Minimalism is overrated: Why I’m glad I didn’t throw out all my kids’ stuff

A recent basement renovation forced me to deal with boxes and boxes of toys, books and school projects. And then I found something much more precious.

Photo: Heather Greenwood Davis

These days, everyone wants to be a minimalist. Drowning in the clutter of kitchen junk drawers, kids’ crafting materials and overflowing bins of Lego bricks, we pine for Instagram-worthy spaces that perfectly mirror the Marie Kondo way of living. “Less is more,” we tell ourselves as we slash and burn our way through overflowing closets and bursting drawers, throwing out things that don’t bring us immediate joy.

But is the ruthless eradication of our kids’ scribbled pages and elbow-macaroni necklaces the answer? Or is there something to be gained by holding onto them for a while before revisiting them with fresh eyes and an older heart?

The nagging thought occurred to me recently when my husband, Ish, and I decided to do some renovations on the home we moved into 14 years ago. After years of living with an unfinished basement, we decided to see if we could build a fun space for our two teen sons at the bottom of the stairs.

The problem is, our basement is a hoarder’s paradise. While we’ve managed to keep things light and tight on our upper floors, the basement is a no-holds barred, throw-it-from-the-top-of-the-steps dumping zone. It started the moment we moved in, literally: We brought boxes from our first home and put them directly into the basement. They have never again seen the light of day. Some are boxes (filled with a mishmash of old textbooks and dog-eared Judy Blume books) that my parents offloaded on me the moment I had a home of my own. Newer boxes hold all of the kids’ plastic solar system fragments and Bristol board holdovers from school projects. And then there are the boxes that store our best intentions: unused Wilton specialty cake pans never attempted for birthdays and empty photo albums that no one had time to fill.

A kid smiles over his art project of a model car
Photo: Heather Greenwood Davis

But most prominent are the boxes packed up before my family of four left on our year-long trip around the world in 2011. We spent 12 months wandering the globe with only two weeks’ worth of clothes in our bags—a feat that was only possible because everything else we owned was in our basement. I still remember how much lighter I felt that year without the anchor of all of our stuff. In fact, upon returning home, instead of unpacking the things we had stored in the basement, we opted to shut the door and pretend those people we used to be—the ones who bought candleholders and mixing bowls with abandon—never existed.

It worked for a while. We became a family that opted for simpler things—not quite minimalist but certainly less maximalist. But now, six years later, the renovations meant we had the unavoidable task of facing our worst possible selves. Workers needed to get into our basement, and all of those boxes were literally blocking our path forward.

Ish suggested that we just get rid of it all, unopened and unexamined. If we hadn’t missed it, we didn’t need it, right? But something in me needed to go through them, so for a few hours each day, one at a time, I started the archaeological dig.

Two young girls lie in bed and stare at the cameraTake it from the pros: 18 tips for keeping your kids' stuff organized I filled donation bags with Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, outgrown clothes and Spiderman figures. More than a dozen garbage bags of clothes and dishes went off to charity. Days into the purge, it still felt like I was getting nowhere. I was just beginning to wonder if Ish had been right when I found the birthday card that read “Happy birthday, three-year old” and was addressed to my now-15-year-old son. Inside was a crisp $20 bill.

I slowed down after that.

And though there were no more cash wins, the rewards in those boxes were priceless. I began to treat each box like an excavation. I was the family anthropologist, carefully extracting the weathered pieces of construction-paper artwork, deciphering notes from paediatricians and finding pieces of busted Dr. Seuss board books that had been so well read, they’d fallen apart from all the love. It wasn’t just my children’s childhoods that came rushing back; moments long buried resurfaced as I stumbled on childish doodles that proclaimed my love for elementary-school crushes, cassette mixtapes from high school and handwritten notes from friends long before email was a thing. I found participation awards and achievement certificates for keeping my desk tidy. There was a letter from my father, chastising me for not calling home enough during my first year as a university student away from home. I dug up rejection letters from magazines I’ve since written for. Mountains I had climbed and had long forgotten.

A kids' certificate of achievement and an old report card
Photo: Heather Greenwood Davis

I began to show my finds to my kids: their terrible artwork, the forced apologies they’d written after hitting their brother, letters from the tooth fairy and to Santa Claus. We found stories written at an age when “Ks” and “Ns” were still written backwards and letters from teachers about uneaten lunches and schoolyard scuffles. Soon, my teens were putting aside their video games for the chance to pore over their own daily daycare reports. They would burst in on me, laughing until tears ran down their cheeks at the details of how many bowel movements they’d had and the incident where my oldest stole another child’s Cheerios at snacktime. One evening, we even dug out a VHS player to watch an old tape we found, and another afternoon was spent going through photos of me and their dad as teens. They were all things they hadn’t seen before.

The older the box, the bigger the reward. My own kindergarten notebooks were filled with childish scribbles, and the journals I’d written with dramatic angst to my grade five teacher enthralled the kids. Having the physical proof that I, too, had once been a child brought us closer than any “When I was a kid…” story could have.

When I found the journal I’d written when I first became a mother, I passed it to my oldest child and he read, for the first time, how scared and excited I had been and how in love I was with my new baby boy. That one had us both in tears.

The timing of our discoveries was key: As teens, my kids were old enough to reminisce, and I was far enough removed from the hectic life of diapers and daycare to appreciate the humour of those hair-pulling days of raising them. Had we gone through this process 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have been the same.

The reminiscing we did as a result of those boxes was a gift I never would have thought to give myself. I spent years berating that growing pile in the basement, never having a clue that I was building a treasure chest.

I know that less can be­ more—I believe it. But sometimes more is more, too. Today, I’m forever grateful for the tangible reminders in those boxes of the family we once were.

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