I’ve never been a practicing minimalist, but since I became a parent I’ve become increasingly overwhelmed with all of the “stuff” involved in the process. First came all of the baby gear, followed by the steady stream of toys from birthdays and holidays… and of course, the kindly offered hand-me-downs. Though it was all joyfully received, the task of regularly organizing all of this stuff eventually became a hefty undertaking.
According to a book called Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, “Each new child in a household leads to a 30 percent increase in a family’s inventory of possessions during the preschool years alone.” Co-author Jeanne Arnold says that “the US has 3.1 % of the worlds children, but buys 40% of the worlds toys”.
An incredible statistic, but I don’t doubt it. The snowballing accumulation of objects after having a child was unprecedented in my adult life. I spent a lot of time managing it all — or else feeling guilty for not managing it better. Luckily for me, we had 2450 square feet in our house to find places for our many new items. All that space to cram in more things… what luck!
With a relocation in mind, we moved out of our big house and unexpectedly ended up sharing a much smaller space with extended family, to offer support during a health crisis. As a result, we left most of our non-essential items in storage. I can’t say exactly how many boxes of toys we have stored away, but it took me many long days to pack them all up. While these boxes of toys sit quietly in the garage, my son now plays with a fraction of the toys he previously had access to.
And how has he survived this major downsizing? Pretty well, actually. After a short adjustment period, where he seemed a little more bored than usual, he has happily adjusted to his new environment with fewer toys. Luckily for us (no sarcasm this time), he has more outdoor space than at our old home and many more pets to play with. His imaginative play has filled in the space, and he can make creative use out of the most unlikely things.
At the park the other day, we found a good long (“but not too long”) piece of yellow rope which quickly became a swing, a rescue rope, and then a jump rope. We came up with half a dozen more uses for it at the park, and then my son continued to find new ways to use it in our yard. Like most kids, my son has enjoyed re-purposed items since he was a baby, but it’s been a joy to see this “out of the box” play take on a greater role again.
And me…? Thankfully, I spend a lot less time managing toys and/or nagging my son to do so. When we do unpack those boxes at our next destination, I hope it will be with a very different mindset – for all of us. I’ve known for some time that having more things doesn’t raise my happiness level over the long term, but in this age it takes a somewhat “counter-culture” position to avoid the inevitable material accumulation over a lifetime.
For my son’s last birthday party, we asked guests to bring donations so that we could host the party at a local non-profit wildlife rescue center. It was the most unique party we’ve ever hosted, and instead of coming back with bags of gifts, we raised hundreds of dollars for the center and my son and his friends got to spend the morning interacting with animals from all over the world. It took some effort to plan and coordinate donations, but it was absolutely worth it. And yes, I did get him the set of Lego’s that he really wanted (a small one).
In my continuing search for inspiration, I found this wonderful article, “Why Fewer Toys Will Benefit Your Kids” — much of which I can now testify to be true from personal experience. It may feel radical to reduce consumption on behalf of our children, but this amassing of toys is unique to our place and time, and it’s something we will eventually have to step away from as our “made in China” consumer culture faces the consequences of our long carbon footprints.
What can we do to scale back the accumulation of toys, especially during the consumer-crazed holiday season? I have a few ideas, but I would love to hear some of yours as well.
1. Re-think “presents”. How can we make the holidays magical without focusing on presents (and can we get the grandparents on board with this idea)? Speaking of grandparents, how many presents did they get for the holidays? I doubt previous generations spent as much as we do now. For our family, it’s now limited to one present from Mom and Dad, one from “Santa”… and I’m still working on the grandparent thing.
2. New Traditions. Instead of looking forward to presents, what new (or old) traditions can our kids look forward to at this time of year? Baking, decorating, singing carols, and crafting are a few things I remember from childhood… as well as performing in the Christmas recital. For older children it may also involve focusing on the historical/spiritual origins of the holiday season. This doesn’t have to involve any religion, if that’s not your style; the festival of lights at the beginning of winter is something cultures have shared for many generations — a celebration to carry us through the coldest, darkest season of the year (that’s certainly a better purpose than fulfilling media-imposed material expectations).
3. Quality over quantity. Open ended toys that encourage imagination are ideal, but they can also be the most expensive. Rather than spend more, buy less. Quality toys will last a lifetime and can be passed from one generation to the next. Maybe the wooden dollhouse or the elaborate marble run you dreamed of could be a possibility for your little one, if everyone chips in for something really special.
Have you come up with any ideas to minimize the amassing of toys and “stuff” in your home? I’d love to hear about it!