What to do when your parents give you junk from your past.
Have your parents ever sent you a box full of old report cards? Or handed you a stained bib that you supposedly drooled on every day between the ages of 3 and 6 months? Do tears typically ensue, or wistful looks out of the window, or emotion-laden texts that you simply “must” treasure what they have lovingly preserved for so many decades? (If your parents converted your old bedroom into a home office the day you left for college, consider yourself lucky!)
In many cases, you have absolutely no memory of these objects, other than looking at them in family photos. Maybe you’re not sure what you could ever do with them -- you don’t have the space, or your children are all grown (and really, will you force that bib upon your non-existent grandchildren?) But how can you tell them this without hurting their feelings?
Take a step back and try to remember that these objects of sentimentality hold deep personal meaning for your parents. They represent a period of time in their lives that was very all consuming, and probably changed the course of their lives. Moreover, the time in which they raised you could arguably be the greatest period of physical, mental, and emotional growth in your life (the outcome of which - if they did their parenting right - is your complete total independence from said parents). So let’s remember this and tread carefully:
Let your parents cry!
The attachment your parents have to your old artwork, your tarnished trophies, and yellowed baby clothing, is real and deep. Let them share their stories of your childhood, encourage them to write their thoughts down (in memoirs, legacy letters, family photo books, etc.), and try to enjoy a good trip down memory lane. Giving voice to these memories, to the family values your parents believe they represent, is really the least you can do. Ask them a few “good listening” questions (“Tell me more about what I was like in that moment, Mom!” and “How did you feel [in this moment/memory]”) and let yourself enjoy their reminiscing (and their enjoyment in said reminiscing). I mean, even if these memories are really all about your parents and their own vision of their parenting triumphs, who doesn’t like an old story about themselves?
Ask yourself, can I use this thing? Does it hold meaning for me?
Now that you’ve let your parents air their memories and tears, what happens to these objects of the past? Most have about zero value. Or even if they could arguably be used again, you worry about what people would say when you take your baby out in a stained romper or a stroller that is now, most certainly, a death trap. But really think for a moment. Maybe that baby spoon is something you could use? Or maybe just set aside the anger you have over this (maybe constant) parental guilt tripping. Do you have good memories associated with this thing? Something you want to share and pass on to your own children? You will make your parents day by accepting these objects, or repurposing them in one format or another. Try to make it a ceremony of sorts - send your parents pictures of your child using the spoon, or your husband hanging a picture of your 3rd grade self-portrait in your daughter’s room next to her own self-portrait (IKEA frames are OK!). It’s all about the process.
Don’t forget about value.
Sometimes objects (take that baby spoon made of sterling silver!) actually do have tangible value. Ask your parents if they’ve had them appraised or consider offering to do that for them. (Don’t forget that there may be state and federal gift tax consequences if your parents give you something above a certain monetary value.) If you’ve determined that it doesn’t have any tangible value, ask yourself if someone else may cherish or use it. It might be another family member, or it could be an avid collector who has been looking for that complete set of Beatrix Potter books. But don’t just hand over the objects. Make sure your parents are on board and explain how happy it makes you, and hopefully, by extension them, that you found a rightful home for their beloved treasure.
Consider the circumstances...and tell the truth (or lie).
You know your parents best and need to proceed based on the personalities and circumstances involved. If the object is something that your parents truly treasure, has real worth, or has been described to you as central to the family legacy, you need to be upfront with your parents. Just tell them you don’t want it or can’t hold on to it right now. It’s a hard conversation, but probably easier for your parents to hear than if they find out later you have decided to toss it. And it might help set the stage for harder conversations in the future about their aging and death.
But if one of the main motivators is that your parents are trying to get through their stuff, and the stuff they are giving you is truly your own childhood trash, you should encourage them! Forgive them for going against Maria Kondo’s sage advice (never never dump stuff on your family!). Smile, accept the bundled box of your childhood junk, and tell yourself “they are giving this to me out of love.” Find a little resting space for it in the back of your closet, and once a little time has passed, chuck it (or even better, use an opportune time like a move and it can be conveniently lost). If you have time, let yourself revisit some memories before the final toss; take some pictures, let your kids use the stuff as props in their rendition of Frozen II, tell some stories. It’s your childhood after all.