I was tired. Extremely tired. And spent. I had hoped to have his entire school career done before I handed over those beautiful books, but life, a move, some family health issues, a new career, a published book, all kind of got in the way.
I decided to go ahead and deliver the first scrapbooks (one for each of the preschool to third grade years) to him and worry about the rest later. So, as I happily presented them to him that Christmas morning, my two daughters looked on, and then basically told me (rather apologetically) that it wasn’t necessary for me to create these keepsakes for them. Huh? At first, I was hurt and disappointed. My thoughts ran to, “I carefully saved all of these treasures for over 30 years, moved four times with them, and no one wants them?!” Then after it settled in for a bit, I was surprised to find that I was feeling a bit relieved. Honestly, I was feeling a lot relieved. I wouldn’t have to spend hours hunched over a paper cutter with sticky fingers and twisted legs? Then I rejoiced. Those darn scrapbooks take a lot of time! And not for nothing … a lot of tears. I had just gained hours of my life back, and my eye make-up would remain intact! Kleenex be gone! My two girls suggested that together we pull out all of their memorabilia and go through it together. They would save the few items that they wanted to keep and dispose of everything else. AWESOME!! Two fabulous things came from this suggestion. First, we spent a few hours laughing and enjoying going down memory lane together as we pulled out drawings, pictures, dance trophies, photographs, diaries, compositions, and greeting cards. It really was so much fun. Secondly, I felt absolutely NO GUILT, as I was not responsible for picking and choosing what was kept and what was disposed of. Can I tell you, this was EXTREMELY freeing!
We’ve heard so much lately of how the days of passing down “heirlooms” to our children has come to an end. Millennials just don’t want a whole lot of “stuff.” So, like many of you out there (you know who you are!), as a sentimental hoarder, at first, this news was quite hard to take!
What I hadn’t realized, until my kids had given permission to dispose of their mementos, was that the weight of these emotional attachments had become a heavy burden upon my shoulders.
Evidently “letting go” of these sentimental items is the biggest obstacle to living a “minimalist” life, which as empty-nesters on the brink of retirement, my husband and I had decided to pursue. Less stuff, more travel. It was always our plan, our dream.
So, I had been reading a number of articles about this Millennial generation and their guilt-free attitude towards rejecting their parents’ heirlooms. Do I sound resentful? Maybe just a little. Ha! Honestly, it’s jealousy. I wish I hadn’t felt that attachment, that “endowment effect.”
To get more clarity, to really understand what had changed with this generation and help those of you sentimental hoarders out there, like me, I reached out to professional organizer, Lindsey Scales of Space Organized Simply (a Millennial herself), to gain some perspective and basically to make myself feel a little better about my own kids’ rejection. I do sound resentful, don’t I?
Here is our interview:
Why do you think millennials don’t want their parents’ heirlooms?
“For millennials, there seems to be a mindset-shift favoring practicality over tradition. If the heirlooms are to ‘be seen’ but not used frequently, your millennial children probably aren’t interested. For many households, gone are the days of the formal living or dining room. Gone is the china cabinet holding dishes only to be used on special holidays. Limited square footage or design/style differences could also factor in, but often, heirlooms come with the parents’ experiences and emotional connections their children simply don’t share. It’s not personal, it’s practical.”
How should this generation express this to their parents?
“It’s not an easy conversation, because passing along heirlooms is a gift and turning down any gift is awkward. Everyone should determine the most natural way for themselves, but in my opinion, kindly decline using some flavor of:
‘Thank you so much for wanting to pass [ the item] on to me. I know how important this is to you. Unfortunately, we can’t [ use/store/maintain] it, and I don’t want to accept it only for it to sit in storage. I’d rather it goes to someone who would appreciate it as you do.’
This honors the generosity of the giver and value the parent may believe it has. However, it also sets the boundary that you cannot accept it and why. While some guilt may creep in, don’t give in when you know what you want or don’t want. Ending with the suggestion that someone else could love it as much as they do is a good way to reaffirm its value while directing it away from you.
Sometimes, your parent doesn’t actually love it—they want it out of their house as much as you don’t want it in yours. In that case, suggesting they could sell or donate the item is a good move.”
What are the best items for these parents to keep? What should they let go of?
“Every family is different, and there may be tradition or cultural implications, so there’s not a one-size-fits-all list of what to keep or let go when it comes to heirlooms.
If it’s furniture, housewares, books, children’s clothes or toys, consider the condition and usefulness of the item first. If it passes that test, rather than deciding who you will pass it on to, send out an open offer to your family. Take pictures, and send a group email or text message. Whoever claims it first, it’s theirs. You want to prevent holding onto the item until they pick it up ‘one day,’ a common problem after children move out of the house, so set a date for you to deliver or for them to pick it up.
For your sentimental collections—children’s artwork, awards, photos, greeting cards, and more—you’ll need to decide how much you really want to keep. Consider the size of your collections and minimize where you can. Keep a few favorites and document the rest before letting it go. Take pictures, say a word of blessing or gratitude for anyone it reminds you of, and then let it go without guilt. For anything you keep, avoid storing it in a large, forgotten box where it could be damaged. There are many creative ways to display your items. Frame a few of your favorites—artwork, greeting cards, and/or photos—and display it in your home. Place a small group of your favorite trinkets on a shelf. Remember, if you display only a few, you can appreciate each one much better. For those you want to keep but can’t display, organize them in an album or small box, then keep it accessible so you can enjoy and share it more often. If you’d like to hire someone to transform your collections into a decorative piece, you can search online for a variety of service providers: Campus Quilt and Project Repat are a few options.”
What is the best way to sort through the clutter?
“To begin, the most essential questions are ‘Do you like it?’ and ‘Is it useful?’. I ask more questions to sort through the emotional attachments we have to our things in my free guide for decluttering. Subscribe to my email newsletter, and you’ll receive the free guide in your inbox right away. If you have trouble sorting through things, a professional organizer can help you work through the process. I offer a free consultation to help you discern what you want, then we work together to reach your goal during our in-home session(s).”
What would be your best advice to new families as far as what to save for their children?
“It’s best to consider practicality first. However, saving a timeless game or book they loved, plus a few pieces of favorite clothing or artwork from their childhood can be a sweet way to preserve those memories. I suggest limiting yourself to one sturdy, easy-to-carry box per child. When your child is an adult, go through it together and share stories and memories, then ask if they’d like to keep anything for themselves. If they choose to have children of their own, this can be a particularly good time to offer this box to them. Remember it’s not personal if they decline anything.”
Thank you, Lindsey, for the fabulous and inspiring advice that each of us can use as we clutch those tissues and release our resentment.
I have discovered a number of things sorting through these sentimental containers. First, photographs, drawings and personally written items can be the most treasured of all, and are easily scanned and stored on a flash-drive or cloud and shared with your loved ones. Secondly, you’ll save a ton of money on your next move with so many fewer boxes to lug from house to house and when “the time” comes, your family and friends are not left with the awful task of sorting through and disposing of your things. Thirdly, sometimes those sentimental objects may bring back some not so happy or positive memories and could keep us living in the past. And finally, our true treasures are those memories that are stored in our hearts and minds, and not in inanimate objects.
As I stand in my recently vacated, nostalgia barren attic, I actually feel really, really good. I definitely feel lighter. My mind feels uncluttered. There’s no guilt or anxiety swirling around in there.
Looking around this space, I realize … now there’s plenty of room for all the grandkids’ stuff!
Lillian Vernon here I come!