In “Decluttering for Real People with Rebecca – Part 1,” decluttering coach, mom, and author, Rebecca Mezzino, bestows upon us her expertise in decluttering. But for real people. Not people who have time to fold their family’s underwear into tidy triangles, or hug all of their belongings. She goes beyond the stuff and gets into the surprising psychology behind why we have so much of it, what clutter actually is (hint: it’s not the same as mess), and also gives us lots of practical suggestions to reclaim our sanity and our space from the kids and their unending clutter (which is our fault, BTW). She gives us the actual strategies – and they’re simple (it’s a two-step process) – and the specific words to say to our kids so that we aren’t wading through toys, feeling like we can’t breathe for the next 18 years, which feels kind of life-changing. There’s so much good stuff in here and you won’t look at your Target trip the same way ever again.
Brandy: Hey, Adult Conversation listeners. In this episode, part one of two, my guest bestows upon us her expertise in decluttering. But like, for real people. Not people who have time to fold their family’s underwear into tidy triangles, or hug all of their belongings. Today’s guest goes beyond the stuff and gets into the surprising psychology behind why we have so much of it, what clutter actually is (it’s not the same as mess), and also gives us lots of practical suggestions to reclaim our sanity an dour space from the kids and their unending clutter, which is our fault, by the way. My guest gives us the actual strategies – and they’re simple (it’s a two step process) – and the specific words to say to our kids so that we aren’t wading through toys, feeling like we can’t breathe for the next 18 years. There’s so much good stuff in here, and you won’t look at your Target trip the same way ever again. Also, my guest is Australian, so her voice will delight you, especially when she says “trolley” and “lolly” in the same sentence. Oh my god. And we taped these episodes just after Christmas, FYI, in case there’s a mention of presents and tinsel and shit. And now, on to the show.
Brandy: Today we have someone with us who is specifically trained in alleviating one of the most common side effects of having kids, which is clutter. The lovely Rebecca Mezzino is a declutter coach, and also co-hosts a podcast called Be Uncluttered. So Rebecca, thank you so much for agreeing to chat with me after I hunted you down, and also for saving all of our lives here today by telling us exactly how we can win the war on pointless crap. So, no pressure, but you’re going to change our lives today.
Rebecca: No worries.
Brandy: After I did some deep diving on your website, you’re not somebody who cleaned a closet last year and was like, “Hey, I’m really good at cleaning closets. I’m going to start an organizing business.” You have been doing this for years. This is your full time job. And not only yours, but your husband is involved. Will you tell us what you do, and how this is your job?
Rebecca: So 13 years now, I’ve been running my business. And I started it as … It was a little bit of whim, or a fancy.
Brandy: Ooh, a “fancy.”
Rebecca: Yeah, I’m not the type of person who normally sticks to things. I am very much a phase person. I go through these phases and fads where I love something to death, and then I completely ignore it and go into something new. And so I quit my job and started doing this part time while my kids were, one in primary school, and one in child care, I think, and spending some time with granny. And I started it three days a week, and that was … Yeah, 13 years later, I’m still doing it.
Brandy: Were you always good at keeping things tidy and decluttering? Or was that something that you had to learn, and then you learned and you thought, “I want to share this with the world?”
Rebecca: The responses I got from people who knew me well were, “You’re going to do what now?” And then they would laugh at me. Because I am quite chaotic. I have ADD. I don’t concentrate well. I don’t focus well. I don’t finish things. I have a poor concept of time. And I’m very messy. I leave this lovely trail of detritus behind me as I move around the house. And so, naturally, it just wasn’t my thing. But when I moved in with my husband, who was really tidy, I thought to reduce the conflict in the house, it would be best if I learned how to be a bit tidier. And so I bought a book by Julie Morgenstern called Organizing From the Inside Out. And even though it was just about organizing, it was something that excited me to the point where I wanted to investigate further because she used to be messy, and then she had it as a career. And I just got inspired that way. Even though I’m not particularly organized naturally, I obviously learned how to.
Rebecca: But my strength is in understanding people. The empathy that I have, and the understanding that I have of people’s personalities and the way they approach their belongings is my biggest strength. And so that’s how I ended up … It ended up sort of sticking around as a career because I surprised myself by being quite good at helping other people do something that I had struggled myself to do.
Brandy: Yeah. So I have people on my podcast, and most of the time these are people that I know in real life, who come sit at my kitchen table, and we have a conversation. So I see your name pop up on my Adult Conversation Facebook page a lot. And I would consider you one of my “regulars.” And so every time I see your name pop up, it’s like you’re this friend. Like, “Oh, what’s Rebecca going to say about this?” Because I find you funny, and so you’re like this internet friend that I have. So it was funny because … I forget what post it was. Oh, I think it was the post about the joyless Christmas.
Rebecca: Yes, that was the one.
Brandy: You had commented about something, and we were talking about gifts. And you mentioned that you were a decluttering coach. And I immediately was like, “I’m PMing you right now! The comments that you make are always really funny, and sort of sarcastic, and so I thought that’s so fascinating, that you’re this tidy, organized declutter person, and yet you have this really fun funny side to you, and-
Rebecca: I have a naughty streak.
Brandy: That’s right. I was thinking people who were organizers or de-clutterers are these Type A, anal people. But what I love about you is, you’re a real person that doesn’t have these perfectionist tendencies. You are so much more flexible and nuanced. And that’s how you came to be on my podcast. But then you’re all the way in Australia. So I’m so grateful you answered my call, and you said that you would do this.
Rebecca: You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure. I think I found your page first through Janelle Hanchett. And then I started following Adult Conversation. So I’ve always known exactly what you’re like. But I guess without you following all of my things, and just seeing me as me… yeah, it’s different isn’t it? But I’m very, like you said, relaxed. And I’m very normal, and I see things the same way that you do. Life is to be relaxed and enjoyed, and laughed at and not taken too seriously. And I guess I take that into my work as well.
Brandy: What does that look like? How do people hire you? How do you work? Do people hire you to come in and work on their house, work on a room? Do you do workshops? What are the different ways that you help people?
Rebecca: Yeah, I do all of those things. I always start with the head first, with what’s going on, what their personality is, and those kinds of things. I mean, I started off early in my career doing straight organizing, I guess is what I’ll call it, where I’ll go into a space, and I’ll help them organize it. And that is what I thought the job was. And it involved, at the time, where I just … I’ve moved to now call myself a Declutter Coach, rather than a Professional Organizer, because I really don’t do much in the way of organizing anymore at all. My job and my role, as I see it, is to change the relationship that people have with their belongings, from an unhelpful one to a helpful one. So I work mainly with people with more stuff than space, who have difficulty letting go, or who have other issues that cause the clutter, such as compulsion acquisitions, compulsive hoarding, anxiety disorders, depression, those kinds of things that contribute to clutter in a psychological way. And then we work on it from that base. And then we deal with the stuff second.
Brandy: Do people know when they hire you – are they like, “Hey, there’s this lady, and she seems like she can help me declutter. That will be great.” And then you show up at their house, and then like two hours later they’re crying and finding inner demons on why they have all this stuff? Do people know that that’s part of it?
Rebecca: Yes. Sometimes they do. There are some people that know very well what’s caused the clutter, and they just need help overcoming it. There are others that have no idea, and it comes as quite a surprise. I have almost literally seen a light bulb go off over people’s heads. There was one in particular, one woman that I just watched her face as she came to this realization. And she was telling me about how she had all these collections of things. So she had loads and loads of … Her walls were full of shelves of ornaments and figurines, the main things.
Rebecca: And she was telling me … We were discussing her life at the beginning of the consult. And she was telling me how she started collecting all of those things when she married very young – married a man who then moved to the country. Took her with him. He was a bit older than her. He worked. She didn’t. And she was taken away from her family. She had no friends in this country town. And she just had nobody. And she didn’t have a car. And while he was at work all day, she would walk down to the shops. And she would shop. And when she saw a little thing she liked, like a frog, or maybe it would have been crane or something like that, she would buy one. And then she would feel like she had to then buy another one, in order to make a collection.
Rebecca: And so she ended up being, every time she would see a frog, she would buy another one. And then every time she would see a stork or a crane, she would buy another one. And so she ended up with these groups of different categories. And there was no limit to the types of animals that she collected. But once she had one, she had to have loads. And I said to her, “Do you think that you are creating a family for yourself?”
Rebecca: Yeah, it always makes me cry, repeating it. And she just looked at me. And this light bulb went off. And she said, “That’s exactly what I was doing.” She said, “I never knew that.” And then she just looked around at all of these things around her. And she said, “I have a loving husband who pays me attention. I have friends. I have family. I don’t need these anymore.” And she started to get up, and started to just take them off the shelves. It was incredible. It was the most quick, the fastest, profoundest change that I had seen in any client. She knew it. She just hadn’t thought of it that way until that moment.
Rebecca: That kind of thing happens quite a lot, where people don’t realize … You know, they have the behaviors, and they understand that their behaviors are problematic. But they don’t know where they have come from. And sometimes finding out where they’ve come from is part of the key to resolving them. It’s not always the key. If you can’t figure it out, that’s cool. You can still change the behaviors. But sometimes figuring it out can help a fair amount, anyway.
Brandy: Yeah, and I would imagine too, having somebody come in who’s from the outside, sometimes is a perspective that you inside the house, and inside the family, can’t really have.
Rebecca: Yeah. And it was something that was just hers. It was only her feeling that feeling of isolation. And yeah, no one else would have know that it even happened, I guess.
Brandy: Right. Okay, so you’re a decluttering coach that has ADD. So tell me how that works.
Rebecca: It means that I have to concentrate really hard to actually practice what I preach. A lot of people have these expectations of declutter coaches, or professional organizers especially, of being perfect. That their homes are pristine, and they’re always clean and tidy, and that everything is perfect, and that they never make mistakes, and they never forget anything, and all that stuff.
Brandy: I mean, that’s not your life? You’re telling me that’s not your life? Because that’s how I’m envisioning your house.
Rebecca: Yeah, exactly. And I’m looking around at the moment, and there’s a pile of Christmas presents in front of me. The vacuum cleaner broke down this morning, so there’s tinsel everywhere, and there’s dirt. There are still some dishes that I haven’t put in the dishwasher. My family, we’re all pretty much the same. We’re all about the same level. We have a similar level of tolerance for clutter. So we’ll let it lay around for a little while. And then we’ll all just … or one of us will just say, “All right, that’s enough. I have to tidy up.”
Brandy: Yeah, that’s great that you guys have a similar level of tolerance.
Rebecca: My husband used to be intolerant of mess. And then he had kids, and realized that that’s an unhelpful attitude to life, that you’ll go insane. And so he relaxed his attitude. But occasionally, he will just throw his hands up and run around tidying up because he’ll have enough. And I do the same. I’ll just look around, and all of a sudden my trigger will be kicked off. And I’m like, “Right, that’s enough.” Of course, my children are teenagers, so they don’t notice mess as much. My daughter is tidy. My son is not. But that’s, you know, quite normal for that age. But, yeah, my husband and I met in the middle, basically. I was really messy, he was really clean, and we’ve both met in the middle now.
Rebecca: Even still, I’ve got control of my stuff. And that’s thing, that I do sort of practice what I preach, I guess, in that I don’t have more stuff than space. Everything has a home. It’s just not always in it. I’m very real. And I make sure that people know that because I don’t want anybody to think that I’m going to walk into their house, and have these unrealistic expectations of how they should live. And that’s a big flaw that a lot of professional organizers have, or a big mistake that they make, is that they will try to set up somebody’s home, or life, or space, or belongings, in a way that they think it should be, not in the way that this person needs it to be.
Brandy: Well, and something you said just sort of clicked for me, is when you said, “I don’t have more things than space. It’s just that they’re not always where they need to be put.” So, like, what is clutter?
Rebecca: The way I define clutter is, anything that you don’t need, use, or love. It doesn’t necessarily mean mess. Because you can have a mess. Like, if you’re cooking, and you’ve got all your stuff around you that you use everyday, it looks messy. But that’s not clutter, because you’re using it. Clutter is stuff that you don’t need, use, or love. And if you want to extend it another step into more psychological, it’s anything that gets in the way of you getting what you want, or getting stuff done, or having what you want in your life.
Rebecca: And so clutter can sometimes even be psychological things. They can be friendships. You know, there are toxic friendships that are clutter because they’re not giving you anything of value. And duplicate stuff. You know, you might use all of your six can openers. But you don’t need six can openers. The excess of those become clutter. Even if you cycle through them and use one a day, it’s still going to be clutter.
Brandy: Will you give us an example of something that’s a physical piece of clutter, that is an object, but that gets in the way of us living our life? What would that be?
Rebecca: There are a trillion things that could be clutter. But it might be … Think of a camp, that you’ve got a tent. And it’s taking up a whole lot of space in your bedroom wardrobe up high. Then … Oh, sorry. This is an American audience mostly – your bedroom closet. That’s clutter. And it’s taking up space for things that you do use. The summer quilt in winter, or the winter quilt in summer, or maybe memorabilia that you treasure.
Brandy: I’m interested in the space where this item that you have, it’s something more than just you’ve got too many of them and your drawer won’t close. But when does the clutter become something that is getting in the way of your life, or limiting your life? When does the physical object become an actual roadblock mentally in your life?
Rebecca: That’s a good one. I think, like you said with the door not closing, you know, you sort of … Even though you dismiss that as a small thing, to me, that’s a messy thing. If the drawer won’t close properly, that is a great trigger. And that is the time when you say, “This isn’t functioning the way it’s meant to function. And it’s preventing me from doing what I need to do because I have to rearrange everything in the drawer every time I want to close it.” And so that’s this little bite of time taken away from your life unnecessarily.
Brandy: Yeah, it’s like a little build up.
Rebecca: Yeah. And those tiny little things all end up becoming overwhelming as a whole.
Rebecca: One of the things that I say the most to my clients is, “You don’t need your home to perfect. You don’t need it to be pristine. You don’t need it to be clean. You don’t need it …” Well, clean’s nice. But, you know, again, if you’ve got kids, clean is also pretty unachievable. But it doesn’t have to be perfectly clean. It just has to be safe. So it’s clean enough that it’s safe. It’s uncluttered enough that it’s safe. But what I go in with my clients and say is, “What we’re aiming for in your house is for you to feel in control. Because it’s the feeling of being out of control that causes most of the stress.”
Rebecca: Not being able to find the things that you want to leave the house. We spend all of our life packing and unpacking, and preparing and winding down and recovering. And if we don’t have control of our spaces, then that preparation time of preparing to leave the house when you’ve got small children, if you can’t find things, it takes about three hours. And you never feel like you actually get to enjoy being anywhere because of all of the mental effort and physical effort it took to actually get there.
Rebecca: So if your kids had a third the amount of toys, how much faster would it be to clean up? If you had five pens in one spot in a drawer, instead of 23,000 pens in 17 spots all over the house, with three quarters of them not working, there is a big difference there in how easily you’re going to be able to find a pen that works. And it’s just little things like that. And so it’s not about what it looks like. It’s about what it feels like. And it has to feel like there is control.
Brandy: Yes, that … Okay, that right there, I feel like you are hitting a nail on the head. When you have kids, you lose your control for so many things. I mean, you learn that when you become pregnant. I mean, really even before you get pregnant. If you’re trying to get pregnant, and it’s not happening, I mean, you learn pretty quickly as woman that you don’t have the control. So the once the baby’s here, and then all of a sudden, I don’t sleep when I want to sleep. I don’t really get to eat when I want to eat, all of these things. To then have your house completely overrun by plastic toys and swings and laundry, and all of these things, it can make you feel depressed, overwhelmed, completely out of control.
Brandy: And so this resonates for me because when I clean my space, when I tidy things, when I declutter, I feel physically and mentally like I just smoked weed. Like, I just … I feel so much more patient. I’m more loving. I’m kinder. You know? It’s like, wow, who knew that just cleaning up the kitchen could make me feel that way? And so there is this very real – which I’m sure you know all about – this very real physical and mental connection with having a space that feels like it’s running how you want it to run. As parents, that’s what we all want. We want a piece of that back.
Brandy: And then the hard part is, is that okay, so we’ve acknowledged this. Everybody would raise their hand if you say, “Who wants a tidy home that feels like it functions the way you want it to?” We all would be like, “I’ll do anything. I’ll give anything for that.” But the hard part about it is the joke’s on us, because we can’t have it, because we have kids. And we know this. Every time we clean something, every time we declutter, clean a countertop, you look over and your kid’s pulling out a whole mess of something else. And so you never quite get on top of it unless you wait until they’re in bed, in which you’re exhausted. So do you have tactics for parents specifically, on how to tackle this with having kids? You know, people say things like, “Cleaning up when you’re a parent is like shoveling while it’s snowing.”
Rebecca: It really is.
Brandy: Or, “Like brushing your teeth while eating Oreo cookies.” You know what I mean? It’s just, it’s pointless. So are there things that we don’t know, that you know, that would make this a whole lot easier?
Rebecca: Look, there is no magic. There is one key. And that is to have less stuff. That’s it. If your kid only has five toys that they can fling around the living room, then it’s not going to fill up with toys. We get sucked into this idea that our kids need to have lots of stuff for development, and to be stimulated. As far as giving a toy to a child to stimulate them these days is ridiculous because they are stimulated more in one day than someone in their entire lifetime would be in the Middle Ages. And we get sucked into this idea that stuff makes kids happy. And that’s actually not true.
Brandy: So then what do we do? Because you don’t know this as a parent, until you’re in over your head, until your entire front room is covered in a plastic kitchen, and a plastic car, and a shopping cart, and all of these things that you don’t have room for, and you don’t realize until you’ve already set the precedence that this is how many toys we have. How do you then, when your … I mean, I get it when your kids may be like two and three, and they’re not like a person yet. And they can’t remember like, “Oh, I had all of these things, and now they are gone.” But when you’ve got five year olds and up, how do you all of a sudden say, “Oh yeah, so you know how you had 30 toys? Today now you have five toys,” and not completely destroy them?
Rebecca: First of all, the toys aren’t always as important to them as you think they are. And they’re not as important to them as they think they are either. That’s the first thing to sort of understand, is that they’re actually going to be fine. And if you do your research before this, it might help feel a bit better as well. But a lot of research suggests that children develop better with fewer toys. That they get along better with fewer toys. That they have better imaginations. And they perform better on all the developmental tasks when they have fewer toys. So that can make you feel better, just for a start. Because what you are going to be doing is kind of maybe ripping off a Band-Aid. It is going to be difficult in the short term. But in the long term, it definitely isn’t such a bad thing at all.
Brandy: In the short term, how do you make it so that your kids still trust you, and don’t think that you’re giving away their things?
Rebecca: Yeah. Well, the key is to put it back on them. So they’re the ones that make the decisions. But it’s sort of like, you know when you’ve got a three-year-old that wants to dress themselves? And you want to give them that control because giving them the control stops the tantrums. But they then have analysis paralysis over what to wear, and they can’t decide what they want to wear. Well, what you do with a three-year-old is you give them choices. You give them two choices, and you’ll say, “Here are two outfits. And you get to choose because you have complete control.” But they’re choosing from two outfits only. So you don’t end up then having the stress of them pulling everything out.
Rebecca: It’s kind of the same thing. You give them control, but you put the boundaries around what the choices are. So what you say is, “You get to choose what toys you keep within this boundary.” So you might say, “Okay, you can keep one toy that is big and it takes up a lot of space, like the oven or something like that, a little kitchen set. You can keep one of those. And so you pick your favorite.” “You can keep as much Lego as will fit in this box.” “You can keep as many stuffed toys that will fit in this bag.” And so what you’re doing is you’re providing a boundary, but you’re giving them the choice to say that they get to keep the favorite ones.
Brandy: Then what do you do with the rest of the things? Is that something that you put in a bin, and then you rotate toys out? Or are you saying it goes away? It’s being donated?
Rebecca: You could do either. I would say it goes away, because they don’t need them. But if you do have the space to rotate, you can do that. But you’re just creating more work for yourself unnecessarily. They can survive with a third of the toys that they have. They can easily survive. And they will actually be happier. I read a blog about a woman who took away all her kids toys but a few essentials. And by essentials, I mean creative toys like blocks and things like that, where they can use their imagination to go beyond what the item is – Legos are really good like that. And what she did, she took everything away. And she had three kids. And the toy room, they would go in, and they would sort of mess it all up. And then they’d come out 10 minutes later saying they’re bored. And she said when she took all the toys away but, say, about the three creative toys, she said they went into that toy room, and they played unattended, unsupervised, without any interaction from her whatsoever for over two-and-a-half hours.
Rebecca: She said her mind was blown. And she thought it would be the opposite. She thought with fewer toys, they would be bored. But they actually weren’t. They had the freedom and the room. And they didn’t need to change their attention so quickly. And so what happened was they had those blocks, they played with them for a while. And then rather than skipping to something else when it got boring, they evolved the game, and they made it more, and they made it different. And it reinforced her decision to take away all the toys. If you Google, “I took my kids’ toys away,” there are some great blog articles about people who have done this successfully.
Brandy: I have always heard of this. It’s kind of one of those common sense things like, “We should be eating more fruits and vegetables. Our kids should have less toys.” Like, it seems so common sense. And yet, I have to be honest. I’m having a mild panic attack over here because-
Rebecca: Over the idea of implementing it.
Brandy: Yeah, well I’m imagining my daughter who … My son just always wanted to interact with people. It didn’t matter what toy he had. “Will you play it with me?” He wanted human interaction. But my daughter, she’s got about 2000 Hatchimals. I mean, not really. But she’s got a ton of these Hatchimals and Shopkins, these tiny little things. And she’s got all these little dolls from different sets, these L.O.L. dolls. and she loves these things so much. And she has them all separated, and we have little bins for them that she organizes them in. And I tell you, if I even move one of them, the next day she’s like, “Mom, do you know where the girl is, that has the pink dress, that has the black hair?” She’s dialed in. And I’m thinking to myself, “Okay, even if I know it’s better to do less toys,” (I don’t know if this is my issue, that I’m like,) “I feel like this would crush her.” Help me. Help me, Rebecca.
Rebecca: There’s probably some other toys that she has that she doesn’t play with, that can make room for the excess of the ones that she really does love. So there is a lot to be said for understanding your child and working with them. And prevention is better than cure, for a start. So while you were saying all of that, I was thinking, “If she had’ve said, ‘You can have Shopkins and you have have L.O.L.s and that’s it,’ and then never buy the other things, then you wouldn’t have this problem.” If you can not get them in the first place, then you don’t have to get rid of them.
Brandy: Yeah, but then how do I get through my shopping trip at Target without hearing … Do you guys have Target out there?
Rebecca: Yeah, we do. Yeah.
Brandy: I’m so happy you have Target out there. I can’t imagine living in a place without Target. But you know that first area when you come in, which is just basically like the bribery bin, which is, “For one to three dollars, your kid will shut the fuck up through this entire thing. And also, here’s the Goldfish that you can feed them.” It’s like a ritual. You go in, you get your kid some crap, and you get them Goldfish. And then you can actually maybe enjoy your trip.
Brandy: And so I’m wondering, at Target, if you’re not going to give your kid a phone to look at, which is what seems to be the thing that everybody does today, and you’re not going to buy them something, kids today do not know how to just sit and chill without having a snack, a screen, or something shiny in front of them. So you basically have to undo society and how you parented from the beginning, in order to have a kid that knows how to do this. Am I wrong?
Rebecca: I have, I guess, a luxury of having teenagers now. So when my kids were that little, we didn’t have the phones to give them. So we had to either buy them something, or think of something else. And I went down the “think of something else” route. I’m really glad that I did have that foresight because it’s been quite helpful. And I can certainly understand why you wouldn’t. And I used to give my kids food in the supermarket. I’d go to veggie aisle and break off a bit of broccoli, or I’d grab a handful of grapes and I’d just give it to the child. And that would be their thing. And I’d have them chewing on some broccoli or some mushroom or something as we went around.
Brandy: Oh my god. Holy shit.
Rebecca: But when-
Brandy: I mean, chewing on a mushroom, or some broccoli? This is not-
Rebecca: I’m an awful mother, aren’t I?
Brandy: You’re amazing.
Rebecca: I’m so cruel. I was at the supermarket once, and I had my toddler. And she was in the shopping trolley. And I took her out. She wanted to come down while I was unpacking the trolley. So I let her down. Of course, there’s all the lollies, all in front of her, right at toddler height. And so she was playing with them, and she was putting them in order, and moving ones that were in the wrong spot. And she was just playing with them. And as I said, “Okay, it’s time to go,” and she held up a little packet of Mentos. And she’s going, “Please?” And I said, “No, we don’t need any of those. Put that back. We’re going now. We’ll have a treat at home.” And she said, “Okay.” And she put her arms up, and I put her in the trolley, and off we went.
Rebecca: And this woman did this big lunge from behind and grabbed hold of me. She said, “How did you do that? Why isn’t she crying? Why isn’t she screaming?” And I said, “Oh, I’ve never said yes.” So she’s a smart girl. But I’ve never given her anything in the supermarket. Ever. Ever. And because she’s intelligent, she asks, of course, because, you know, it’s worth trying. But I say no. And because her expectation is that I’ll say no, there’s no tantrum. If I had said yes every other time, and then I said no, there’s going to be a tantrum, of course. Because she expects me to say yes. Saying no right from the get-go is obviously the easiest way to do it. But you can still do it any time, if you-
Brandy: Where were you when I was pregnant? Where were you? You need to get people when they’re in their childbirth classes. There needs to be one night that this declutter coach comes and tells you, “Never ever give the lollipop at the grocery store.” We are not getting to people early enough!
Rebecca: I know. I have lots of people say that. “Oh gosh, I wish I had done that earlier.” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m really … I’m glad I did it, I did do it.” And I’m not saying it out of any arrogance. I’m just, I’m really thankful that for some reason I decided to do that. And I don’t know why, but I just did. And I’m grateful I did. My kids, if we shop now together … I mean, they’re old enough to have their own money, so I can just turn on that now and say, “Oh yeah, sure. Spend your own money on whatever you want.” But when they were little, we would go into somewhere like Target … In Australia, our Kmart is actually like your Target. I know your Kmart is pretty terrible. But Kmart is the Target of Australia.
Brandy: Oh, this hurts my heart, but yes.
Rebecca: Yeah, I know. It’s weird. Our Target’s still okay, but it’s not the same as your Target. Our Kmart is the same as your Target. So I used to take my kids into Kmart, and of course they would ask for things. “Can I have this? Can I have this? Can I have this?” And the answer of course is, “Well, no. You have enough toys. And you have birthdays, and you have Christmas. And that’s when you get things.” So as they got a bit older, then the question would change from, “Can I have this?” to, “can you write this on my Christmas list, please?” Or, “Can I put this on my birthday list?” Or, “Can I have this for my birthday?” And it sort of evolved that way. And then if it was at the start of the year and they said, “Can it go on the Christmas list?” I’d say, “Oh, yeah. Whatever. Sure, I’ll write it down.” And of course, they forget about it by Christmas. But if it’s close to Christmas, we’ll actually make the effort to write it down. And they will then, maybe, get it for Christmas, or for their birthday.
Rebecca: But we just have these rules in our house. You don’t get given anything unless it’s Christmas, or birthday, or something really special. So again, if you start from scratch, “This is the way we do things,” it’s so much easier to manage later on. But you can still do it now. You can say, “These are my new rules.”
Brandy: And then there’s just intense crying for about two years.
Rebecca: Yeah. That’s what you’re worried about, is you think it’s going to last for two years, but it doesn’t. And so you will, you’ll have those fits. You’ll have the resistance because what you’re doing is you’re changing something that suits them, and you’re changing their expectations. But it won’t take long once you’ve said, “This is the way you do things now,” and you prepare them. “We are going to Target, and we are not buying anything. You can grab something off the shelf, and you can play with it while we’re shopping. But then we’re going to go and put it back before we leave.” Or, “Let’s go on a hunt. And let’s find one thing to put on our Christmas list while we are looking in Target.” And then make a big deal about writing it on a list.
Rebecca: Or give them a game to play like, “Okay, when we go to Target, Mom wants to buy some indoor plant pots. So that’s what we’re going to Target for. And you’re not buying anything because it’s not your birthday or Christmas, and you don’t have any money. So you can’t. But what you can do is, I want you to find one thing that starts with A, and one thing that starts with B, and what thing that starts with C. And when you’ve found those, you tell me, and we write them on the list. And at the end, we’ll see how many we can get. And then maybe we’ll go have ice cream, if everybody gets their list filled.” Or something like that.
Rebecca: And then you reward with an experience, or you reward with something that you all do together that’s fun. Like, maybe, “If you do all of this without kicking up a stink, we’re go to the park on the way home.”
Brandy: I know you’re right about this, which is the killer here. And also, the amount of mental work that I feel like it takes in order to do those things, feels like a lot. I mean, admittedly, I have pretty firm boundaries when it comes to when we’re at Target or somewhere. I can’t stand clutter in my home, and we have a small house. One of the upsides of that is that we literally can’t just buy a bunch of things. So it’s kind of great because when they ask for things it’s like, “Well, we don’t really have room for that.” But this isn’t even figuring Grandma’s into the equation. The most clutter in our home comes from really lovely, well-intended grandmas.
Brandy: But even so, even me knowing that I’m somewhere in the middle about it, the trade-off, and I think this is really the reality of where we’re at with parenting today, is the trade-off is buying this thing for $5 to $10 buys me an hour of peace. And then we don’t have to play the ABC game while I’m also going the aisles trying to find what I’m looking for, and the kid’s trying to get out of the cart, and all of these things.
Brandy: So I can see why this seems like the easy fix for people. But then it all comes back to you. So you do this thing to buy you some time in the store. And then you have a house that’s collapsing on you with things, that’s making you feel completely out of control. You know, how do you win on that? And it sounds like, from what you’re saying, you have to make a hard decisions somewhere. You can’t just never make the hard decision, or you are always going to feel like this.
Rebecca: Yeah. Like you said, it is more work for you. And this is what a lot of people say. It’s, “Oh, great. More work for me.” And that’s true. But you don’t have to put that mental energy in forever. You just have to put it in for as long as it takes for them to break the habit of needing things. Once you’ve broken the habit, you don’t have to do it again. They might just be happy to just sit in the trolley, or walk next to you, pointing things out and going, “Hey, are we going to play the ABC game? I’ll keep count. And you find things.” And they do it together. And you don’t even have to think about it. They just start doing it themselves. It’s kind of like toilet training. You know, if you didn’t put that effort into toilet training, you would be cleaning messes 15 years. Maybe not, but you know what I mean.
Rebecca: And if you put that little effort into the training, then they’re trained after that, and you don’t have to do it again. Whereas, if you keep buying yourself that hour of peace every single shopping expedition, you’re buying that hour of peace with 15 years of stress and clutter.
Brandy: That’s what I’m realizing. I’m realizing that that short fix, what it buys you in the long run, none of us want. And it speaks to modern parenting, which is so many of us are just at our rope’s end. It’s like that moment where you’ve been up for an hour and you’re like, “I’m already at the end of my rope. And yet I still have 11 more hours to go.” Right? So then you find that mom a couple hours later at Target. And I’m always talking about, how can we change this experience so that we aren’t so tapped out, so that we do have the patience to go, “Let’s play the ABC game. That would be fun at Target?” And some parents totally have the bandwidth for this. I don’t know any of them. But I know that they do exist. They have to exist. I mean, I feel like I’ve seen them. I’ve seen them from afar doing very patient things that take energy. But I kind of feel like there’s this snowball effect with modern parenting, is that it’s hard. And then in order to cope, we make choices that actually make it harder for us.
Rebecca: Yeah, you’re right. And I know lots of people as well, parents that are just at the end. And they’ve got issues like children that are on the spectrum. They’ve got an autoimmune disease themselves, or something like that, which just takes everything for them to just get through the day, and they do whatever it takes.
Rebecca: There’s no judgment from me on that. I’ve been there as well. I give in on lots of things now, even with my teenagers. They’ll say, “Can I have an extra 15 minutes of screen time because I’m halfway through a conversation?” And because I don’t want the rolling of the eyes and the stomping, I say, “Yeah, sure, whatever.” And I know, in the back of my mind, that I’m just enabling their addiction. So we all do it to some degree, in certain areas, in certain ways. And me finding myself at the moment in a situation with a teenager addicted to her phone, is that I wish I had done this stuff earlier. I wish I had done this earlier, so that I didn’t have to wean her. Because weaning someone from an addiction is extremely difficult to do.
Rebecca: And that’s what we’re doing with all this stuff that I’m talking about now in the shopping, is we’re weaning them from an addiction. We’re weaning them from an addiction to buying things and acquiring things. But if we can do it, if we can just get through somehow and say, “This is what we’re doing now. We don’t have the money. You’ve already got stuff. And so we’re stopping all of this. And you’re going to get given things at birthdays and at Christmas. And that’s it. And what you do have, you’re going to pick out your favorites. And we’re going to give some to children that don’t have any toys. And this is what we’re going to do now. You’re going to have complete control of what you keep within these boundaries. But this is what we’re doing now because I do not want you to grow up thinking that happiness comes from buying things.”
Brandy: Yes. Well, so the Christmas and the birthdays, is there a limit? Or is Christmas just like a free-for-all because that’s the one time of year you get to get something?
Rebecca: I do probably give my kids more things than I would at Christmas, because of the fact that they don’t get anything any other time. But necessities, they will get. So, you know, if there’s a hole in their school shoes, of course they’re going to get anew pair of school shoes. I’m not going to make them wait until Christmas. But at Christmas time, they do get things that they have had on their list all year.
Brandy: Yeah, for 364 days.
Rebecca: Yeah, things that are a bit more pricey, that aren’t necessities, but they’re things that they would really like.
Brandy: Teens are like a whole different ball game. Even my almost 12-year-old, Christmas for him is a whole different experience than Christmas for the five-year-old.
Rebecca: It is, isn’t it?
Brandy: I know that there are people out there who are like, “Oh, when they’re little, it’s so great.” But I sort of love just the simplicity of the older ones.
Rebecca: You get them like one expensive present instead of 25 little piece of rubbish.
Brandy: Exactly. The things that I’m getting my son now, I don’t imagine myself donating in a year, whereas like, eh, half of my daughter’s stuff is like, “Will this go to Goodwill? Probably. But let’s just give it a shot and see how it goes.”
Rebecca: So it does sort of get a little bit easier as they get older. You can go for quality over quantity. But there’s no reason why you can’t institute that at a younger age either. The thing with little kids is, that the quality of something doesn’t impress them. But quantity really does impress them.
Rebecca: Like, if they’ve got 20 things to open that are all worth a dollar each, they’re so much happier than the kid who opens the $100 present and gets only one of them. Because the value of it means nothing to them. And so impressing your child is the hard part. You know, impressing them with quality, so that you have your goals met, is a bit of a challenge. But if they identify some quality items, make a note of those ones. Because they’re the ones that you can say, “I’m going to get a couple of really good quality ones. And I think she’ll keep this for a few years.” And also be wary of anything that could be a collection. Anything that she’s going to need more of.
Brandy: That’s like every kid toy right now.
Rebecca: I know. They’ve played us.
Brandy: Yes. That’s the way that they do it.
Rebecca: That’s exactly why they do it. They play us so well. They know the nag factor is massive. There’s so much research around this. Companies that market toys have people that are experts in child psychology doing this. They know exactly what goes on. If you buy the ones where you don’t know what’s in them until you open them, so then they end up with five of one, but they’re just waiting for this one, whatever it is, that never comes. And instead, you buy 300 just to find this one. Those kinds of things. They’re just playing us for fools. But we do fall for it.
Brandy: We do. We have this thing called American Girl dolls, which is just a very high-priced doll. But there’s like this whole world, outfits, and then you can get the camper, and all the different accessories that go with it. And so when you buy one of these dolls, that’s your down payment on the rest of the world that you’re going to be acquiring. This is the kind of the stuff, when I rail against modern parenting, there are so many things that make it harder for us to do the quality job of being a parent and raising healthy smart kids. And I feel like capitalism, this is one of those things that makes a job that’s already hard so much harder because it’s working against us. You know, it’s-
Rebecca: Absolutely. The whole world is working against us.
Brandy: Thank you. That is exactly how I fucking feel about parenthood. And I sometimes feel like, “Dang. I must come off like I’m some irate, depressed parent struggling.” But when I look at all the systems that are in place for us, it’s like, okay, so the things that we know that create happy, healthy parents and kids … Having a small amount of toys, that is actually better for their brain. Like, having quality food. And then when you look at our society, and you look at all the things that are in place that actually make it so that you and your kids want those other things that make them unhealthy, I just … It’s like, are we in a movie? Is this a joke?
Rebecca: It’s like a prank show.
Brandy: You watch these parents on this hamster wheel, and they’re never going to get on top of it.
Rebecca: Right. You’re so right. It’s sort of like we all know. I can’t remember where I heard it. But I heard recently that one of the biggest indicators of the success of a school-leaver, how well they pass college, or how well they get through college, the biggest signpost is whether they had family dinners every night, all together, eating together every night. And so we know this. This is research that proves kids are far less likely to get involved in … There was a whole long list of things, that they were less likely to have addictions, have antisocial behavior, they were more likely to go to college. There was all these big long lists if they have family dinners, right? So the research is there. But then we have culture saying, “Oh, but your child needs to do five different activities every week. Because if you don’t allow your child to do tennis, chess, ballet, and rock climbing every single week, you’re a bad parent.”
Rebecca: And so, of course, if you’re going to be doing all those activities, how the hell are you all going to sit down to a family meal every night? And so we have these two conflicting sides, that we’re fighting, and we’re like, “Okay, fine. So what loses? So I’m the bad parent because I’m not letting my kid do all these things-
Rebecca: … and so that we can sit down at a meal every night.” Yeah, I’m on your side. I know exactly what you’re talking about. I get riled up about it as well.
Brandy: I know. I mean, the thing is, is that if you look at every turn, there’s another hurdle. This idea that women can have it all, and you can be a working mother. That’s a great idea, and I know that there are plenty of women out there that do that. But the thing is, is that in order to do that, but then also be home to make the nutritious dinner that we all know is best – not to say that we’re all doing it, or we should be doing it necessarily with the standards that we have – but it’s like we know this to be true. But then the way that that is set up, there’s no way it’s sustainable for a mom, if she’s the one who’s doing the cooking, who’s working, to do the shopping, the meal planning, the cooking. It’s just, we cannot have it all. But we have this idea that, well, yeah, you have to do it all.
Rebecca: Yeah. And yeah, we’re expected to do that. And it’s really frustrating. Because we’re judged if we don’t, and we’re judged if we do.
Brandy: Exactly. Okay, so the kid side of things, I’m thinking, “Maybe I’m going to try this with my kids.” Probably after Christmas. Not the best time to do this right-
Rebecca: No, now is the best time.
Brandy: It is? Why?
Rebecca: Yes, because they’ve just been given a whole lot of stuff. And now you can say to them, “You don’t need anything else. We stop here.”
Brandy: I know, but it’s like, “You got all of these things. Which half of these things are you going to give away?”
Rebecca: Oh, no. Don’t do the decluttering. Start the acquisition habit first. Do the decluttering later. Stopping the inflow is kind of like you’re shoveling. You’re shoveling the snow, and then all of a sudden it stops snowing. And so you don’t have to worry about the snow anymore. You just have to worry about the snow that’s left on the ground. So one you’ve stopped that snowing, then you can start planting the seeds of ideas in their minds about, “Hey, wouldn’t it be good if you could find all of your toys when you wanted them?” “Hey, wouldn’t it be good if packing your toys up only took us 10 minutes, or five minutes, or three minutes?” And just plant those seeds. And then after a little while of them getting used to not having things coming in, that’s when you start with the, “Hey, let’s all this weekend find five things that we can give to little kids who don’t have any toys.” And then the following weekend, “Hey, let’s find five things that we can give to …” And just do it like that. And let them choose. and then once they can’t find anything anymore, and you still think they’ve got too much, then you start to bring in the heavy guns. Does that make sense? And I make it sound easy, but-
Brandy: Yeah, I mean, I’m just imagining screaming in my head. But like you said, it’s not like that’s going to last over and over again. So when doing decluttering, people have different ideas about this. I know that for some of us with older kids, it’s something that you can do with your children. So I do it with both of my kids, probably mostly because I want them to trust me. And I don’t want to break that trust that something that they really loved, while they were gone at school, I threw away. I mean, don’t get me wrong. We have this thing that I have named The Bin of Pointless Crap. And every house has it. It’s where all of the birthday party favors and all of the garbage just gets thrown in that doesn’t have a spot. And so I will weed that thing out when they’re asleep because it’s stuff that I-
Rebecca: You know they’re not attached to.
Brandy: It’s like deflated balloons.
Rebecca: Broken things.
Brandy: Yes. I mean, it’s garbage. So I just recently, before the holidays, did this with my kids. And told them, “Santa can’t bring you anything unless you get rid of some things,” which was a brilliant motivator for them. And it went great. And I loved seeing them try to figure out, “Do I really play with this? No, I don’t.” And then say, “You know, maybe another kid would like it.” I love all of that. I like having them be a part of the experience, and they’re old enough to do it. But I do know that when you have a four-year-old and below, and maybe even some five-year-olds, they just pull everything back out, and you could never get rid of anything. What do you suggest for people with kids that are in that younger age range?
Rebecca: Under two, you can just, you make the decisions. And they’ll forget if they were upset about it anyway. Over two, do it in bits and pieces. Watch them carefully, know what they do value. And tell them what you’re throwing away and why, and redirect their attention to the things that they have. Like, you might pull two toys out that they haven’t played in ages. They might get excited about one of them, and start playing with them. And then you use that time to say, “Okay, well then I’m going to give the other one to a little boy who doesn’t have any toys.” And because they’ve got this other one that they can keep and play with for a while, they’re a little bit distracted.
Rebecca: But you’re right. We can’t just do it for them. And trust is one of the main reasons that I advocate for decluttering with your children, like you said. Another one is learning the process. Learning how to make decisions, and how to prioritize. That’s a really important skill for the future. There are lots of people who have too much stuff now because they never learned how to decide the value of something. Because the value of something is not what it costs. The value of something is what it gives you. And so it’s different for every person. And you’ll have a toy that’ll be very valuable to one child, and not at all valuable to another, even though it’s the same toy. And they need to learn how to do that prioritizing.
Rebecca: Another thing they really need to learn is letting go, the power of letting go, if there is pain, it goes away. If you say to them, “Look, you haven’t played with this for a year. I think it needs to go to make room for some of the things you do play with so that you can pack things away easier, and find things that you want because that’s the main goal.” And you say, “I think this can go.” And they get upset, and they get distressed, and they say, “No, no, no. I love it. I love it. I love it.” And you know they haven’t played with it in a year. And you to them, “Okay, fine. We’ll keep it.” What happens then, in their brain, is that the prefrontal cortex reinforces to them that the fear response was a legitimate response. And then every time they go to get rid of something, the brain does exactly the same thing. And it creates a fear response.
Rebecca: And also, they never learn what happens after the next day. What happens in six months after getting rid of something? How do they know what that pain level would be? It might be a distress of 11 out of 10 right now. But if they got rid of it, would that stay at 11 forever? Would they have that fear every time they thought of this item for the next 30 years? They don’t know, until it goes, what actually happens to that distress level, and how it goes over time.
Rebecca: So if they’re distressed, but you say, “I think you should get rid of it anyway,” and they say, “Okay,” and you can say to them, “It’s okay to be sad. You can be sad and have a cry. But I promise you, you’ll feel better later on. And it needs to go now.” And if it goes, then you can say to them a week later, “Are you still upset about that thing going?” And they’ll say, “Yes, I am.” And they’ll start to cry. And then a month later, you’ll say, “Are you still upset about that thing going?” And they’ll go, “What? Oh, yeah, that. Oh, yeah, that’s a bit sad. Hey, why’d we throw that out?” And then six months later, you’ll say, “Are you still sad about that thing going?” And they’ll go, “What thing?” So they learn, over time, that that distress does go down. And until they actually let go of something, they never learn that it goes down. They never learn that they’re going to be okay without it. So they have to let go of things in order to learn that.
Brandy: Yeah, it’s such a valuable lesson for so many things, like what you were saying at the beginning about toxic relationships as well. Like this idea of holding on, just like everything with parenting, our habits with clutter, we pass down to our kids because they see how we handle things. And if we are not teaching them these healthy ways to let go of things, relationships, things that don’t serve them, then they are just going to take on our unhealthy habits if we don’t help them have healthier ones.
Brandy: Thank you so much for listening. And join us for next episode, part two, where Rebecca tells us how to handle things like our kids’ artwork and all the baby clothes we stuff in closets because we’re nostalgic for them. You will probably feel triggered, like me, when we talk about the most common clutter habits for women, and how too much stuff causes our overwhelm and anxiety in an already overwhelming job as “Mom.” We also get real honest about the merits and the neuroses of the recently popular Netflix decluttering fairy, Marie Kondo. “Aha” moments await in part two.
Brandy: And if you’ve enjoyed Rebecca Mezzino, her wonderful podcast, Be Uncluttered, can be found on iTunes and the like. And she also has a book. It’s called Letting Go: How to Choose Freedom Over Clutter. And you can find it on Amazon.