It's typical of my over-active mind that a five minute ponder about where we could possibly fit in any new toys the children might be given at Christmas has turned into an analytical self-questioning blog!
The day after I’d stood in the boys’ room wondering how I could shuffle things around to make more space, I read Whistlejacket’s post Not Mad About the Toys and subsequently posted a reply about Operation Christmas Child. But my mind kept whirring - while hanging out the washing, mashing potatoes or trying to get to sleep - about why our children have too many toys, is this a problem and what to do about it.
Whistlejacket wrote about what to say when people ask what your children want for Christmas – “er nothing” was the answer she wants to give. But that’s not acceptable; people like to give children presents and who are we to deny them the excitement of unwrapping them.
At Christmas my problem is with the volume of gifts; extended families becoming increasingly generous. By the end of the day last year my boys were robotically ripping paper off, overwhelmed by what they had already been given but filled with the expectation that there should be more and more to open. I called a halt and they opened the rest on Boxing Day when they were fresh and could appreciate receiving new things again.
Like many children they have so many wonderful things – almost more than they have time to play with, especially now T is at school. We’re not materialistic shopaholics so how has our toy situation got so out of hand?
I think one main reason has to be that nowadays toys are very accessible and much cheaper. Yesterday at the supermarket all toys were half price. I resisted. Today my husband called to ask me what we were getting the boys for Christmas as he was standing in front of a Playmobil police station at a knock down price, did we want it? I went into a panic. I already have something for them but it was a bargain, an amazing opportunity for them to have a fantastic toy. When I calmed down I remembered that the price isn’t everything; just because it’s cheap does not mean we have to fill our house with it. And would they actually play with all these huge pieces of plastic? B loves Playmobil but he doesn’t play with sets in the way “planned” on the box; he gathers up random bits and shoves them in the back of an ambulance.
There is so much choice, too much choice. It becomes tempting to buy them things; you start to think they really should have it, that they need it. Toys R Us is unhelpful in that way. Walking in I feel bombarded. I become filled with an irrational belief that my children must have all this “stuff” for a truly fulfilling life. That’s the time to leave, to escape the clang of mind-curdling jingles and regain perspective. What a pathetic, almost shameful thing to be worrying about when children around the world are dying of dehydration and starvation.
So, what to buy the children for Christmas? Should I be sending a cow on their behalf to Africa, reminding them how lucky they are? That’s unfair. It’s not their fault. They don’t know they have too many toys or buy themselves too many toys. I don’t think they’re over-indulged; if they want something they’re told to put it on their Christmas and birthday lists. But they are children, so they experience the feelings of a friend having something they want, seeing an advertisement on television for something which looks exciting or enjoying unwrapping a gift.
The “too many toys” dilemma is more about parent’s guilt about what we have when we see pictures on the news of emaciated children in refugee camps. By restricting toys or moaning they have too many, we pass that guilt on to our children.
What do children want from a Christmas present? To see a big box under the tree which is for them; the excitement of a new toy. For a parent who thinks too much it is more complicated. What goes through my mind is – do we have space for that, will they actually play with it? Is this what they would like as their most special present, what is the one thing they would be most excited to receive? I try to listen to what they consistently ask for, and watch what they are enjoying.
What to get Baby J is the real dilemma because, as also mentioned by Whistlejacket, younger siblings are not interested in any toys aimed at their age. J only wants to play with what her brothers have left lying all over the floor – all small parts and completely unsuitable but she is endlessly happy and occupied. It would be sensible to buy her something small to unwrap and put the rest of the money in her bank account for when she’s a teenager and believes she “needs” so much. That’s not mean or unfair. Value or size do not actually equate to enjoyment; some of the things they’ve enjoyed most have cost 20p at a nearly new sale.
Because that’s the crux of this whole toy issue - what are all these toys we give them actually for? Entertainment? Enjoyment? To stimulate play? To stop them annoying us by saying they’re bored? That’s impossible. If children want to play they will play, with whatever is around. If they want to whine about being bored they will whine, however many toys are stacked up in their room.
And this is my issue with having too many toys. Dashing to Toys R Us and buying something new is not the answer to having contented children. It may actually be the problem. There is so much good stuff out there. It’s tempting to buy it but it actually becomes an encumbrance in so many ways. Are we nostalgic for the uncluttered days of “I only had a ball of string and sticks to play with and I was happy” because we don’t have room for all this plastic or because we think play was “better” then?
In A Spoonful of Sugar, Liz Fraser talks to her Granny talks about “the old days” to try and discover why we are losing the values of old fashioned parenting and if it really was better back then. It covers many issues and of course, in some aspects of childhood, things have changed in a positive way. But in terms of the burden of toys, I’m not sure.
Liz makes the point that many children don’t actually play with the expensive toys they are given. “Many of these “toys” have so little play potential it’s mind-blowing...they spend more time just playing imaginary games with odd bits and bobs they find lying around”. With my boys that’s true – they’ve had more fun over time with one of M’s old ties than anything. It’s a cliché but they do enjoy the box as much as the toy, making dens or houses, spaceships or boats, annoyed when I say the box has to go in the recycling because I’m tired of tripping over it. B and J have spent the afternoon playing ferociously together with a box something was delivered in, arguing over who gets to go in and out, sitting in it together shutting the lid on themselves. When T came home from school he insisted they “add detail”, cut bits out, drew things on and it is now a “race car”.
Watching them turn this box from a car to a rocket to an alien to a television, into which T sticks his head and says “welcome to the BBC News!” I am reminded that sometimes, as adults, we try and impose our sensibilities and understanding of order onto children. Children have an innate sense of fun, curiosity and exploration, they have not yet learnt how things are supposed to be done, they are just able to enjoy whatever is there. Thus they can gain endless pleasure from wet sand or driving cars through gravel. I’m learning that sometimes, to be better parents, we just have to let go, to give them the freedom to explore and learn and do what comes naturally. For children, life does not yet have to be lived a certain way, in fact, they are happier if they can wallow in the freedom of their instincts.
Of course this is not always possible; our job is to teach them how to function within the boundaries of modern society. But it does transposes directly into the issue of toys – they don’t need to have all the things we think they want to enjoy themselves, they will create their own props.
Liz Fraser’s Granny says “give them less and they’ll play with it more, and use their imagination to make up new games with it. That’s playing. We had so little, you know, but it didn’t worry us. We were happy and we played more than any kids I see playing today, despite all that they have. It’s the playing, not what you play with that matters.”
Inspired by what I’d read – and the rigid Ryan Air luggage restrictions – we tried an experiment and took VERY limited toys with us on holiday. Felt-tip pens, colouring books, card games, books and one car each. It was liberating, for all of us. M and I didn’t become resentful at carrying bags of toys which spent the holiday discarded across the floor by discontented children and the boys had a wonderful time making up games with bungee cords and upturned plastic furniture. This might sound nauseatingly nostalgic but I am becoming increasingly aware that the more we give our children the more we encumber them and stifle their capacity to explore.
A mum commented on Whistlejacket’s blog that she rarely bought her children toys herself - if she did it was because she wanted to get something that she would like them to have rather than something that someone else wanted them to have. I can relate to that; seeing something you think your child would enjoy or benefit from and so wanting to buy it. But I do believe that presents should be limited to Christmas and birthday, not becoming a regular event given to show love or alleviate guilt. My weakness is Nearly New Sales. I’ve stopped myself going because there is ALWAYS a bargain I can’t resist and we don’t have room for any more bargains!
How can you stop people buying your children too many toys? You can’t. And of course it is wonderful for children to be given presents, but there is a sensible limit – and for many of us it is actually just a practical question of space. Then there’s the environmental issue. Last time I was in Toys R Us there was a terrible thought in the back of mind that all the plastic we buy has go somewhere when it has broken beyond gluing. It was unsettling to imagine the contents of Toys R Us gumming up landfill sites for hundreds of years.
So, in conclusion, as well as clearing some space in the children’s rooms, I’m trying to encourage small toys that stimulate imaginative play of their own rather than being prescriptive about what you do with it; Lego, Playmobil (not the vast police station which would probably stand empty in a corner of the room getting dusty and in the way while B drove the hand cuffs around in the camper van), craft things, books (I am biased and could contradict this whole blog by saying you can never have too many books), dressing up clothes - all the old favourites. I don’t want to be a misery about Christmas but I do believe that in our modern world of easy, accessible consumerism, perspective has been lost when it comes to giving and receiving, to the detriment of everyone.