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Do Your Kids Want Your Stuff? PBS Host Matt Paxton Says “Yes — Just Not the Stuff You Think They Want!”

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“Your kids don’t want your stuff.” How many times have we heard those words – especially when the topic turns to downsizing? Mom and Dad are convinced that their adult kids will want Grandma’s dining room table, or the upright piano that has been in the family forever, or the china cabinet with the cracked glass that used to belong to Aunt Bernice. But in today’s world of smaller homes, compact apartments, and greater mobility, many parents are distressed to learn that today’s family heirloom is going to be gathering dust tomorrow at the local thrift store.

But hold on – maybe that judgment about your kids and your stuff is a little hasty. At least, that’s how we felt when we read this NextAvenue column written by PBS Host, author, and organizing expert Matt Paxton. Paxton has become quite the celebrity with his insights on leaving a legacy and downsizing with care. In this column, drawn from his new book, Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff, Paxton argues that, in fact, your kids do want your stuff – just not the stuff you thought they would want.

Brutal Honesty About Family Possessions

As he writes in the NextAvenue piece, a phrase that Paxton admits to using often is “brutal honesty”. He writes, “Being brutally honest is a skill that I’ve used most of my life, sometimes to my detriment. But brutal honesty has been truly important when helping people discuss their family’s possessions. That’s because you need to decide who would want — and not want — your stuff.” And while it’s common in Paxton’s line of work to hear plenty of people say, “My kids don’t really care about anything I have,” he says it’s not strictly true.  

“I’m sure it may seem true,” he writes, “after all, we don’t as a rule invite family members to pick around the house and identify some items they hope to inherit! But I can say this firmly: Along with your stories, your family members are going to want some of your possessions. They just might not be the ones you’d expect.”

The Conversations You Don’t Like Having

“The best way to confirm who wants what is to ask,” Paxton states. “That might sound blindingly obvious, but it can sometimes be difficult to pose such direct questions. We don’t want to address our own mortality, and our loved ones don’t want to appear greedy.” However, he advises you to brace yourself if you decide to ask your loved ones about your prized possessions, because the answers might shock you. 

“Finding out that others don’t necessarily want your cherished belongings can be a painful experience,” Paxton writes. “That prized tintype photo of your grandfather? Your son might just prefer to have it digitized. Your wedding dress? Your daughter might think that it’s better suited to a thrift store than her closet.” Moreover, people can change their minds, even if they told you previously that they wanted something specific of yours. Tastes change, and so can the amount of storage space someone has to fill with heirlooms. 

“Similarly,” Paxton explains, “if your kids say they don’t want something now, don’t assume that once you’re gone they’ll have come to their senses and value it. I’ve had families tell me in reference to a daughter who rejected some item, ‘Well, she doesn’t want it now, but she just doesn’t know what she wants. She’ll want it in a few years.’”

Paxton makes his opinion unambiguous: “Our adult kids are probably pretty clear on this — if they say no twice, it means no. You can sell it or give it to someone else who will appreciate it.”

What They Want Might Surprise You

As difficult as it is for parents to grasp, the first thing to recognize is that this rejection of your prized possessions isn’t a personal attack. “A partner or child isn’t saying she doesn’t love you when she rejects your suggested gifts,” Paxton writes. Besides, “it’s better to find out now rather than waiting until the moving truck shows up.”

In his NextAvenue column, Paxton reminds readers that, if someone says no, that’s a good opportunity for you to follow up with asking what they do want. “Your granddaughter may want your vintage 1960 Pucci dresses from the basement instead of your fancy china and crystal,” Paxton explains. “Or perhaps your friend has always had his eyes on an old painting. Or she might want something you hadn’t thought of altogether.”

In the end, it’s vital to keep this perspective in mind: “Whatever the answer is, remember that it’s not about what you want to give someone; it’s about what he wants to keep your legacy alive,” Paxton writes. “Often, the value to someone else of an object you own is emotional, not financial. Remember, the item is the vehicle to the story — the item isn’t the story. Make sure your actions echo this insight.”

Paxton advises that if you choose to gift something to someone, tell them why you want them to have it. That’s the important aspect! “The why is what’s important and may change someone’s decision on wanting the item or not,” he states.

By the same token, Paxton has a word for the younger generation as well: “If you’re among a younger generation and reading this, I suggest that if you want something, say so. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Tell your loved ones why their legacy matters to you, and what possession tells that story. I promise that if you do this, it will end up being one of the most important conversations of your life.”

The Magic of Upcycling

What is upcycling? Paxton refers to a website called Upcycle That for their definition: “The act of taking something no longer in use and giving it a second life and new function. In doing so, the finished product often becomes more practical, valuable, and beautiful than what it previously was.”

“I’ve seen dozens of everyday, sometimes run-down, items transformed into legacy items through the magic of upcycling,” Paxton writes. Here are a few of Paxton’s favorites:

Jewelry. “Before my wedding, I had pieces of jewelry from my mom, both of my grandmothers, my grandfather, my dad, and my great-uncle melted together to create my wedding band,” Paxton writes. “I love that a ring I wear that symbolizes the love for my wife is a mixture of gold from all the people who loved and raised me and never met my amazing bride.”

Buttons. “One of the most common items I find cleaning out homes is a metal Folgers coffee can filled with either pennies, nails, or buttons,” Paxton explains. “I routinely encourage my clients to have everyone in their family pick one big ugly loud button and sew it to the bottom of their favorite jacket. Each time they’re asked about the bizarre button, they get to tell the story of who it came from. Items are starting points to amazing stories.”

Old clothes, from T-shirts to suits. Paxton says, “They make wonderful quilts or stuffed animals that make excellent legacy gifts for younger generations.”

In the end, it’s all about memories, stories, and legacy. As long as you keep the focus on being remembered, you may be surprised what belongings of yours end up as treasures!

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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)

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