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My Kids Went to Camp And I Gave Away All Their Toys

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Some parents joke about wanting to send preschoolers away to sleepaway camp so they can get a solid night of sleep or a peaceful day at the beach. This year I managed to do just that when my husband took our kids, ages 3 and 5, to the overnight camp where he works for three weeks.

While my husband taught, my little kids swam in a big lake, dressed in all blue for Yom Sport (what some people know as Color Wars), and even climbed the ropes course. And every evening they were returned dirty and tired to my husband while I remained in our empty home more than 1,100 miles away.

I took advantage of those lonely and quiet nights to declutter the insanity that had become our house. My first stop was the dreaded train table. Somehow over the years we had amassed enough Thomas trains for at least three families. I sorted the trains, removing nearly half of them. I pared 12 Thomases down to two. Three Percies became one. Four carrying cases left the playroom.

And I gave all of those train toys away. Without telling my kids. Who are still OBSESSED with trains.

Certainly the better thing to do would have been to involve them in the decision to donate their toys. We do that periodically, but it rarely leads to the true clean out we desperately needed. Somehow, even after a massive clean out a year ago, our house was again looking like a parking garage for hot wheels, construction vehicles, and Melissa and Doug trucks. But just after I found a new home for their trains, I started to question what I did. Did I get rid of my sons’ favorites? How would they react? How would I feel if someone came in and took away half of my clothes, without asking? Did I cross the line?

It was a long week until my kids came back. Every night, when I came home from work, I saw the half empty train table and it seemed like it was taunting me, reminding me that perhaps I had made the wrong decision. I steered clear of it for the rest of the week.

My kids and husband returned one evening before I got home from work. The first thing my older son said to me when I walked in was, “Thanks, Mom! Where did the new trains come from?” as he happily played at the train table.

“Huh?” I whispered to my husband. “I off-loaded half of them.”

As it turns out, with fewer toys, my kids actually focused on what they had. Instead of finding an area cluttered with too much, they found a space in which they could actually play. They pulled out the tracks and built elaborate bridges and rail lines. They asked me to join them in playing trains, for the first time in months. And they didn’t make one comment about any of the missing trains. With less stuff, they found more joy.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Indeed there is a growing trend around the art of organizing with a mindful intent. For centuries, Judaism has also given credence to this idea—there’s the oft-quoted phrase, “Who is rich? One who is happy with what he has.” My kids could actually see what they had, and appreciated it.

For the past few months, my kids have been getting more TV time by themselves and less family play time. I’ve been OK with it, but the truth is that as my kids grow older, I am more cognizant that our together time is fleeting. My older son is headed to kindergarten this fall; my younger one will be in full day preschool. The abundance of toys weren’t just clutter. It represented more time out of the house, doing “big kid” things, and less time playing at home with me.

So in that moment, when my son was engrossed at the train table and asked me to sit with him and work on his train track, I was more than happy to join him. He was proud of his creation. I was proud of him. And I think together we were grateful for each other, and not the things that we owned.


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