What to do with your childhood stuff : Life Kit Do you have boxes filled with photos, artwork and artifacts from when you were a kid? Here's how to decide what to keep and toss — and manage the emotions that come up along the way.

It's hard to give up your childhood things. Here's how to honor them — and let go

It's hard to give up your childhood things. Here's how to honor them — and let go

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When Kyle Mackie and her fiancé bought their first home, she decided to take some of her childhood memorabilia from her parents' house with her. But which items should she bring? Andrea D'Aquino for NPR hide caption

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Andrea D'Aquino for NPR

When Kyle Mackie and her fiancé bought their first home, she decided to take some of her childhood memorabilia from her parents' house with her. But which items should she bring?

Andrea D'Aquino for NPR

My fiancé and I were lucky enough to buy a house last year. I was excited to be a first-time homeowner — and so were my parents. I finally had a place to store my childhood stuff taking up space in their house.

So, last September, I flew back to upstate New York where I grew up to sort through a mountain of artifacts from my life. There were illustrated stories from elementary school, T-shirts I wore when I played high school soccer, a woven hammock from a music festival in college and other keepsakes.

I knew I couldn't take everything with me to Idaho, where I now live. But at 33, I knew it was time to pare down. So my mom and I set out to sort through the mementos and figure out what I wanted to keep.

The process started out easy, even cathartic. At first, we attempted an "everything-must-go" attitude, quickly tossing things out or setting them aside to donate. But as the bedrooms emptied out, I felt a creeping sense of sadness. My time in the family house was over. And I wondered: Was there a less heart-rending, more strategic way to do this?

Honor your emotions

In short, yes — but it will probably still be a bittersweet experience, says Lisa Woodruff, a professional organizer who is getting her PhD in general psychology. Getting rid of childhood memorabilia "is definitely a weight on you."

That's because it can symbolize a poignant transition in life: exiting the developmental period of emerging adulthood — that is, leaving home for the first time, finishing your education and starting your career — and entering full-fledged adulthood. That's "not an easy thing" to do, Woodruff says.

Going through your old stuff can also remind you of people you used to share a connection with — possibly triggering difficult emotions like regret, grief or heartbreak, says David Newman, an assistant research scientist at Baylor University who has studied nostalgia. I choked up, for example, when I found a handwritten note from my Poppa, who died more than 15 years ago. In the letter, he said he'd "always be looking out" for my sister and me.

Whatever emotions pop up, don't try to suppress them, Newman says. Accepting a feeling can help you process it faster, and even the tinge of sorrow that generally accompanies nostalgia can help you find meaning in your life experiences. Finding my grandpa's note helped me remember sweet details about him I hadn't thought of in a long time, like how he used to bring over cinnamon sugar doughnuts on Sunday mornings.

Figure out how much storage space you have

Mackie ended up sorting her childhood things by category — she hopes it will make it easier for her to find the items later in life. Andrea D'Aquino for NPR hide caption

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Andrea D'Aquino for NPR

Before you start sorting, determine how much storage space you're willing to devote to your childhood items, says Amelia Pleasant Kennedy, a professional organizer and life coach. That will help you figure out how much stuff you can keep.

I knew I had limited shelf space for my stuff in the new garage, so while I didn't set a hard limit, my mantra was to keep as little as possible. But listen to your heart. "If you're sentimental and you want to hold on to stuff, hold on to it," Woodruff says. You can always get rid of it later.

As far as organization goes, Pleasant Kennedy suggests aiming for one box or bin for each chapter of your life, such as one for elementary school, one for high school and another for college.

I ended up sorting my stuff by category — it felt easier for me that way. I saved three boxes of books I loved as a child, including the Harry Potter series; a bin of photo albums; a tub of mementos from studying abroad in Germany and India; and a small collection of items for my future kid: old baby blankets and two favorite teddy bears.

Share your memories

During this process, it can be useful to have someone you trust by your side, say the experts who I spoke to for this story. They can help you honor the memories associated with each object — and let go.

Pleasant Kennedy once filled that role for a client who was whittling down mementos from her childhood career as an equestrian. They talked about what each object meant to her — and through that exercise, the client "was able to untangle and release some of the obligation and pressure she felt to continue to hold on to these items she had treasured," says Pleasant Kennedy.

Mackie's Rotary Youth Exchange Student blazer. Her mom suggested she keep it because she knew how much the program meant to her. Andrea D'Aquino for NPR hide caption

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Andrea D'Aquino for NPR

A loved one can also help you decide what to save. My mom knows which life experiences meant the most to me, and that's why she suggested that I keep my Rotary Youth Exchange Student blazer from the year I spent in Germany after high school. It has pins and badges from around the world and it's a special reminder of the journey that set me on the path to becoming a journalist.

Plus, sharing memories can be fun. While I was purging, I texted my childhood friends pictures of us at birthday parties and a miserably rainy backpacking and canoeing trip we went on together — sources of some of our most enduring inside jokes.

Give your childhood stuff a new life

You don't have to stash away your keepsakes in the attic or garage, say Woodruff and Pleasant Kennedy. Get creative — and think outside the box.

Take photos. Digital mementos save space and you can revisit them any time on your phone or computer. I took tons of photos of journal entries, yearbooks and school artwork instead of keeping the physical things.

Taking photographs of meaningful items allows you to revisit memories without using up storage space. Andrea D'Aquino for NPR hide caption

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Andrea D'Aquino for NPR

Turn them into an art project. Sew old T-shirts into a quilt. Make a scrapbook out of saved holiday cards. Display special items in a shadow box, as Pleasant Kennedy did with the costume from her first ballet performance.

Use them. I can't wait to lounge in the old hammock or sport some of my personal vintage T-shirts at the gym.

Donate. If it's in good enough condition for someone else to enjoy, donate whatever you can. I passed on a bunch of elephant-themed artwork that I collected over the years. Even though I still love elephants, I don't feel defined by my childhood favorite animal anymore.

'Saved in love'

As you wade through boxes of old report cards and participation medals, remember that if you have the privilege to go through belongings from your past, it means someone cared enough to hold onto all of it for you, says Woodruff.

"This is a value of all of the time and effort and money your parents have poured into you," she says. "This has been saved in love."

My fiancé and I decided to display one of the childhood photo albums that I salvaged on a bookshelf in our new home. It contains images of birthdays, vacations and simple family moments from as far back as when I was a baby. Having it here with me, 2,000 miles from where I grew up, gives me the sense that I've transplanted my roots — and started to fill my own home with love.


The audio portion of this episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. The visual editor is Beck Harlan. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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