At some point in your parenting career, you will have to come to terms with STUFF. Toys, games, movies–all the things that are advertised directly to your child and your child sees in the stores and at their friend’s house.

Some children are practically obsessed with toys. One little boy used to come to circle time each morning and tell us what he and his mom bought last night at the Lego store. As teachers we know better than to believe what every child says so we didn’t really think they went each day to the store and picked out a new toy. But we did think it probably happened often.

During parent conferences I was very surprised at what his mom told me. He had one small shelf in his room for toys. When they bought a new toy they would give an old toy away. Recently he had to grapple with what to give away–his trains or his Lego pirate set in order to make room for some new action figures that he really wanted to buy.

This sounds great on paper. Recycling toys, not getting too attached to material objects. Having just enough toys that they are always of interest. So why was this child so focused on toys and catalogues? When he went to a friend’s house he talked immediately about which toys he could borrow and was far more interested in the “stuff” than he was in his friend. He was very conflicted about what he would give away next and it made the “getting” full of anxiety. While both parents talked proudly about how little he had in relation to all of his friends, it was creating in him a feeling of scarcity. He was the most “toy focused” child I have every worked with and yet he didn’t watch TV and his parents felt like they were raising a child outside the consumer culture.

not my kids, but you get the idea

My own children were probably the opposite. They had lots of toys. We bought them frequently at goodwill so we didn’t spend that much but their rooms were always bursting at the seams with stuff. This is not great either. It was challenging to pick up so much. While I knew and preached the trick of putting toys away in a closet and circulating them, it didn’t last long and soon everything they owned would be on the floor again. On the positive side, they always felt they had “enough”. On the negative side, they were robbed of the ability to really enjoy each item specifically

When we moved recently I found something that showed me how wrong it had really gone! Going through Lily’s room with her was fun. She was very willing to give up items that she didn’t need and her “goodwill” piles were much larger than her “storage” or “keep” piles. We found a bag in the back of her closet that made me sad! It was full of presents that had been opened at her 12 th birthday party. The cards were attached.

The idea was that she would write her thank you notes and then be able to use the items she got. Well, not only did she not write any thank you notes that year, she clearly didn’t even remember the gifts or have any desire to use them. And she got some great stuff (including a check from her grandparents which could no longer be cashed after 8 years!).

So, do I have all the answers? No. But I wished I had learned from my kids the lessons they had tried to teach me. When Blake was four he got a huge Lego castle for Christmas and we spent the whole day following directions and putting it together just right. Yet when people asked what he got for Christmas, he showed them a plastic penny whistle that was a last minute purchase for his stocking. The same year, Lily was most impressed by the flavored lip gloss that a favorite aunt had tied into the ribbon on her real gift which was…..I forget. And how did I feel, after following all the intricate directions for the castle, when he took it all apart and just played with the blocks? Well, I am a preschool teacher, so I understood. But it was still hard! Every instinct I had made me want to scream “Don’t touch that!” How ridiculous.

Recently there was a little boy who came in talking about needing to go to the store and buy a “some word that we could not quite understand”. It was a recurring theme for him. When we mentioned it to his mom mostly just to understand what he was saying, she told us “I don’t know where he gets this. Like I have ever just taken him to the toy store to buy something. If his birthday or Christmas isn’t coming up, we just don’t do it.”

So why not?

There has to be a happy middle ground between buying something every time you go to the store with your child and never buying toys except for holidays. We have all seen those kids throwing temper tantrums in the middle of stores and parents placating them with “Ok. Lets just get it.” No one wants that.

On the other hand, sometimes we buy ourselves things. Things that we don’t need. But things we want and like. It is nice to be treated sometimes. Are there still men out there who bring their wives flowers? Or better yet, chocolate? If this happened daily or weekly or even after every trip away, we would get to expect it and it would seem to diminish a little in specialness. We may even feel cheated if he didn’t do it as usual. But once in a while. Out of the blue….really nice.

Some children feel like they need new toys because they are used to always getting new things.  Some children become focused because they feel like they don’t have enough.  Of course we know our children have enough.  We can compare them to poor kids or “starving children in the missions” that I always heard about as a child.  But we want them to feel like they have enough.  It is a balance and there is not one right answer.

There are some good ideas for managing toys.  Try putting half of them away in a closet or attic.  If you remember to bring them out occasionally, it will feel like new things and your child will be interested all over again.  Have a toy trade with other moms.  It may be hard for your child to give up toys even if you know he or she never plays with them.  So do it at a moms only event.  Then give away the leftovers to charity.

For children who are very toy-focused, try starting them on an allowance. Let them have their own money. That way you are not the big mean parent saying no. They either have enough or they don’t. Money–that will be another topic!


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