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When Your Child is a Pack Rat

Updated: Jan 4

Do you have a child who treasures ALL-THE-THINGS and who KEEPS-ALL-THE-THINGS and who spreads these things ALL-OVER-THE-PLACE? A child who could commonly be referred to as a pack rat?

child with rocks, treasures, trinkets, pack rat

Dealing with a messy child can be a huge stressor and a struggle for a parent, especially if you prefer a less-is-more lifestyle. I know this first hand, as I used to be a version of this kid, and now I am raising one too.

Below, I have come up with five concrete tips for handling disorganization in kids who are T.O.A.T.s, Treasurers Of All Things :) (Sounds much nicer than pack rat, doesn't it?)

T.O.A.T.s are not toddlers who dump all their toys out of their bins. Neither are they severe hoarding cases (as this is an actual psychological disorder, and it is usually not about the stuff at all). T.O.A.T.s are your 5-10-year-olds who, deep down, can clean their room, but 99% of the time still do not. These kids treat every trinket, widget, and whatnot as their most treasured possession.

You might be on an organizing mission and making your way through your house, working hard to keep everything orderly and in its place. However, to your great despair, no matter how hard you try, you cannot seem to motivate, coax, bribe, or convince your T.O.A.T. to part with what you think is trash or irrelevant stuff.

Here are my suggestions for handling your T.O.A.T.'s excessive stuff. But please note that I am not a mental health professional, so if you think your child's clutter habits are due to some deeper, underlying issue, please seek professional help.

Otherwise, these five tips should help limit some of the chaos.

1. Recognize that everyone is different

toys, clutter, stuff

First and foremost, you need to accept that your child is a T.O.A.T., and this is not a fault. It is simply a different way of viewing possessions. We all have different tastes and preferences and different opinions on how much stuff we want to surround ourselves with.

For example, some people cannot relax unless surfaces are clear and there is 'air' to breathe, while others feel safe and comforted by being surrounded by their things, and lots of them! That said, when we are part of a family and share a living space, we have to compromise—bringing me to point number 2.

2. Set clear physical limits

Allow your T.O.A.T. to have their treasures and special items within a set space. This can be their room, a drawer in their dresser, or a box or bin on a shelf. Giving a set parameter will create a natural limit for the amount of stuff.

For example, growing up, my dad always told me to close my bedroom door so my mess would not spread. My parents let me make complete chaos in my room as long as it did not make its way into other parts of the house, and I picked it all up (with my parents' help) when it was time to dust and mop in my room.

treasure box, keepsakes, mementos

Another example of a clear physical limit is a treasure box. My kids each have a shoe-box size box they can fill with as many trinkets and treasures as they can fit. These range from pretty rocks to special cards to colored plastic gems and bouncy balls. In other words, all the little things that T.O.A.T.s find irresistible!

They get to keep these items, look at them, play with them, etc., but they have to put them back in their treasure box for safekeeping at the end of the day. And once the box is full, something has to go before new treasures can be added.

3. Offer extra compassion and help

In my experience, T.O.A.T.s don't necessarily view their spaces as cluttered or problem areas. On the contrary, they love their stuff and seeing their stuff. However, that does not mean they don't like having their things nice and organized, too; they simply don't know how to do it all alone!

Compassion, mom hugging child

So my advice is to be patient and help your child put their things away and pick up their room (even if you think they should be able to do it by themselves). Model good habits and give them time. Like most other things, if they see you do something repeatedly, they will gradually start copying it.

And remember, stay judgment-free. No negative comments and shaming are allowed. Instead, be clear in your expectations while still compassionate to their different viewpoints regarding their things.

And do not, I repeat, DO NOT come in and do a raid while your child is not there, as this can lead to a feeling of betrayal and distrust. Most kids, but especially T.O.A.T.s, need to be a part of the cleaning process and get to experience the emotions it might bring up. This also allows them to learn.

4. Stop clutter in its tracks

party favors, knick-knacks, small toys

The first step to preventing things from piling up in our kids' spaces is preventing them from entering their spaces in the first place! Common clutter culprits are papers, knick-knacks, cheap souvenirs, kids-meal toys, party favors, freebies, etc. In other words, all those random little items with short shelf-life that simply create clutter.

As a way to lessen my kids' collections, we have a 24-hour rule at our house when it comes to meal toys/little party favors; the kids can play with these toys for 24 hours, and then they are gone.

We also try limiting the number of knick-knacks and souvenirs we let our kids buy on vacation, as I firmly believe that the trip/experience itself far outweighs any amount of stuff they buy and bring home.

Lastly, try giving your T.O.A.T. non-material gifts instead of another thing they can toss around. Giving the gift of experiences, trips, adventures, a gift card to your local ice cream shop, etc., is an excellent, clutter-free alternative.

5. Prevent all biohazards

My main concern with excessive clutter and stuff is its impact on cleanliness. It is hard to chase dust bunnies and keep up with cleaning if a space is filled to the brim with stuff.

messy room, toys, clutter

Most treasures are pretty harmless and can be easily corralled; however, things that will mold, rot, deteriorate, or otherwise cause them to become biohazards or attract critters and bugs are never allowed to be kept!

This is a big, fat NO WAY in our house!

We do not allow eating in our kids' bedrooms as this usually results in forgotten dirty dishes. The same goes for hiding snacks or leaving empty wrappers.

Lastly, nobody gets to keep plants, bugs, or other living things as treasures or decorations, and science experiments and other questionable trash are also no-gos!

I hope these five tips have provided you with some insight into the world of your T.O.A.T. and also given you some strategies to help them tackle their ever-growing collections before they take over!


"Children learn from anything and everything they see.

They learn wherever they are, not just in special learning places."

—John Holt


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