I remember when my son was a baby people used to say to me “Kids like the box the toy comes in better than the toy itself.” So, I acted on this advice and handed my kid an empty box. He took a good look at it, examined its bland, brown color and four symmetrical sides and promptly flung it across the room. He looked up at me with his big blue eyes and furrowed his brow, effectively saying “where’s the toy, bitch?” I then tried giving him empty Tupperware, pots, pans, wooden spoons, colanders; all of the kitchen items I’d heard make great, free playmates. I even demonstrated how much fun it can be to bang on the pan with the spoon or dump balls into the colander. No dice. He wanted no part of this play and instead crawled over to his collection of loud, ugly, plastic toys that his Gammy bought him and proceeded to play happily. When it came to toys, his motto was “the blingier the better” and if it came in pink, we have a winner!
He is now five and since toys bring so much delight we have aLOTof toys. We have toys that are the product of being the only grandchild on both sides of the family for three full years. We have “I need to get this shopping done at Target so if I buy you this toy will you sit quietly for ten freaking minutes?” toys. We have toys from Christmas, birthdays, Easter, Valentine’s Day, and Halloween. I think there’s even an Arbor Day toy lying around. We have hand-me downs from friends, deals picked up at yard sales, brand new toys, both cheap (my mom loves the Dollar Store) and expensive (i.e. made of wood therefore holding zero interest. No BPAs? No thank you!).
We have more toys than my kids can play with in their young lifetime, and not just lots of toys, but lots of toys within each toy category. Take trains for example: of course we have Thomas the Trains in a variety of textures: wood, plastic, and metal, all with their own track set. Then there are the IKEA and Target knock-offs of Thomas. We also have the Dinosaur Train, Chuggington, the Polar Express, generic trains purchased at train museums, cheap plastic trains from Big Lots that come with yet more tracks. We have more trains than Amtrak! At least trains are cool but let’s get real; they play with like five of them. The rest sit there and maybe get used as passenger cars but they get no love. And the Dinosaur Train set? I might as well have gotten my son a head of cauliflower as at least he could kick that around the yard. Poor Tiny and Buddy are doomed to become fossils yet again. The cars are not much better: cars from the movie “Cars,” Hot Wheels, Matchbox, you get the gist. Yet again, the only cars that get played with are the ones from “Cars” and not just any cars from “Cars” but simply the race cars. Are there any kids out there who give two shits about Mater? I think not, yet we own three versions of him. Sigh.
The irony here is that when I go to friends’ homes and see their elaborate, toy-filled playrooms I think “Gee, my kids really don’t have that many toys.” Does this happen to you? I am filled with awe and envy on behalf of my children and start looking at the calendar for an excuse to buy them a mini-airport or a hand-held game player or whatever toy has attracted their (and my) attention at that moment in time. I love to buy toys for my kids. “Hey boys, Flag Day is just around the corner. Let’s go shopping!”
Last week when I had my mental breakdown my husband suggested getting rid of some of the toys. “Is it possible” he asked, “that our kids are over-stimulated by all this stuff?” Once I realized he was not taking a shot at my housekeeping, I started to think he was brilliant. Perhaps it was too much to wake up each morning, faced with a mountain of toys from which to choose. I once left a store without yogurt because I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of options: greek, regular, non-fat, low-fat, full-fat, plain or flavored, with our without pesticides, special yogurt that if I eat it three times a day I’ll finally poop like a man. Fuck this I said and bought myself some ice cream (despite the vast selection there I know it’s gotta be Edy’sRocky Road). Given the gluttony of choices, I just couldn’t decide. Why do I expect more from my kids?
Everything tells us that less is more. Minimalism is the new excess, yet with our kids more is more, and if that isn’t enough, more please! There is a dad I know inSan Diegowho is sort of infamous for his stroller creation. He took a basic Graco stroller and turned it into a double via a strategically placed booster seat. His older daughter sat below while his baby boy sat up high. Was it safe? Not by the looks of it, but it was AMAZING. Picture a clown car on two wheels, yet instead of clowns the thing produced toys and food. Our kids were playing together one day and he pulled out a ball. As the kids fought over the ball he pulled out another one, and another one. If they got bored with the balls, no worries, he had a bike. I kid you not; I hadn’t seen even a hint of a bike until he pulled it out. When they got hungry he laid out an array of snacks that would satisfy a sultan. Next he whipped out a CD player and turned on some tunes (kids’ music; not my first choice but better than nothing I guess). He even had a potty seat for that post-snack BM. It was something else. Mr. Super-Stroller Dad, I deeply admire your energy and tenacity as I was often lucky to make it out of the house with a bag of goldfish and a clean diaper. You created a work of art. But was it too much? I feel like the more toys I bring to the park, to a restaurant, on an airplane, the more excitable my kids become and the higher the expectations. What else do you have woman? Is that IT??? Would it be ok to go to the park and just bring a ball?
I wanted to give this a try. I wanted my kids to experience the creativity that comes with deprivation. Remember hide the thimble? I’m guessing those kids from “Little House on the Prairie” didn’t play that game in lieu of bowling on their Wii. But how would I accomplish this after five plus years of being surrounded by every toy you’ve ever wanted? I remember hearing the suggestion to rotate your baby’s toys since he won’t remember what is new and what is recycled. I wasn’t sure if this applied to older children as experience told me that once you hit three you keep a serious accounting of every toy and you don’t want to mess with a three year old who can’t find her giraffe with the missing head! Also, this doesn’t seem to be the rage in my social circle and I certainly don’t want my kids to be the ones with the lamest collection of toys.
The reality is, however, that my kids basically play with two things: cars (as in Lightning McQueen and friends) and trains. Occasionally they play with something else but often they get bored with that something else quickly and neglect to clean it up before returning to the cars and trains. What’s left is more mess for mommy to clean up. (Yes I know, they’re old enough to clean up their own toys, but that’s for another week so get off my back!) So I made a bold decision: all extraneous toys were taking a vacation. I packed them up in carefully labeled bins and hauled them off to the garage. Dinosaurs, dragons, animals, Transformers, Bakugan, and action figures…bon voyage. Trains and cars without eyes, you also got the boot. Tomika Hypercity Megatropolis Commander Set that set Santa back $110 and took him two hours and three eggnogs to put together: gone (this one hurt). Some of the bins even sat in the hall for a few hours while I was distracted. I kept waiting for the mutiny and instead heard nothing. No cries of injustice, no sounds of disdain or anger. No reaction at all actually. I was shocked because if someone were carting off my navy blue power suit circa 1993 replete with shoulder pads and mini-skirt, I’d at least say “hey, where are you going with that?”
How has it been you ask? I feel guilty saying this but it has been absolutely seamless as my kids haven’t even noticed the lack of toys. I’m thinking some day if they seem bored I’ll pull out the dinosaur bin and suggest we take that lame yellow and green train to the Jurassic Period. So far, however, they seem more interested in the few toys that are left as they’re just doing different things with those toys. Today I actually saw my two year old playing with Mater. I guess I stand corrected. They also seem more interested in creative activities like building forts and coloring. So deprivation does spark creativity? Mrs. Ingalls was onto something! Another pleasant side-effect of this experiment is the lack of clutter in my house. The house is still a disaster but it feels like less of a disaster because, well, there’s just a lot less shit around. Having less clutter is relaxing me slightly. So here we are with fewer toys, a neater house, happier kids and a mommy who has just a tad less stress in her life. I’ve yet to see the downside and wonder why I’ve waited so long. I actually know the answer to that question and it’s two-fold: fear and laziness. I feel as if I’ve conquered both, at least with regard to this problem. The question now is how to maintain?
Thanks to a hodge-podge of advice I found online I do have some ideas that I will test out during the next month. Interestingly enough I already apply some of these rules to my personal shopping and it works fairly well for me. I haven’t thrown a tantrum in months. Here’s the plan:
- Start a toy exchange with my son’s friends. I’ve done this with clothes and it’s really fun. You get the shopper’s high with no money spent!
- Give my older son an allowance. I’m just talking $1 per week but if he wants a new toy he has to pay for it himself. I have chosen not to attach the allowance to chores because I don’t think he should get paid for helping around the house. I know people who do though and have had lots of success. Either way I think it’s a great idea to start them young when it comes to learning about money.
- Buy a toy, give away a toy. This is my rule for new clothing purchases. I allow myself a new shirt, sweater, etc. only if I give away something old. This often presents a challenge as for some reason I have a hard time parting with ugly clothes that I never wear. I imagine though it will be a farce for the kids. I see them rummaging through a bin and finding a McDonald’s happy meal toy, saying “here Mommy. We can give this one away. Now can I have the $50 Star Wars Lego set?”
So far two thumbs up though I admit I picked an easy topic for my first week, especially since I know my kids well and had an inkling that they wouldn’t put up much of a fuss. This is why I’ve chosen to talk next week about meals and snacks: to show you I have some balls. This one’s going to be tough. Wish me luck!
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