Just because your children are moving out of your house doesn't mean they will be taking their clutter with them. Photo: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

When we swapped the suburban home where we raised our kids for an apartment in the city and a weekend house in the country, we did a huge cleansing. We ran a couple of yard sales. We made lots of donations. We dumped stuff on friends. We recycled what we could. And we threw a lot away.

It was as close to a full KonMari as we could get. We tried to keep only what we needed for our empty nest(s) – our main residence and the weekend place. 

Except our nests weren’t as empty as we had anticipated. Our two grown kids had moved up and out, but they left a lot of their stuff behind. They simply assumed we would keep it for them. 

We were reluctant to keep everything the kids left behind. We should have been even more reluctant. Talking with neighbors and friends, we realized that many of us face the dilemma of storing our adult kids’ junk. Or, rather, to the kids, their precious keepsakes. It was surprising how many escape homes were also serving as the “mom-and-ad storage units.” 

In examining our experience and talking more to those friends and neighbors, along with looking up the wisdom of experts in dealing with adult children, we’ve come up with this discussion of how to handle the tricky question of dealing with your kids’ left-behind belongings.

When pressed, our kids said they wanted us to keep their stuff  “at least for a while.”. No one defined “a while.” After all, they pointed out, we had more room than they did, especially at the weekend place with its attic, basement, and new garage with a storage loft. They didn’t seem sympathetic to our arguments that we needed the space for our own storage; their stuff had not been part of our plan for home downsizing and escaping. 

So we were left with several cubic yards of stuff. Bins of Lego. Various musical instruments. Stacks of games. Several hundred vinyl records and several hundred more DVDs, CDs and cassette tapes. There were baby bath toys and junior-high sports trophies. Dozens of books, from “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” to “Catcher in the Rye.” Our son the car guy bestowed on us four extra-wide tires for a race car. Our daughter left an imposing set of lights for a professional photo shoot, along with a dressmaker’s mannequin.

Since then, as we have indeed needed that “extra” space, we have tried various tactics to move the needle and get them to agree to let us get rid of their stuff, or better yet, to get them to take it away themselves.

“Hey, do you want this? Do you think you might want it? Maybe someday?”

“Hmm, this would be useful in your new apartment.”

“You know, you could give this to any of your friends who are having babies.” 

“This is something you could probably sell online.”

“Or you could donate it, maybe for a tax deduction.”

Very little of that worked right away. Our kids still needed us at times, but we didn’t need their stuff at any time. And sometimes they wondered why we would be so eager to get rid of their treasures. “We still love you,” we assured them, “but not all your stuff.”

For parents, it can be a real head-versus-heart balancing act: We want to make our kids happy and keep their stuff for them. But we need the space. We want to hang onto those happy reminders. But we need the space. It’s painful to purge all those artifacts from when we were a young and happy family. But we need the space. 

Over time, we developed a pace of negotiations with our kids, sort of a dance, especially when they came to visit at the weekend house. We’d present a list, or push them to take a little attic or garage tour, and gradually they’d agree to take something with them or consent to let us dispose of it. 

The gradual melting of the kids’ glacier of stuff was sometimes slowed by another problem: the kids might not care whether we get rid of something they left behind, but then when it came down to it, my wife and I got all sentimental and couldn’t toss it. That beat up clarinet had been mine when I was a kid; my mother had refused to throw it away when  I didn’t want it any more. She saved it because she thought I might have a kid who wanted to play it someday. She was right. Now my kid is insisting he doesn’t want it any more, and says it’s so old nobody would want it. He’s right, yet I’m not quite ready to take it to the charity shop.

I was reminded of coming home from college decades earlier and discovering, with great dismay, that my mother had thrown away my baseball cards. I remember friends saying the same thing had happened to them, and it wasn’t only baseball cards. I’ve heard stories of parents cleaning house and giving away old dolls, toy trucks, awards plaques and even prom dresses. Did we want to be those parents a generation later? Did we want to be the parents who had to answer tough questions like, “Why did you give away my Barbie dolls and clothes?”

In reading what the experts on adult children say about this, it was surprising how many of them dismissed the notion that the kids were being sentimental in refusing to clear out their stuff. No, one said, it’s simple “laziness.” 

We considered a number of strategies:

  1. Get things moving early. Don’t wait, like we did, for an actual move that forces a cleanup or clearout. Curate stuff – both the kids’ and yours – as part of routine family life. 
  1. Start with the easy decisions, pushing to get rid of the things you don’t think they really want all that much. In our case, it was some (sadly) like-new college textbooks. Sometimes simply agreeing to give up one thing can loosen the kids’ resolve and get them to realize that clearing stuff out may not really be all that painful.
  1. Give your kids a deadline for getting their stuff out. Perhaps not one deadline for everything, though; maybe a series of deadlines every couple months or even once or twice a year. One friend told his kids that if they went two years without touching something they had left in the garage, he would get rid of it. 
  1. Grant your kids permission to leave a certain number of items, or give them a specific space – like a chest or a couple shelves or storage boxes. 
  1. Occasionally send photos of their left-behind stuff to the kids and ask them: “Do you still need this?” Or maybe even: “Do you know what this is?”
  1. Bundle things up and ship them to your kids. (We did this a couple times, but only for things the kids agreed to take. Besides being expensive, there’s a risk of a surprise package of unwanted stuff stirring hard feelings within the family.)
  1. Consider renting a storage locker not only for the kids’ extra stuff, but for yours, too. (We rejected this as a waste of money that would lead us to making regular trips to the storage unit to pile in our stuff, too.)

We’ve finally settled into a comfortable groove with our kids. The one who often visits the weekend house typically takes something every month or two. The one who lives far away takes something once or twice a year. It’s an unspoken agreement. 

I’m not sure how we got to this mutually acceptable method of weeding out the kids’ stuff. I suspect it was maturity on their part: they realized that if they didn’t clean out the attic and garage and storage loft now, they’d have to do it someday anyway

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