Another weekend, another bag of clothes and toys gone. Like many moms, I’m constantly in inventory mode, looking for the next thing I can get rid of without causing a kid to have a meltdown. Often I sneak the bags out of the house, either to the donation bin, the garbage, or a younger friend’s house. If they don’t see it leave, they don’t notice it’s gone.
My kids, like many kids—and many grown-ups, too—are very attached to stuff. That pair of flip flops that doesn’t fit and needs duct tape to keep the plastic bit attached to the footbed? Precious! Those plastic fast-food toys that have never been played with and are forever underfoot? Irreplaceable! And let’s not talk about the mother who throws them out or donates them! She’s evil. Pure evil. If my kids were following the Marie Kondo school of de-cluttering, we’d be living atop a giant mountain of toys; they love everything fiercely.
Some of the worst tantrums I’ve endured in my 8 years of parenting have been triggered by discoveries of missing toys, rarely touched, that are now gone for good. It’s tough. I know my kids’ distress is genuine, but when our house starts to feel overwhelmingly full of stuff it’s both unpleasant for everyone and dangerous for my husband (who lives with a spinal cord injury) to have to move through their bedrooms and the playroom Ninja Warrior-style.
Naturally, I wonder about their attachment to these objects; does it indicate some spiritual void in their lives? I can remember being devastated when my brothers broke all the shingles on my dollhouse roof, but I had far fewer toys to begin with. I have to wonder, is it healthy to be so attached to so many things?
And then there are holidays. When did holidays become yet another moment to put more plastic into the world? At some point between when I left elementary school and when my kids began to attend, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Halloween became stuff holidays. This Valentine’s Day, my five-year-old came home with a plastic grocery bag full of stuff. There were the usual cards, sure, but there were also an incredible number of lollipops, chocolates, plastic rings, and stationary items. I had to walk past an aisle full of red tchotchkes just to get to the cards. Clearly, we had been in the minority in choosing to send only cards (which came with tattoos, full disclosure). Heck, the only reason we send those cards at all is to avoid another holiday during which my kids feel left out.
My 8-year-old said: “Mommy, I’m worried no one will even look at them ‘cause it’s just a card.” Now, I’m not going to suggest that Valentine’s Day has some deeper meaning that their classmates are forsaking by giving out all of this stuff, but it just gets ridiculous after a while. None of these little gifts inspire reverence or gratitude. In fact, my son is right—the cards get completely lost in favor of the candy and the toys. I just got the dregs of Halloween candy out of the house in December and now we have a whole new crop of corn-syrup delights in the house.
So, as we march ever nearer to the next round of birthdays in our house, I’m doing some serious thinking about this problem, on both a practical and deeper level. We already make our kids donate a percentage of any cash they receive to charity, but maybe we need to go a step further and do something to take the focus off gifts altogether.
Some of our children’s friends have collected donations at their parties and there are great services like Echoage that allow guests to donate and contribute to a gift… would my kids go for that? It might take some work. My daughter, in particular, is adamant that she wants “presents to unwrap” on her birthday; last year there were too many gift cards for her liking, and not enough gifts. Apparently, wrapping paper is mandatory. And although I know she’ll be delighted with whatever she receives, the bloom will inevitably be short-lived and some of those prized gifts will wind up becoming part of my surreptitious raids.
Will there come a day when I look around the house and wish, nostalgically, for a more cluttered time? Maybe when the kids are off on their own adventures and I’ve finally achieved that minimalist pipe dream I covet, I’ll long for a few toys on the floor. But for now I’ll keep a plastic bag nearby, ready for the next weekend’s tchotchke harvest.