I wrote “My Kids Have Too Much Stuff” last month as a conversation-starter, and was it ever. The response was a resounding, collective AMEN. Clearly, I’m not the only one buried in junky toy clutter that the kids don’t even appreciate. You, readers, asked the same question with which I’ve been wrestling. What do we do about it? Here are a few solutions. Join me.
1. Stop buying it. Of course, right? We know this, and the issue in my previous article was mostly the little stuff that other people bestow on our kids. But in the hurry of filling Christmas stockings, or the excitement of vacation gift shops, sometimes it’s the parents who allow the plastic trinkets in. Say no. If you choose to do Christmas stockings (and we do), try some of these terrific no-junk stocking stuffer ideas. Personalized notepads, fancy pens, simple jewelry and book lights (for dim winter evenings in the car or in bed) have all been big hits in our house.
2. Lead by example. Why are plastic goody bags so prevalent at birthday parties? Because children are accustomed to getting them, and parent hosts feel obligated. It’s just the thing to do. But rare is the parent who truly likes giving them out or taking them home, and rare is the child who enjoys the bag for more than five minutes. Simply don’t give one out at all. I promise you won’t become an outcast, and you just might become an inspiration. Or, if you like, try a simpler take-home: a craft made at the party, a jump rope, Mad Libs, a book, bubbles, or a baked good in a ribbon-tied baggie.
3. Say “just one.” One of the issues I noted in my previous article is what I’ll call the Sticker Problem: “One gets stuck proudly on a shirt. A strip of eight winds up in a discarded heap on the floor of my car.” Your child may think you monstrously unfair if you always say no to every single freebie offered. (Unless you can master the whole miming-no-to-the-other-adult-over-child’s-head skill. My children, 9 years and counting, still don’t know our grocery store bakery will give them a free cookie every visit. Shhh.) But even if you don’t want to always say no, do set limits. Allow the child to choose one sticker, one prize, one bookmark, and say no thank you to the giver for more than that. It’s amazing how often a child is offered a handful when one is enough.
4. Be gracious. If you’re saying no or “just one,” remember that the dentist, the librarian, and the neighbor are all just trying to be kind, and temper your response accordingly. Teach your child by example that sometimes accepting an item with grace and gratitude, even one that is junk or not your taste, can be an act of kindness and politeness. I won’t say no to anything gifted to my children by our 89-year-old church friend, because it gives her great joy to shop for and bestow these little items. (It doesn’t mean the items have to stay in our house, but we’ll get to that.)
5. Talk to relatives. Sure, be gracious, but know that the grandparents don’t want to give your children things that you are going to try to get out of the house as soon as possible. You just have to be frank, and this conversation may wisely extend beyond “disposable toys” to the question of regular gift-giving occasions. Talk about the values you are trying to foster with fewer toys. Talk about your space limitations. Talk about the gift of experiences and other non-toy gifts, like these. Keep in mind –and share during these conversations — what you most remember about your own grandparents. Was it toys they gave you, or was it something like playing board games or cooking with them?
6. Get creative. Traditions needn’t stay if they don’t make sense anymore. Between me and my four siblings, we have 17 children. At Christmas, that could mean massive amounts of shopping, expense, and an overwhelming opening of presents, when all the kids want to do is open a couple gifts, then run off and play with their cousins. So now, we draw niece and nephew names, according to how many children we have. (I have three, so I buy for three.) We no longer do adult sibling gifts. And at home, we have jettisoned making wish lists in December, since that usually means paging through a Toys R Us ad and wanting everything. Instead, year-round, when the kids pine for a toy, we say “let’s put it on your wish list.” And we do. Don’t be afraid to rethink.
7. You drop it, you lose it. Bouncy balls, whistles, plastic animals, you name it – if it was on my floor, I always nagged the kids to pick it up. I wanted them to appreciate their stuff, and I wanted them to be responsible, tidy people without expecting Mom the Maid to clean up after them. All noble ideas, but there’s a new rule: if it’s a junk toy, and it gets abandoned, I confiscate it. I finally realized I had been allocating the same amount of nagging energy to two-cent baubles on the floor as I was to a winter coat or backpack on the floor. It isn’t worth it. I still don’t want to throw all these things straight into trash, mainlining them to landfills, but I’m removing them from circulation once they become tripping hazards. So what, then, do I do with it all?
8. Start a junk toy bag. These disposable toys are worthless floating here and there around our homes, but in sum they might actually have some value. Every time you pick one up, drop it in a central location – naturally, one out of little people’s sight. Readers of my original “stuff” article had worthy suggestions to consider: Give the items to a teacher who uses them as little prizes. Give all those stickers to a preschool class for the writing center. Donate trinket toys to Operation Christmas Child, which assembles shoe boxes of small toys and other items to international children in need. (I know what you’re thinking, because I did too: Don’t these children deserve better than junky toys if our First World kids do? Well, yes, but at least they, with much less stuff filling their homes, are likely to have more appreciation for these little trinkets. Of course, donated toys should not have been used; select the ones that never made it out of a goodie bag.) Save a collection as a vacation toy bag to pop out on a tedious road trip or plane ride. None of these ideas prevent these toys from being manufactured, but they do at least make their manufacture a little more worthwhile by extending their useful life. And, mercifully, they’re off the floor.
9. Consider exceptions. Sometimes the junk toys are items that your child has bought with his or her own carefully saved money. After all, junk toys are inexpensive, so they are natural purchases for a child just learning to save and spend money. Consider treating these like your child’s “real” toys, and letting him or her keep those, as long as they take care of them. Without as many plastic freebies around the house to dilute the value of these bona fide earned items, the hope is that they will be more treasured.
10. Talk about quality. Eventually one of these kazoos or wind-up toys will break, usually sooner rather than later. These toys are not made for longevity, and that’s worth discussing with your child. Would they rather have a bunch of cheap toys that break right away, or wait for a well-built toy that will last? Why do companies even make such worthless toys? Where was this toy made, and how did it travel all the way here? (And was the shipping time for the toy perhaps longer than the time the child owned it before it broke?) What happens to all those toys after they break and get thrown in the trash? When you begin to ask the questions, so will the children.
It may be an uphill battle, fellow parents, but let’s do it. We’ve got nothing to lose but the junk.
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