Childhood mementos are one of the all-time hardest things to let go. I tend to fail in this area with clients even when I succeed elsewhere. This is because the tiny socks and shoes feel like the infancy itself. The thing about children is that they quickly become teenagers. Are you raising a child, or raising an adult? The better a job you do of raising an independent, mature, productive future citizen, the quicker the kid starts pushing away and developing a distinct identity. It's so hard to hang on and remember the smell of their downy little heads as they sweetly snuggled in your lap, especially after they start in with the rebellion and the door-slamming. The toughest thing about parenting is that realization that there will always be a last baby, that childhood ends, that their mortality is our mortality. Life is fleeting but the memorabilia just keeps on repeating.
There are two types of things that parents want to save for their kids: stuff from their own childhoods and stuff from their kids' childhoods. We save the stuff from our own childhoods out of a desire for connection. We want our kids to love the same things we loved. We want them to feel the same joy that we felt. We don't know how to communicate these emotions other than through physical objects. Why a pile of old toys, books, or stuffed animals rather than a love of nature, stargazing, or music? My mom saved a bunch of books and dolls in the hope that she would have a daughter one day. What I feel I got from her was her social conscience, her natural altruism and compassion, her love of musicals, her habit of bustling around cleaning and cooking in preparation for guests, her frugality, her voice, and her physical frame, among many other things. She taught me to love books and she taught me to ride a bike. I never felt much sentimental attachment to her childhood toys, but surely they were nothing in comparison to her values? My dad didn't particularly hang onto childhood relics, but he spent countless weekends taking all three of us kids into the woods, where we all developed a love of the wilderness that has passed to the next generation as well. We can't help but pass things on to our kids. Perhaps we should look more to the intangibles than the dusty physical ones.
I don't have biological children of my own, so my outlook on family heirlooms is perhaps unusual. If I save anything "for posterity," it would come from a belief that my nephews and niece might want it. This seems improbable. I have a baby album with a lock of my hair and the wristbands from my delivery. Why would they want that? (Come to think of it, why do I still have it?) I have a plaque with my first grade handprint. It has a certain aesthetic appeal, but it's hard to imagine someone hanging it on their wall; even I don't do that. This idea of my brother's kids appreciating my childhood relics feels even weirder and less likely when I picture them at my age or older. When I start to think about their possible kids and grandkids, well, at a certain point my memorabilia are just mysterious old junk. One of these moves, I'll most likely snap a few pictures and let it all go. The more photos I save, though, the less likely that any particular one will be appreciated, or even viewed.
We're generating massive amounts of life relics, and the rate is only increasing. There are kids now who have had their own social media accounts since they were barely a heartbeat in the womb. Many of them will enter adulthood knowing that naked bathtub pictures of them were shown to the public. There will be a digital record of every embarrassingly "cute" thing they ever did. We have hours of video! We have thousands of photos! We have voicemail messages and audio files! The more we save, the less valuable it is. Aside from our digital records, we also have more physical possessions than any previous culture in all of history. We can't conceivably save every article of clothing or every piece of every plastic playset. Where the heck would we hope to put it all? If we expected our kids to save it all, where would they they save their own kids' things? Four generations from now, every citizen will need a personal warehouse for the family hoard. We can drive by and point at them, guessing at how many action figures and little t-shirts might be inside.
Working with kids is one of the easiest and most rewarding parts of my professional home visits. That is, it's fun until the parents show up. What I do is explain to the kid what I've worked out with the parents. "Let's go through and get rid of any of your old baby stuff that would embarrass you if your friends came over. Then we'll sort out anything you don't play with anymore. We can sell it at the yard sale, and all the money you make can go toward a new game." "OKAY!" says the brilliantly grinning child. First we set aside the top favorite toys to keep. Then we pick up items off the floor, one at a time, and the kid makes quick choices. Almost all of the stuffed animals and about half of the action figures wind up in the Go pile. Many of the clothes do, too, as kids don't usually like dressing the way their parents and relatives would prefer. Children have countless gifts foisted on them, crowding their space, getting them in trouble when they can't keep their rooms clean. They don't like it and it isn't natural to them. When I show up, it's usually the first time they've ever been allowed to express an opinion or assert a claim on their own private physical territory. It feels like independence, it feels like empowerment, and they really enjoy it. The notion that they only have to keep what they actually like is a big one. It's saying "You're REAL, honey. Your voice matters." But then the parents come in and flip out. "That was a gift! That was expensive! That was mine when I was your age!" They allow maybe 10% of the discards to go, and guilt-trip or outright force the child to put the rest back. Share your room with things we chose for you. Believe that stuff has feelings. See that we care more about these old things than we do about what you want. Let us determine your taste preferences. You are a chattel and you won't get to have opinions until you move away.
The truth is that kids do become adults, no matter how much we want to stop time and keep them sweet. First, their favorite colors will change. They'll develop their own musical tastes. They'll choose their own hairstyles and dress however they like. They'll come home with romantic partners they met whether we approve or not. They'll even vote however they want. I grew up to have a thing for a minimalist modern aesthetic, for example, while my parents like antiques. If we've done a good job, our kids will grow up to be awesome, the kind of people we'd want to be friends with if we didn't already know them. I feel like I'd make friends with my own parents if they were "only" my neighbors or coworkers. Those qualities and those emotional connections have nothing to do with the physical possessions we want to hand down.
What we really want is emotional connection. We want to remember that we're family, as though we could ever forget our blood relationship whenever we look in the mirror or hold out our hands. What we need from the parent-child bond is memories. We need to be putting more hugs in that emotional bank account. We should be treasuring our heart-to-heart talks. We should be making memories together and teaching what we have to teach. We should be passing down a family heritage of stories and a legacy of values and character traits. We should have a bunch of family in-jokes. Why on earth we think we can put any of that into a musty old box is beyond me.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.