Tips for a Magical Christmas When Your Kids Have Too Many Toys
Are you worried about all the gifts when your house is full of too many toys?
Keep reading to find out how it will make this year your best Christmas ever!
The wave of nausea and panic hit me hard right after Christmas. I had felt twinges of it in late October, but now there was no mistaking the sensation.
The triplets had turned 3, and for their birthday they got a large set of wooden train tracks and Thomas the Tank Engine trains from us. They each got a toy from each set of grandparents and the few friends we invited. Are you doing the math with me? 15 toys with a gazillion pieces each, plus a huge train set. We went to Ikea to buy a storage system to contain it all. It was so. much. stuff.
Then for Christmas, even though we kept it fairly small-scale, giving them each 7-10 toys, when you multiply that by the three of them, plus their toddler brother, it looked like Toys r Us had thrown up all over our house. I was overwhelmed by the avalanche of toys. I felt smothered. I couldn't keep up with the clean up. Looking at these pictures I remember how overwhelming the flood of toys felt.
My husband and I talked about it and we both felt the weight of too much stuff. This was before The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, or this big minimalism push that is currently out there. This was driven by a deep dissatisfaction with excess and all the side effects. We went room by room purging things we didn't want/need/love/use, including a lot of the brand new toys they weren't playing with. At all. After a complete cycle through the house, we went back through each room again. We did this five times, with each round more ruthless/honest than the last. It felt so good to be lighter.
We purged all this stuff, but we still had a problem. Christmas and birthdays come every year. As a family of eight, that has the potential of filling our home and our lives with a lot of stuff we don't want/need/love/use. It was great to get rid of a lot of things, but if we didn't have a plan in place to prevent more of it from invading our home, this great feeling wouldn't last.
There are lots of areas of life and ways that objects can come into our home, but the first one we tackled was how to control the amount of toys in our house. We came up with a plan.
A change in perspective
Their fourth birthday landed on the eve of our cross-country move. Instead of a small pile of gifts times 3, we gave each of them one large, more significant gift. We chose a Leapster (which today would likely be a tablet), and a few educational cartridges to go with it so they could play in the car while we made our 5-day trip. My parents were there and gave them each a DVD to watch in the car as well.
The following Christmas they each got their first bike, a helmet, a book, and a new winter coat and snow boots. We moved from temperate Atlanta to the arctic tundra (ok, not really, but that's how it feels to this Southern Belle), and their old coats weren't nearly warm enough. We talked to the grandparents and explained our new plan and asked that they also limit the number of gifts to one per child. They were very accommodating and went along with our plan.
Was there a big stack of gifts flowing from under the tree that year? Well, as a family of 8, even with a few gifts per person, yes, the stack was still significant, but it paled in quantity in comparison to previous years. The budget was the same, but instead of buying a bunch of small gifts they would likely play with and forget/lose/break, we spent it on one big gift we knew they would love, play with, and use often. That Christmas was a hit for the kids and for us! We were sold on the concept
What's the big deal?
Who cares if they have so many toys? Why are you trying to ruin Christmas? What about the magic of Christmas morning and piles of gifts spilling from under the tree? What if our kids feel deprived or disappointed? Who died and made you the Grinch?
This might be a huge mental shift for you. It was for us, and to be honest, we have to check ourselves every gift-giving event. In the U.S. we attribute quantity of belongings with wealth and status, and that is very much a product of the media. Marketing and advertising is a billion-dollar industry. They know how to sell to us and make us think we need it, deserve it, and have to have it or we will be rejected by our peers. And so will our kids. More is more in our country, but does more really make us feel better? The more stuff you have, the more you have to clean, care for, house, organized, mend, and replace batteries for (worthy of its own mention when a screwdriver is involved and it takes an annual salary to keep up with that many batteries). Do your kids enjoy cleaning? Do they enjoy fighting with them to get them to do it? Do you? Do you enjoy stepping over, around, along, among, aside, between, beside, and on toys? Do they?
Constant excess teaches kids quantity over quality. They learn that more is more. More stuff, whether it's poor quality, useless, and cheaply made, is better because the perception that we own a lot of things gives us status. What I'm trying to teach my kids is that it is better to have one thing they really, truly love than to have 10 they don't care much about. It is a concept that spreads across all your choices. I would rather have 1 square of really high quality salted dark chocolate than a 1-pound bag of M&Ms. In fact, because my palate has changed over time, I never want M&Ms. They don't appeal to me at all. I would rather have fewer, nicer quality clothes I truly love and feel and look amazing in, shoes that are gorgeous and will last for years, than a closet stuffed with clearance rack not-quite-rights. I would rather wait and save for that thing that makes my heart sing than have a bunch of ok substitutes. I take the same budget (money, calories, time, etc.) and spend it on fewer, but better, more satisfying things, and I want the same for my kids.
Selective gift giving teaches kids to value what they have. Who cares if your child ruins 9 dolls is she has 5 more? And she's likely getting more. She doesn't. She has no value for what she owns. She doesn't know the joy of treasuring something, or the responsibility of caring for it. I have never forgotten the scene from the movie The Pursuit of Happyness when his son drops his only toy, a Captain America doll, as they are running for the bus so they can make it to the shelter in time to get a bed. He runs back into the street for it, they miss the bus and end up sleeping in a subway station bathroom because he treasured that one special toy.
Too many toys teaches kids consumerism from the earliest age. We live in a society of excess. We want more and we want it fast and cheap. Constant stimulation is what the media tells us we deserve, even need. We can't be bored, we can't have the outdated version, we have to spend, spend, spend to keep up. This mentality leads to overspending in the future for them, and possibly for us in the present, all in an effort to keep up. Kids and adults get overwhelmed by too many choices. If it's too much, they will often abandon the toys and go find trouble, (like a sharpie and an obliging wall). How can they play a game if the pieces are all mixed up with the pile of other pieces of toys they don't play with. Have you ever stared at your children in pure astonishment when they come tell you they are bored, yet their bedroom is stacked floor to ceiling with toys and games? Too many toys = spoiled, entitled, selfish children.
I want my kids to experience true satisfaction and enjoyment from a few special, carefully-chosen things that they will love and play with for a long time instead of the very temporary high of a large stack of toys that will be forgotten the next day. I believe in leaving them wanting more. There is something to be said for having something to look forward to, to long for, to desire. If you always have everything you want, what is there to dream about? Think of all the celebrities who have blown massive fortunes fulfilling every desire they have, trying to fill a hole with more stuff, and it's never enough. Do you remember the thrill of finally receiving that thing you wanted so badly after wanting and wishing and hoping. Maybe there was a little scheming, hint-dropping and bargaining involved? And writing letters to Santa. And praying. Just in case. And then you finally got it?? The thrill of finally getting it! That one thing you wanted more than anything else!
I very clearly remember getting a Cabbage Patch doll. It was THE THING I wanted, and it's the only gift I remember that year. I was six. I remember when the gifts were all opened and my dad looked surprised as he noticed a large package hiding in the corner, and I knew, I KNEW it was the exact shape of the box Cabbage Patch dolls came in, and I was so excited I was jumping up and down. I played with Kenton Sean all the time. He was a preemie, and he was bald. He had a little blue checked short-sleeved button up shirt, blue shortalls and white lace-up shoes. He was so special to me. Do you remember anything you got for Christmas when you were six? When you always get what you went when you want it, then there is no thrill. No appreciation, and no treasuring what you have.
Our gift-giving formula
It's natural to want to give our kids everything, to make them happy, to show them love, to give them what we didn't get. We love to see the thrill of excitement on their faces. I get so caught up in Christmas and birthday gift lists every year, and this reminds me that my kids will still have the thrill of excitement, but on a different scale. Instead of the thrill of excess, they will get the thrill of that thing they wanted so badly and never thought they'd get. It helps to have a guide to keep things in check. We tried out a few methods for deciding how to choose gifts. Some were ideas we discovered, and others were methods we came up with ourselves. Ultimately we came back to the one we tried first.
Maybe you've heard this rhyme before. Here is how we applied it: something you want (a bike), something you need (a helmet) something to wear (coat and boots), and something to read (the book). We make sure all the gifts are tied to fun, though. Obviously the bike is fun, but the helmet is to keep them safe and protected so they can enjoy the bike outside of the garage. The coat and boots are for playing in the snow and enjoying winter fun. The book is instilling a love of reading, imagination, and for story time with mom and dad.
Do these kids look disappointed? They were over the moon to get their first big kid bikes. If you think this doesn't sound fun at all, remember, it's all in the delivery. "We got you these awesome helmets with a dinosaur on it so you can ride your bikes outside of the garage!" "These special coats and boots are so we can go play in the snow and have fun sledding!" "I can't wait to read these books to you at bedtime!"
We don't give toothbrushes or underwear. We try to tie the wear and need categories into the main gift, or adventures and fun things we do so it's still a fun gift to receive, and it's also a hint at more fun to come. We do a few family gifts as well, and they are all related to fun things we do together. As I was writing this post, I quizzed my kids about these non-toy gifts, and they filled in the chart I made you. I asked if they liked these gifts, and I got very emphatic yesses all around, as well as some requests for repeats. A lot of it has to do with how we use these gifts and how we presented these gifts.
What about the grandparents?
With the grandparents, we have asked if we can pool the money they give to each kid into one big gift that they would all enjoy, reserving some to buy them something the grandparentsw can wrap and watch them open. So if they get $50 each, $15 goes to a toy they can open, and the rest goes to the big group gift. Another option is sticking to one large present per child instead of a lot of smaller things. In general, as a mom of triplets, I'm opposed to group gifts. My children are individuals and should be treated that way. But with this it's different sometimes because by pooling that much money, they can get something really awesome that they would all be able to use simultaneously and enjoy for years to come, but would never receive as a gift individually.
The key to this strategy is coming up with the plan ahead of time. There have been occasional grumblings about wanting to buy (more) Legos or Pokemon with their money from the grandparents, but when we tell them the thing we had in mind, they get really excited about it, and everyone is on board.
We have used the pooled money on a really nice basketball standard, a climbing dome, a 7-seater airplane teeter totter, and 5 swings plus a slide professionally installed in our giant tree. One year we were going to put in a huge gravel pit to play in since they loved to play in the one where our patio was poured. I couldn't get anyone to come do such a small job, so when the next Christmas (last year) came around, they had double the money. We took them to choose new big kid bikes with it, and we supplemented the rest as part of their Christmas present from us. They and their friends still love to play on all that playground equipment. They get so much joy and fun from them, and they have never complained about it.
Not everyone will go along with your plan. It's inevitable. Remember that it is their gift (or gifts) to give, and to be gracious and grateful that they love your children and want to be part of their lives. You can always donate the excess to a women's shelter or charity of your choice.
One more gift
Every year I buy or make my kids an ornament related to something special that year. They've gotten piano ornaments, dance ornaments, nutcracker ornaments (when my girls performed in the Nutcracker ballet), soccer, swim, jetski, snow ski, kindergarten, etc. It can be a challenge to come up with a new one every year. If there isn't a big milestone, I will choose an ornament from a trip. This year the whole family went to Costa Rica, and the triplets went to Harry Potter World for their birthday trip, so I will likely do ornaments related to one of those trips. I give this to them the day after Thanksgiving when we put the tree up, so they can enjoy their new ornament the entire month.
Some gifts come as groupings. For example, if my child wants a special doll as the Want gift, in the box would be the doll and probably a couple of outfits. It's easy to go overboard here. I said 1 or 2 outfits, not an entire wardrobe plus matching shoes, outerwear, accessories and armoire as the Want gift. You could split those items up into the Need and Wear gifts. We give our kids whatever ski gear they need for the season, and it's different for each kid each year, depending on what they've outgrown (or lost. Gloves never make it to the next year). They each get one box though, and it contains what they need, but because everyone gets one box, it feels even. Ski gear doesn't sound like a fun gift? Well, skiing (or sledding or snowball fights, or snowman building) is a fun activity they get to do in the winter, and having the right stuff that keeps you warm and dry keeps it fun instead of miserable, so our kids get really excited when they open that box. It means they are going skiing that year, and that is definitely something they get excited about.
But what do I buy them?
Sometimes it's easier to come up with a list of craptastic plastic toys than to think through an idea like this one. Maybe the message that you will have failed as parents if you don't up your game every Christmas is burrowed deep into your soul. Well, never fear, I have a free printable full of ideas for you in the Wear, Need, and Family categories. I wrote this post with 30 non-tech toys your kids will actually play with for ideas that don't plug in. These are tried and true suggestions that we've given to our kids over the years as they've ranged from ages 2-11. I even have some ideas for the moody teenagers in your life. I've included a few gift grouping ideas to give you inspiration, and links to everything. This will make your Christmas shopping so easy.
Some of the ideas in the Need and Wear categories can be in either one, depending on what works for you that year, and they switch back and forth for us. To get your free download of gift giving ideas, use the form below to subscribe! If you are already subscribed to my blog, you should have received the link in the email for this blog post.
What about my budget?
We use the same budget for Christmas as we did before, but I feel like our budget was fairly reasonable. For your family, this might be a great way to have a magical budget-friendly Christmas. You can still wow them by concentrating on a few gifts instead of spreading your dollars across several smaller presents.
I don't like your idea
That's cool. The world is full of ideas, and this is the one that works for us. It has made gifts and gift-giving more meaningful and satisfying for our family. Each family has their own traditions, so do what works for yours.
With their birthdays just behind us and the holidays just ahead of us, the panic is creeping in. I've been stepping over (and on) Legos and dolls. I'm planning another purge of the forgotten and abandoned toys. The idea of bringing more stuff into my house makes me want to cry, and that makes me grateful that we have this formula to keep gift-giving moments times of joy instead of stress, grateful we are setting our children's expectations and tastes to prefer quality over quantity, and family and fun over fluff.
What are your gift-giving traditions? Is this an idea that appeals to you? Are you going to try it?
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