It took me three days to dig through and reduce my five- and seven-year-olds’ belongings by more than half. I was inspired in part by Kim John Payne’s brilliant book, Simplicity Parenting. Payne has some insightful things to say about the value of simplifying all aspects of our children’s lives: creating reassuring rhythms and rituals, protecting free time, and filtering out excessive or adult information. But his practical program begins with a call to physically de-clutter our children’s environments.

Payne offers some compelling reasons for a less-is-more approach. Too much stuff equals too many choices—which can be a source of stress both for the child overwhelmed by the avalanche, and the parent who has to wade through the mess. According to Payne, a modest selection of quality toys invites children into “deeper play and engagement.” Children are better able to focus when they have a smaller collection of toys (or books, or items of clothing). They’re also significantly more likely to appreciate what they have, which in turn fosters deeper connections and creativity, and better stewardship. Conversely, children with too much stuff can develop a sense of entitlement, and the belief that constant shopping is the key to happiness—which doesn’t serve our kids or our over-burdened planet.

As a family counselor-therapist, Payne has been testing his simplification principles for two decades. After thoughtfully downsizing their children’s possessions, his clients report that their kids are calmer and exhibit less stress behaviours. They play better with siblings, and immerse themselves more quickly in imaginative games. Simplifying other areas of a child’s life can have even more profound effects.

I was itching to put Payne’s theories to the test, but I waited until my children were at school and I had a few free hours over a few days before digging in. Payne has some practical suggestions on what to keep and what to pass on or discard. With these guidelines in mind, I set to work systematically. Broken toys went straight into a garbage bag. A few outgrown treasures got put away for the next generation. The rest were divided into three categories: “keepers,” a pile for younger cousins, and another pile for the local thrift store. (Payne also suggests that parents can create an in-home toy library, periodically rotating toys in and out of storage). I repeated the sorting process with my children’s books and clothing.

The room looked significantly tidier—and bigger—when I was finished. I saved most of my kids’ building toys (Lego, wooden blocks, etc), a reasonable selection of stuffed animals and dolls, some “active” toys (balls, skipping ropes, sandbox stuff), some quality puzzles and games, a condensed selection of art supplies, the play food and dishes from their kitchen tub, and a few other odds and ends. In other words, my kids are still far from deprived!

I gave my children advance warning before I undertook this project, but was vague on the timeline. I promised I wouldn’t discard any of their special treasures, and wouldn’t pass on anything without their permission. It wasn’t until the third and final afternoon that they noticed some of their possessions had disappeared. My seven-year-old expressed alarm that her normally overflowing toy box was now only half full—but she couldn’t identify anything that was missing. I assured her I’d let her see what was immediately leaving the house, and keep the rest in storage for the short-term. We may rotate some of the stored toys back in—but only if someone asks. Otherwise I’m counting on the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” principle to kick in.

And the result? Has the burden of too many possessions been lifted from my children’s shoulders? Are they calmer, more cooperative, better behaved? It’s hard to be sure, but I would say the stress meter in our home has dropped a few points. I certainly hear “I’m bored” less often. The thinning-out process has left my kids’ toys better organized and more visible to them. They can see their choice of activities and playthings, without being overwhelmed by them. Getting dressed or choosing a bedtime story is also easier, for the same reasons. And tidy-up time is a lot less stressful for everyone.

I get a rush of satisfaction every time I pass my kids’ tidy bedroom now—a far cry from the frustration and stress I used to feel. This small success has motivated me to tackle the whole house, one cluttered corner at a time. It may take a while, but I’m confident the results will be worth the effort. In fact, according to Payne, the long-term success of my children’s new environment depends on a similar treatment everywhere else: “If the entire house is cluttered, then your streamlined, simplified child’s room will not last. Some form of homeostasis among the rooms will develop—either the room will reclutter, or its simplicity will prove your inspiration for decluttering elsewhere.”

Can we keep this new pared-down approach going over the long run? I certainly hope so. It’s a healthier model for all of us, and for the planet too. Christmas is coming, and that would normally be a challenge. But this year we’re setting a three-gift limit, just as the three wise men brought three gifts for Jesus on the very first Christmas. Each of our children will receive something they want (gold), something for their spiritual or other growth (frankincense) and something they need (myrrh). If the nativity is not part of your holiday tradition, this simple rhyme might suit you better: “something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read.”

Simplicity Parenting can be requested from both Island library systems. I hope it’s as inspirational to you as it was to me!

Rachel Dunstan Muller is the mother of five, and a children’s author. Her previous articles can be found at web link.