How can I get a packrat to stop giving me stuff?

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Photo by theogeo – CC BY 2.0
Photo by theogeoCC BY 2.0
My mother saves everything. I have spent the last decade trying to fight my own packrat tendencies. But I’m pregnant with the first grandchild, and now am receiving lots of stuff… Old clothing, school papers, toys you can’t actually give to a child because they’re fragile heirlooms.

I love my mom, and she loves these items, but I think the majority of it should have been thrown out 30 years ago.

Is there any graceful way to communicate that I don’t want to take on curation of a family museum? Or do I have to store it for another 30 years, until she won’t notice that I threw it out/donated it? -Silkie

Good question! We’ve talked about dealing with family members who hoard

and about how to deal with unwanted gifts

But how do you deal with unwanted gifts from your packrat family members?

Comments on How can I get a packrat to stop giving me stuff?

  1. I’d go with something along the lines of:
    “Mum, I love that you want to share our history with Grandchild. I think that such a huge part of this is the stories that goes along with the items. I want Grandchild to understand where they come from, which might mean it’s a bit early to pass them on. Wouldn’t it be a special memory for Grandchild if you told him/her about how your brother loved this plastic toy duck when you gave it to him/her? Why don’t you keep them these things for now and pick a few special pieces for birthday presents etc when Grandchild’s old enough to appreciate them and have those conversations?”
    Sure, it’s kicking the can down the road a bit, but it might help stem the tide now.

    • I agree. Something I always loved to do at my grandparents house was look at pictures and hear stories of my dad, aunt, and uncle when they were children. I got to ready my dad’s complete Hardy Boys series, play with their old toys. It was awesome and special. It might not have meant as much if these experiences weren’t coupled with grandparent time and the specialness of only being able to do it at their house. Let mom know that you want her to have these bonding moments with the kiddo.

    • Speaking as someone who is the grandchild of a hoarder, kicking the can like this may have mixed results. Now, my grandmother has some diagnosable mental issues related to her hoarding, so your mileage may vary depending on what kind of gifts your family member is passing on and the attitude they are giving them with. It’s worth thinking about how much emotional labor you want your child to do in regards to your parents.
      My grandmother always passed on things she found important – old newspaper clippings, pasta art from my mother’s preschool years, pictures of great, great aunts, happy meal type toys, bags of expired candy, etc. These were “gifted” in grocery bags or old cereal boxes (not wrapped) EVERY time you saw her. As a small child, the expectation from my parents was that I would: a) be polite and grateful, b) not express in any way (including body language or facial expression) that I was unhappy with the gifts, and c) throw out most everything as soon as she had left because it all smelled terrible (since it came from a house so filled with black mold that it’s a health hazard). I found this really difficult – my family valued honesty, and here I was being told to lie. It’s also hard to explain to your five year old why one set of grandparents buys you nice toys and the other set brings you a bunch of smelly junk.
      Luckily, I also had the experience that Jesque had, where I bonded with my other grandparents over all the cool old stuff they had in their house. It’s important to consider the emotional context in which you make this decision for your child – are you looking to put off a conflict, or is there a good experience for your child and parent available here?There may not be a clear or easy answer, but it’s worth thinking about this seriously.

  2. Take advantage of the bonding opportunity & tell her you’d like to go through the old items with her & pick out what you’d like to share with your little one.

  3. My tactics involve making it clear now, long before I’m pregnant, that anything currently at gram’s house stays at gram’s house if a baby comes. My excuses for this include:
    1. Storage space… I don’t want to waste it on memories that already have a home
    2. Logistics. Do you rent? I do, so I use the “I don’t want to have to move it all over the place every time my lease is up” line.

    You might be able to stem the tide with those.

    Maybe offer a compromise of sorts. “Mom, I went through this box of my old school papers and pulled out the ones that are really important to me but I don’t want/can’t store/don’t need the rest. Do you want to look through it before I recycle it?” This way you aren’t just throwing them away and you are acknowledging how important they are but at the sake time setting a boundary. You could even make a bonding activity out of it and go through the box together. Pull a few things out that are meaningful or funny or might be cool to show grandkid one day (or hell, just to appease) and either recycle or let her take the rest back.

  4. Hoarding / collecting / being a packrat runs in my family, and my personal experience has been that there are 3 reasons why people keep things: 1, fear; 2, forgetfulness; 3, sentiment / appreciation. What you hold on to depends on how you value an item.

    My grandmother had way more paper goods than she could possibly need stored in her tiny studio apartment, and I can’t even tell you how much garbage my grandfather kept in his, for fear of running out of some necessity. My dad, my husband and I are all collectors of hobby- and fandom-related items, from artwork to figurines. My mom kept her wedding gown for 20 years after her marriage ended because she forgot it was there / it became part of the scenery until my wedding called attention to it. When I moved out, my mom gave me a box of my childhood things, some of which she had saved, and some of which my grandmother had saved, for sentimental reasons.

    On the other hand, my late and unlamented stepmother not only destroyed the photographic evidence of an important part of my childhood (any part including my first, albeit unofficial, stepmother), but forced all evidence of children to be removed from my dad’s house by either sending it to my mom’s or throwing it away. One of my favorite memories of her was of all 4 of us (dad, siblings and me) calling her out for throwing out my brother’s security blanket and either she or my dad going through the trash to rescue it. I still don’t know exactly how much we lost to her jealousy, but it definitely bothers me that I wasn’t given the choice to save the things that I valued.

    You don’t have to keep things that you don’t value. But it is not OK to take things that are of value to your mother, and throw them away or donate them, if you could simply give them back, or open a dialogue with her to determine whether or not either of you need to keep these things.

    If you want to give everything back, you might say, “I understand that these things have value for you, but I don’t value them in the same way and I think that X should be done with them instead.”

    If you want some of it, but not everything, you might say, “I’m happy to take these things that are important to both of us, but I don’t share your feelings about XYZ items and I think we should discuss giving them to someone else / donating them to charity / whatever you feel is appropriate.”

    Through this dialogue, you might find that you do actually want some of the things your mother wants you to have. You don’t have to use them in the same way; for instance, my baby blanket is worn to pieces, so instead of giving it to my future child, I would frame it as art in their nursery. If you don’t find yourself wanting them, that’s perfectly OK, but it is better to be honest.

  5. I wish I knew!

    My mother-in-law loves buying us stuff. Some of it is useful some of it is decorative but it all tends to be quite bulky, especially when we live in a one bedroom flat with 1 cupboard (which is already full).

    The annoying part is she isn’t a pack-rat as such and has told us repeatedly that she thinks our flat is cluttered and we need to clear it out. But what she means is we should get rid of all the books, CDs, DVDs and games consoles we love having to make room for things she thinks are important like huge framed pictures we’re somehow supposed to hang on walls we can’t put holes in, a second folding table just in case we ever have 8 people round for dinner or a portable radiator that sometimes comes in useful for a few hours a day 3 months of the year.

    She seems to think giving us this stuff even when she has been to our flat and knows we have literally nowhere to put it except in the middle of the room will persuade us to throw out everything we actually want to make space!

    My approach so far has been to remind her every time the subject of something we “should” own comes up that we simply don’t have space for whatever it is, ensuring that we only list small items we know we have space for as gifts and when that fails trying to re-gift or sell things ASAP. But results have been mixed at best.

    • I feel your pain here, my mum in law likes to buy us gifts from op shops some are nice but some are just really odd and not our taste, most of the time they are broken, smelly/dirty, or just bought for the sake of buying something, for instance she bought us a knitted clown toy recently, and we can’t have kids and she knows that, and we don’t collect toys so it was a bit odd and it’s so annoying as we have to be nice otherwise she cries and makes a big deal, so we just smile now as we don’t want to hurt her feelings so yeah its a hard one :/ thankfully she lives 12,000 miles away so when she visits she doesn’t remember what she bought us.

  6. I would graciously and gently tell her thank you and ‘I will go through these things and I will keep what I can use and donate the rest, unless you would like to hold onto what I can’t use’. Sometimes people hold onto things because they see future usefulness in the items. I don’t think your mom is a hoarder, perhaps just sentimental. Good luck.

  7. I think that the suggestions to go through things together is a really good one. My mom kept boxes of old art projects and school papers and the like for years in storage. At Christmas a few years ago, we took the boxes out of storage and went through them as a family. We read the stories and laughed at our artistic attempts. All of us picked one or two things that were genuinely sentimental to take home with us, and the rest we recycled.

  8. Aw. I have this problem too. Remember that there is a generational difference at work here. Our parents and grandparents value “stuff” and see “stuff” as indication of success. Our generation values experiences and freedom. We’re a lot less sentimental about “stuff.”

    Maybe you can use this as a base for your conversation. Explain how you feel about stuff, but then tell her what you DO value … Maybe it’s stories, photos, traditions, family jokes, her recipes, her advice. Invite her to be a part of your life this way.

  9. I don’t have any solutions for you regarding the personal side — there are so many variables. I feel like my MIL hangs on to stuff because she sees it as saving money, not really because she has any sentiment attached to it, and when she passes it to us, it’s a relief to her (she got rid of it, but didn’t have to throw it away), and I just throw it out/donate it right after she leaves. But I understand that for a true hoarder, accepting it and tossing it might be more problematic.

    However, as regards YOUR home and YOUR child — you are the gatekeeper. I feel very strongly about what materials and environment my children are exposed to, and I am not willing to compromise on that for someone else’s feelings. Maybe that sounds harsh, and I don’t mean to be … but I feel like other people have had their homes, their lives, their children, and since they got to make their decisions, I get to make mine. I will not live in a museum of someone else’s memories. We do have some cherished family items, of course. And I try to be gracious in the moment. But the fact is, *we* live here, and the home needs to work for our, current, needs. Fortunately, my parents are very understanding of that, and we started off in a series of constant moves and tiny rentals, which made it easier not to accumulate. But perhaps there is a gentle way to communicate that … And I don’t mean to sound so strident, but I wanted to encourage you that you *do* have the right to make these decisions about your home and your child’s life. Once the child arrives, you will see the same thing about gifts! Baby gifts and birthday presents will pile up, and they may not all be things you are comfortable with giving your child. And it is totally okay to toss/donate them!

  10. There’s lots of layers to “unwanted giving”.

    For instance my mother is slowly clearing out her house and giving my brothers and I all the old school papers and toys of ours that she’s coming across. She has no personal connection to them anymore (she had meticulously kept them for us to give us at this point in our lives). I simply take the latest box, smile and thank her; go through it, keep the handful of really awesome or sentimental things; take photos of the more memorable things that I don’t particularly need and then chuck the rest. She doesn’t care what we do with that stuff, so long as it’s out of her house.

    Next is the heirloom items.
    I gave away a four-poster bed that had been my mother sister’s. She was livid about that; I hadn’t realized her level of personal attachment to it and I did apologize; but I didn’t need it anymore – it was big and juvenile; it went to a good charity.
    I promised her after that that I’d let her know if I planned on giving away anything of that ilk again.
    Old Christmas ornaments though that would be forgotten the instant they were out of the house?
    No qualms with passing those along.

    Lastly is the “thing broker” items.
    My co-workers and friends know I’m broke as a joke and they seem compelled to bury me in their cast-off clothes, books and other household items.
    I thank them all and go through each garbage bag one item at a time.
    I keep what is useful and give away what isn’t (which happily is the vast majority of stuff).
    Depending on my relationship with the person I’ll write a simple thank you note, highlighting the things I particularly liked.

    Again, I have no qualms with giving things away I’ll never wear or won’t use. My house is small, as are my needs. Though “free” is my favorite flavor of everything and I turn nothing down in the off chance I might actually want to keep it, I also refuse to let someone guilt me into *keeping* anything. If it’s that important to them, *they* can keep it.

  11. Photos. Ask your mum if she could take photos of the really important bits so she could create an album to look through with the baby/child. Or tell her that the stuff should stay with her for when you and child come round to keep the items special and grandma related. Tell her it stops kids getting bored if they have variety or something

  12. Dude, I’m in the same boat. So difficult. After years of trying various ways to get my mom to stop giving me junk I can’t use, and not succeeding, I totally released feeling guilty about getting rid of stuff and started throwing it out or donating it as fast as it came in. And that worked pretty well before my daughter was born, though it was still frustrating.

    The bigger challenge now is that she continues to bring things for my daughter every time she sees her, and now my daughter is old enough that I couldn’t just get rid of things without her noticing (plus they’re her things, not mine). I’ve asked mom repeatedly not to, but there’s always a reason that is particular time is “special” or “different” that makes it ok. I did point out recently that my daughter was asking “what will grandma bring me?” which is not at all in line with the values we’re trying to instill in her. I don’t really expect that to work though; to her stuff=love and MORE STUFF=MORE LOVE.

    So to sum up, I feel your pain, and I don’t really have an answer, but I think you’re smart to seek one now because it does not get any easier. On the bright side, once your kiddo gets mobile things might “accidentally” get broken, and who could be angry with that little face? 😉

    • The compromise my mom and I came up with for the gift with every visit thing is that she brings some small dollar store gift that he is really excited about at first but will usually break and can be thrown away in about a month. I hate the waste, but it’s better than accumulating so many more toys. Honestly, we are all more excited about her bringing her ginger cookies every visit!

  13. my dad is the neatest, cleanest packrat on the planet, I will be the one dealing with everything in his “estate” (like 20 year old muscle car magazines).
    My mother is younger and healthier than my step-father, she also holds onto things that *I* don’t understand the hold. I am her only child and unless she predeceases my step-father I’m the one dealing with all of it.
    My grandmother is the same way.
    I think they all hold on to things because that is what they can control, things.
    I’ve lived my life a little differently; I have a very few things I treasure, most stuff gets gone over once every three months to see what can go to the YWCA. I think watching clean and organized hoarding of things intended for me turned me off of things. (For instance, even if fur was still a popular material; I’m never wearing a floor length red fox coat. )

  14. I had this problem for quite a while,and it was compounded by my husband who needed to keep the items in order to appease his mother (who was a hoarder). Honestly, it was very stressful,as the items were broken, useless, or ridiculous. I have said time and again to friends and family that “I don’t like shit in my house” (not in reference to any particular gift or item…but as a reference to the fact that I hate little collectible things and items that have no logical use) so when those type of gifts come in, is not a surprise when they go right out.
    The Trouble with not throwing away anything that’s important to someone who is a hoarder, is that for some, EVERYTHING has a story. We’ve received used soap, old dollar store plain glasses, pictures of people no longer remembered with mold all over them.
    She began to give these “gifts” to my step daughter who would scream and cry if they were taken away (she didn’t understand why she couldn’t have the moldy stuffed animals) and my husband would “sneak” them in.

    Eventually, after my step daughter came home with mud on her socks, from playing inside the house, my husband accepted his family home was not safe for our kids. And after 2 moves of boxing up and carrying around this hoarded junk he’s realized is not practical to accept it. Gifts from grandma stay at grandma’s house and become “grandma’s house toys”

    Be as honest as you can “I just don’t know if I can find a place for this, I may end up having to donate it, if you’d like, you can keep it for us! ”
    Stay firm and compassionate, even through the tears or fits, and make sure you’re partner is on the same team as you are.

  15. I think it depends on if there really is a deep sentimental attachment or not. Through the years, I have realized my in-laws are incapable of getting rid of junk. Literally stuff that is broken, that they pick up in flea markets or garage sales and then dump on us.

    The excuse before was “oh, it belonged to Boyfriend!” Not true, as he often confirmed. He has not lived with them in twenty years. Now it’s “oh, it’s for Kid.” If it was not bought specifically in her intention, is broken, unusable or cut out of a magazine, we accept it and trash it. I would love to be able to donate the things, but most of them would not be accepted by charity. (I was once given a whole bag of toy packages. Not the actual toys. Just the empty blown-plastic packages, wtf? )

    I used to feel guilty about it, then I realized that in twenty years they have never asked if Kid enjoyed playing with X thing or if she still had Y thing. Never. They really don’t care or don’t remember about the junk once they have found a way to dump it on us.

  16. We have the exact same problem with my in-laws. Honestly, it’s so bad, and they completely ignore any requests of “Don’t bring anything over,” that eventually, I just got real blunt. Not mean, just blunt. If they started bringing the bags and bags of stuff in from their car while visiting, I wouldn’t even feign interest – I would simply tell them, “Everything that is in this bag will either go to Goodwill or in the garbage, if you leave it here.” Eventually, (after 10 years!) they are fiiinaaalllly starting to get the clue. I just had to be super super firm. And they would bring the weirdest shit too – I still remember one of the first things my MIL brought – 2 papertowel rolls, half used lipstick, a fly swatter…..all bundled up in the plastic bag that the paper towels originally came in, but obviously the other 4 stayed at her house… No thanks! 🙂

    • She sounds like my mom in law, my in laws live in the UK and we live in NZ, after their first visit where she brought nearly a large suitcase full of junk (I really wish I was joking, see comment above about clown toy :/ *sigh*) my father in law has made her get a smaller suitcase, yet she still manages to bring junk lol so yep it’s frustrating as she completely ignores me and her son telling her repeatedly to not bring anything over no matter if we are blunt or not.

  17. As r person with the original question, thanks to everyone who has commented and made suggestions! Unfortunately my parents are in a different state so I can’t really stop by and go through things with her. They were also moving recently which made her go through things and maybe exacerbated the issue. Mostly it has been cathartic to hear everyone else’s stories and I feel better 🙂 She will of course be coming for grandma duty soon and I’ll be able to talk to her face to face about some of the stuff…

  18. My mom does this to me all the time, and well, I just toss it! I have told her calmly and non-confrontationally that I don’t want these things and that I won’t be storing anything I don’t want. She expressed understanding of that, she is an adult, the end. I feel if someone sends you something with no intention of ever taking it back you can do whatever you want with it. She never asks about specific items, she barely even remembers the junk she sends. I think in many ways she is asking me to make that final move to getting rid of these objects as she can’t emotionally bring herself to part with them. If she complains about stuff I threw away or donated, I remind her to stop sending me things then (and of course a month later another box arrives!) It keeps much more peace for me to just open the box, take out what I want, and dump the rest than to keep arguing about it.

  19. My MIL constantly buys used junk from garage sales and gives it to us. She’s also the kind of person who has strings attached to everything and gets mad when she notices that we have gotten rid of things that she has given to us. She literally just stopped by this evening unannounced to give me a used Clinique facial scrubber brush. The thing was dirty and had a little yellow crust on it. Probably the last thing I want touching my face. For my daughter’s birthday she gave her a used rodent cage meant for a small mouse or dwarf hamster. It’s way too small for the hamster we have which already has a perfectly fine cage. That used cage was her birthday gift and now we are stuck with it. So on our floor is an empty rodent cage. I can guarantee she will ask about it next time she comes over after I have sent it to the donation center.

    I hate to sound ungrateful but I’m just so sick of the constant gift giving. We don’t need the gifts, she can come over and play with the grandkids any time she wants (with obvious limits of course) but she can come over without having to bring over items to give to me or the kids. She is retired and lives by herself, I know she’s lonely and bored so shopping around at garage sales is her little hobby. I just don’t want stuff she finds. I don’t shop garage sales and if I did I am a picky person with what type of home this stuff came from. Having it show up in our living room unannounced is not what I want at all. I wish there was a way for her to stop. She is the type of person who gets offended easily and takes any sort of criticism personally. I’m just tired of it.

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