For so many American families, Christmas is a wonderful time to come together, share a meal, exchange gifts … and clean?
Bear with us here, because that last point is an important one.
There has been a tremendous shift in the way Americans relate to their sentimental belongings — childhood toys, graduation robes, heirloom furniture, you name it. Part of that shift is due to economic reasons, and part of that shift is generational.
This shift becomes apparent when Baby Boomer parents and grandparents invite their Gen X and Millennial children (and their children) home for a holiday meal. Where do all of those childhood toys, graduation robes and pieces of furniture live? At mom’s house, or at grandma’s house, tucked away in boxes in the attic or in the basement.
This clutter, which started as a benign treasure trove of keepsakes, now presents a thorny issue for older Boomers and seniors, many of whom are thinking about ways they can downsize as they settle into retirement: What should they do with all of this stuff?
At the risk of burdening their families by telling them to come get their stuff, Boomer parents have taken on the burden of being the family’s storage center. And this creates stress for many.
So, in the spirit of the season, considering helping your parents unburden themselves of some keepsakes and other sentimental items this year. It’s less a chore and more a labor of love — one that will give everyone in the family a chance to share stories, reflect on holidays past, think about departed loved ones and, ultimately, find a safe home for sentimental belongings.
Here is a three-step plan of action that any family can use.
Step 1: Start The Project From a Place of Compassion
As we mentioned, the reason for all this sentimental clutter has a lot to do with generational differences. So, for any Boomer parents who feel burdened by their children’s leftover keepsakes, or for young adults who are weary of parents messaging them with “Should I keep this or throw it out?” realize that this tension is part of a larger shift at the social level. It’s not any one person’s fault.
Among the younger generations — particularly Millennials, many of whom have had to move back in with their parents at some point to make ends meet — the economy has changed the way people think about their living arrangements.
This is true even for younger adults who have children, stable employment and a home of their own. In those first years of early adulthood — whether that involved a move for college, or a job, or sharing a house with friends after graduation — many Americans learned how to travel light. And that habit stuck.
Today, younger adults think of their living situations as less permanent, and so they often opt to stock their homes with cheaper items that they won’t mind having to sell or give away when they need to move yet again.
Mary Kay Buysse, executive director of the National Association of Senior Move Managers, tells The New York Times that she regards this as “a significant shift in material culture” compared to previous generations. “This is the first time we’re seeing a kink in the chain of passing down mementos from one generation to another,” she says.
Further, among Gen X and Millennial homeowners, there is a perception that their homes aren’t quite big enough to meet their needs. Therefore, those cherished items that lived in their parents’ basements for years have tended to remain there.
Having that bigger-picture context and a compassionate frame of mind will allow everyone to think of this organization project as a family effort, not a chore.
Step 2: Sort Out the Things You Don’t Want
You might be surprised at how easily you are able to let go of mementos of your own childhood.
Blogger Rachel Meeks, in a classic post on her Small Notebook blog, recounted in 2010 how she and her mom went through old boxes of belongings and had the chance to reminisce a little before tossing out old trophies and elementary school artwork (she condensed the best pieces down into a single album).
It’s the memories, Rachel found, that were important, not the actual items.
Keep that in mind as you begin to do your own sorting. As organization expert Marie Kondo advises, give yourself permission to let go of anything that doesn’t “spark joy” in your heart. Then, make a plan to sell or donate what you can.
For the items that do spark joy, however, set them aside and later find a place in your own home for them.
One last tip to point out at this stage: Tread lightly if your family has lost someone recently. If your family is grieving, Organizing consultant Ellen Madere tells Real Simple, it might be best to pause the project for a few months.
Step 3: Give Old Keepsakes a New Life
Once you have identified the treasures you want to take home, you might need to refresh and reframe them a little so that they fit into your space.
For example, a wedding dress or a christening gown should probably be professionally preserved, Jenn at Mother Thyme writes. Smaller items might need to be organized and stored away in boxes, albums or scrapbooks, she also advises.
Or, if you have chosen to retrieve keepsakes from a relative, consider organizing those into something even more meaningful that celebrates that person’s memory. As an example, Hilda Rodgers, professional organizer and author of the blog From Overwhelmed to Organized, has a beautiful tip for anyone who wants to honor a grandfather who was a military veteran.
“Put those medals in a shadow frame with a picture of your Grandpa and hang it in a place of honour in your home, where you see it and remember him, and where guests in your home can see it and talk with you about him,” she writes. “That helps keep the stories alive for future generations too.”
And finally, take some time afterward to reflect on how you plan to pass down cherished items to your own children. Thinking about this and building the right habits now can preempt any future accumulation of childhood belongings, whose boxes might overwhelm your attic in a couple of decades’ time.
Professional organizer Helena Alkhas recommends, for example, digitizing all of your children’s artwork. “Spend a Saturday afternoon cataloging your kids’ art projects and store and organize your digital photos using photo storage software on your computer,” she writes.
“In the future, when your child brings home a new drawing or painting, take a photo of them with their art. There’s no better way to see how your child grows and develops his or her talents.”
As we continue to explore ways you can pay it forward this holiday season, remember that it’s the little acts of selflessness that can foster stronger family connections and have a dramatic impact on someone else’s wellbeing.
Images by: stokkete/©123RF Stock Photo, Daiga Ellaby