Too Many Toys

Our Easter Miracle: Minimalism (sort of)

The biggest battle in our family right now is mess. As our children get older, we don’t understand why YEARS of prompts to “pick up your toys” and “clean up” haven’t stuck. We have tried bins and shelves and “centers” (art area, train area), putting toys in trash bags, boxing up toys to give away, yet we spin around in the same hamster wheel of mess and frustration about the mess. Why are they constantly bringing toys to all areas of the house? And why can’t they PICK THEM UP?

This stress has actually shaped my shopping choices. When I am selecting a gift for my child or other children, I now see a hundred tiny pieces spread out across the house instead of an adorable kitchen play set with cute pretend food items. I see games that will immediately become impossible to play because the game parts will disappear after the first time opening the box.

It is clear that our never-ending battle over the mess and cleaning up is because we have too many toys. In this America, the land of excess, it has insidiously crept up on us with each birthday, holiday, random shopping trip, and vacation. Now we have an attic full of toys, a playroom full of toys, a bedroom full of toys, and a basement full of toys. A life full of toys, and full of mess.

The popularity of the recent minimalism movement, now replete with podcasts, blogs, movies, and Facebook challenges, speaks to an obvious pendulum response to the sheer quantity of stuff in all of our lives. This quantity multiplies even more rapidly with each new child, and each year of parenting. I know that the cleaner my home is, the calmer I feel, but what does this mean for my children?

I will never forget how excited we were to give our toddler and preschooler their very own toy kitchen as their big Christmas present. Their excitement filled our hearts . . .  for about an hour. It then sat in our basement mostly untouched until we finally sold it at a garage sale.

Studies on limiting toy choices in children – from very few to even none – have found that after a period of boredom, they turn to their imaginations and play with whatever is available. They also tend to play more when there are fewer toy choices, compared to simply exploring all their options when the choices are abundant. (This reminds me of how it takes my husband and me half an hour to choose a movie from all of our streaming options, our eyes glazing over as we scan hundreds of images and movie titles.)

It may sound simple to sum this up as “less is more,” but it also makes sense. The biggest question is HOW do we fight against the very nature of our culture? Goodie bags at birthday parties (I finally stopped, much to the dismay of young party guests). Winning useless toys at arcades and carnivals. Colorful, persuasive ads. Friends’ toys. Our own attachment to our adult stuff. I know many of my kids’ friends have birthday parties explicitly requesting “no gifts.” I respect and admire this, and somehow cannot commit to doing it.

Why don’t my husband and I simply get rid of our kids’ toys and stop buying them? We talk about it. We threaten it. When my kids utter one of my least favorite phrases, “I’m bored,” I respond with, “then we should just get rid of all the games and toys and activities you have in this house if you don’t want to play with any of them.” Instead of going to actually play with all these wonderful possibilities because of my clearly effective threat, they often end up resorting to playing with each other in some elaborate game making cardboard boxes from the basement into rocket ships. 

One article examining this issue cited an Oxford child psychologist, Dr. Richter, who points out that the more a child is asking, “What can I do with this toy?” rather than “What can this toy do?” the more they are developing creativity and imagination. The theme: the simpler, the better for the child.

We know the problem, but how do we actually change our behavior? Enlightenment is easy compared to behavior change. Since I do this for a living, I know that emotions are often underlying behaviors. What do we get from buying and giving our children toys?

Mess.jpg

I could not find any studies specific to this question, but we know enough about human behavior to make some guesses. First, our brain does release the pleasure chemical, dopamine, when we shop and buy novel items. It feels good. It’s fun. Second, the power of positive emotional associations we have stored in our memories can drive behavior. We have good memories of our favorite toys as children, and we want to share this joy with our children. Connecting with our own romanticized childhood memories feels refreshing in the world of being a serious adult (see recent resurrection of 80s toys).

Let’s also not forget the importance of a capitalist culture shaping habits: toy companies have perfected the art of gaining young customers for a lifetime of sales. We easily fall prey to the message that “stuff” brings happiness and joy. If your children are like mine, though, we know all too well how fleeting this joy can be. I will never forget how excited we were to give our toddler and preschooler their very own toy kitchen as their big Christmas present. Their excitement filled our hearts . . .  for about an hour. It then sat in our basement mostly untouched until we finally sold it at a garage sale.

This year, while my husband and I prepared the Easter baskets Saturday night, I realized we had quite a bit less to fill them than usual. I kept thinking I would get to the shopping later, another day, and then suddenly there was no time left. We stared at what we had: a Darth Vader doll, clip-on earrings, and hair chalk. One Easter bunny gift for each kid, surrounded by multi-colored paper grass and candy.

The most amazing and perhaps spiritual part of this Easter was how none of this seemed to matter. My kids had a great day. Our family had a great day. No glitz or whistles – basically just us – with homemade cinnamon rolls for brunch, daytime candy (usually not allowed), afternoon popcorn with a movie, and homemade chicken cacciatore for dinner (we like food). The three kids played really well together, with the bare minimum of whining and fighting, and it truly felt like a holiday.

This accidental exercise in minimalism (at least our version of only one Easter Bunny toy) was perhaps exactly what we needed to motivate making more changes. Our kids have been anticipating the Easter Bunny since December 26th, listing off their wishes at dinner. My husband and I tried to lower expectations and refocus the discussion to the joy of family togetherness on holidays. After all that hype and anticipation, though, they were surprisingly just fine with one new present. More than fine. And all we had to clean up were plastic easter egg halves and paper grass strewn throughout the house.