12 Real-Mom Ways to Tidy Up Like Marie Kondo

Parents Lifestyle Director Laura Fenton shares parent-friendly ways to hack Marie Kondo's KonMari system. Yes, it's possible to organize your toddler's playroom!

Mother Cleaning with Kids Putting Away Toys
Photo: New Africa/Shutterstock

I read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up before I had a child, and happily purged my kid-less existence of clutter. Pregnant and imbued with that fabled nesting instinct, I carefully folded all my shirts and pants into tidy rectangles, trimmed my kitchen gear in half, and pared down my bookshelves.

Enter a kid: The list of non-joyful possessions has multiplied, the clutter has regathered, and the Kondo-style folding has gotten, shall we say, sloppy. Then two weeks ago, Netflix dropped the Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, the new TV show about Kondo working with real families, and suddenly KonMari was everywhere again—and seemingly at triple the volume of the height of the book’s popularity. My Instagram feed is filled with newly decluttered spaces hashtagged #mariekondo and #tidyingup. I’m getting text messages about the show from friends nearly every day—really! And the Parents office is a-twitter with talk of Kondo and her method—and how it applies to families with young kids (we were all delighted that the first episode featured a family with two pre-school aged kids).

All this attention to her Netflix show prompted me to go back and read her first book with a mom’s eyes. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up is laughably light on ideas for parents: The index doesn’t even list “children,” “kids,” or “toys,” which reflects Kondo’s clientele and own place in life at the time of writing the book (she’s a mom of two now). However, the book has been translated into dozens of languages and sold over 8 million copies—it must be working for families, not just the young and child-less.

You don’t need to follow Marie Kondo’s precise method to benefit from her tidying experience. Steal these 12 ideas to hack her system, so you too can post a brag-worthy photo of your tidying prowess to Insta:

Confront your own stuff first. You can tackle your spouse and child’s belongings when you’ve finished tidying your own. You may think it’s the kid clutter that’s driving you crazy, but writes Kondo, “The urge to point out someone else’s failure to tidy is usually a sign that you are neglecting to take care of your own space.” You’ll also be leading by example: The more you practice what you preach, the more likely your spouse or kids are to mirror your efforts.

Do the happy test. Kondo famously demands that we keep only items that “spark joy,” a phrase that has inspired a fair share of eye-rolling, but it is a useful measure. When decluttering ask yourself “Does this item make me happy?” Toss or donate items that don’t.

Go category by category. Approach clutter by type (clothes, books, toys)—not by room. Kondo says you’re more likely to stay focused and finish the task.

But carve out smaller categories than Kondo’s five (clothes, books, “komono” (aka miscellaneous stuff), papers, and sentimental items). Kondo confessed to the Wall Street Journal that she’s made exceptions for families with little children and now allows busy parents to tackle, say, just tops instead of the entire wardrobe in one go. This means you can chip away at Kondo-ing after your kid has gone to bed or while she naps.

Don’t let your family see. When you’re decluttering your own stuff get it out of the house immediately, before your spouse/child/mom/mother-in-law can see what you’re tossing and start to pull things out of your piles or second-guess your instinct to purge. (My husband, for example, protested when I wanted to toss the shorts I’d been wearing when I met him.)

Let go of the gifts. Stop feeling guilty about donating or tossing items you have received as gifts. Kondo writes “the true purpose of a gift is to be received,” and encourages readers to thank the item for the joy you felt when it was gifted, then let it go. Consider this permission to get rid of every single holiday gift that doesn’t suit your family’s tastes or needs.

Toss the “play clothes.” In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo suggests adults get rid of clothes that are too shabby to wear out, but that they keep to wear around the house. I’d argue the same for your kids’ clothes. I used to hang on to pants with holes in them or t-shirts with stains as “play clothes” but found that I never actually bothered to change my son into them when it was time to embark on a messy activity. Instead, I would find myself annoyed when I realized the only clean pants all had holes in the knees.

Don’t go crazy with the folding. Kondo’s method really does work to make space in drawers and keep them tidy (try it!), but you can probably skip Kondo-folding kid clothes (when they’re wearing tiny onesies, it’s too hard, and once they start dressing themselves, they’ll never stay that way). But do use boxes (like old shoe boxes) to divide their drawers: It’ll help keep things neater longer.

Get each family member’s things into one place. Kondo believes that “if storage is spread around, the entire house will become cluttered in no time.” Kondo recounts working with a family with a three-year-old, and discovering the girl’s clothes were in her parents' room, her toys in the living room, and her books in yet another room. The solution was to move everything to the girl’s room. If your kids’ things spread all over the house (and I bet they are), try relocating all the toys to one space and see how it impacts your level of tidiness.

Tackle those toys. When decluttering toys, ask if the toy sparks joy for your child. This may mean getting rid of all those beautiful wooden toys you received as gifts and all those “educational” toys you bought with good intention. If your kid’s not in love with it, it’s time to let go. Some signs a toy does not spark joy: It came from a birthday party or doctor’s office, it is broken, it is displayed on a high shelf, it does not have a name, it is one of many identical or nearly identical items, you have unearthed it from a long-hidden location.

And know when to ignore her. Kondo instructs you not to purge another family member’s belongings, but this DOES NOT apply to young children. If asked, your three-year-old is sure to tell you he loves Every. Single. Truck. The truth is you’re going to need to do much of the Kondo-ing when your kids are not home and dispose of the items before they return. Then if necessary, lie about the object’s whereabouts. (I often speculate that perhaps we left the suddenly-remembered toy at Grandma’s house, which is usually a satisfactory answer.)

Get ready to relax. “Cleaning quietly on one’s own generates another interesting change—the ability to tolerate a certain level of untidiness among your family members,” writes Kondo. And you know what? She’s right! Once you’ve got your own closet and your kitchen under control, the chaos that is the kid’s room is suddenly a little less overwhelming.

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