My eldest child will turn 24 next month. This means I have been acquiring toys for nearly a quarter of a century.
That first year I was a mother, we often visited friends who had a 3-year-old. In their living room were neatly organized baskets filled with animal figures, blocks, books. I was in graduate school at the time (read: poor) and remember wondering if my little boy would ever have such lovely toys.
Now I envy the clutter-free sparseness of those early years.
In the mid-’90s, I scoured thrift stores where I scored wooden train sets and, years before they became collectors’ items, old Fisher-Price toys. We have the wind-up record player, the wind-up radio, the barn set and many animals.
Over the years, I chose toys thoughtfully. Few were plastic, none electronic. Blocks, puppets, animal figures, wooden train sets, games, puzzles, Magnetix and lots of books.
The year my third son turned 10, I likely would have begun shedding our toy collection.
But instead, I gave birth to my fourth son. And so I kept all we’d acquired in the 16 years before Leif was born. And though he was born into a household with an enviable collection of toys, not surprisingly, he still expects presents.
The cost of too much
Kim John Payne is a family therapist and educator whom I heard speak many years ago. After working in refugee camps with children who never knew anything but uncertainty due to war, Payne moved to London. There he discovered middle-class children exhibiting similar symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as refugee children, though they’d not experienced traumatic events like the refugees.
What gives? Payne coined the term “cumulative stress reaction” or CSR, and claims that both groups of children were suffering from overactive amygdalae, the part of their brains that controls survival instincts, i.e., what to do when threatened. Fight? Run? Freeze?
In his book Simplicity Parenting, Payne recommends a number of things to restore calm to the children suffering from CSR. What struck me most were his visits to the homes of families in his therapy practice. He’d arrive while the child was at school. In the child’s bedroom with the parents, Payne would pull out a garbage bag and tell the parents to fill it.
Inevitably, this task was difficult. Each toy, book, trinket was somehow special but Payne was uncompromising and the bag was filled. And then he’d pull out a second bag. And then a third.
“What happens when your child only has 10 books to choose from? Predictability, that’s what,” Payne said when I heard him speak.
Yes, I’m sure most kids who returned home to discover themselves relieved of three trash bags of toys were none too happy about it. But who does not feel calmer and think more clearly after finally clearing off a cluttered desk, room or home?
Most years I assess things during the first weeks of December. Games and puzzles with missing pieces are tossed, as are books with missing pages. Anything broken is also chucked. Toys everyone has outgrown are donated. (I keep a small box of toys for visiting babies and toddlers.)
When the big boys were little, the only gifts I bought them were stocking stuffers. The big gifts were what the relatives sent. They still had plenty.
Leif was nearly 3 years old when he had an inkling of what’s happening on Christmas morning. He pulled the paper off his first present, a small set of Thomas the Tank Engine trains and a floor map on which to move them about. Leif played with Thomas not only the rest of Christmas Day, but also for a week or more while all of his other presents remained wrapped and under the tree.
I still fill the stockings. But now the big boys get more practical things like lip balm, gift certificates, shaving cream. Under the tree, I give them what I want to receive: Good socks. I believe good socks and underwear go a long way in making life better. If you doubt me, think how miserable uncomfortable underwear and droopy socks make you feel.
Here’s an unabashed product plug: Bombas socks. I’ve given each of the big boys two pairs of their merino wool socks for a few years now. For each pair of socks purchased from Bombas, the company donates a pair. According to their website, socks are the No. 1 item requested in homeless shelters and Bombas has donated over 5 million pairs of socks to date. Now that’s an all-around feel-good gift.
The truth is, while the big boys like Christmas presents, without childhood magic, it’s just a relaxing morning in our pajamas. Last year, Claude told me the best part of Christmas for him now is watching people open the gifts he’s given them.
Buy, buy, buy
Maybe one day we’ll be one of those families who take a trip over the last week of the year. But for now, we still have our two littles, Leif and Lyra. And I admit, each year I struggle to fight the crushing message to buy, buy, buy!
It is well documented that Americans disproportionately consume the earth’s resources when compared not only to Third World and developing countries, but also other industrialized nations. A continuous loop of manufacture, sell, use briefly and discard underpins our economy.
Nonbiodegradable plastics fill our landfills and waterways. Microplastics have entered the marine food chains, which should be a concern for anyone who eats seafood.
I work part-time in a store that sells toys and other really cool things, and I am just as susceptible in the final days of holiday shopping to worry that I have enough for each person to unwrap. In my office closet are toys I bought last December. As we were frantically wrapping everything after the littles had gone to bed last Christmas Eve, I realized it was too much.
And what does giving too much end up doing to your children? Well, possibly giving them a version of PTSD. It’s not good for the planet and it’s not good for the kids.
I intend to give lightly this Christmas, purchasing just a few quality items my family members need. With my intention published in this paper, perhaps this year I can resist the pressure and temptation to spend more than I should on things we don’t need.
Heck, once I wrap the toys hiding in my office, I’m quite possibly done!
This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal December 3, 2017