The post-Christmas toy challenge

What do you do when well-intentioned relatives undermine the messages you're trying to send your kids? Get creative.

Enrique Castro-Mendivil / Reuters
At the El Alto market in La Paz, Bolivia, Jan. 2, an informal market lets customers buy goods from spare parts to second-hand toys. If your house is bursting with new toys, why not give them away or sell them and use the money for a family outing?

This year for Christmas, most of the items my wife and I received were small and/or served some specific utility in our lives. I received some grape juice with which to make homemade wine (pinot noir), a replacement for our small saucepan, and some books (among other things). My wife received similar small items.

Our kids? Not so much.

Here’s the challenge with our children. My parents have traditionally gone way overboard on all of their grandchildren for birthdays and Christmas. On the other side of the family tree, our children are the first grandchildren of my mother- and father-in-law, and the first nieces and nephews of my sisters-in-law.

They all want to give our children memorable Christmas presents – and, frankly, I completely understand that. Our challenge comes in when we return home with all of these gifts and wonder where we’re going to put them all. They fill up multiple toyboxes and spread across the living room. The vast, vast majority of them are gifts from various events – birthdays and Christmases, mostly.

There’s a double challenge here.

The first challenge is simply finding the places to store these things. Our children are of three distinctly different ages and levels of cognitive development. Our oldest loves playing and building Lego sets, for example, and has a penchant for action figures. Our middle child loves building towers out of Magna-Tiles. Our youngest? He’s pretty content with a few stuffed animals and baby toys. As they grow, though, their interests change. Soon, our youngest will want to have his hand in the Magna-Tiles. And what if we have another child?

The second challenge is the implied lesson: teaching our children that less is more from an early age, that there’s great value in having a smaller number of toys that you play with extensively, that you don’t really need a mountain of toys. A mountain of toys stands in direct contrast to this lesson.

For us, the second challenge is perhaps more important than the first. The idea of having more stuff than you can possibly ever play with seems heavily tied to a sense of rampant consumerism as adults, where they buy more stuff than they possibly have time for. When you’re buying like that, you’re begging for financial difficulties.

Here are some of the solutions we’ve come up with for dealing with these concerns.

First, we’re starting to do “toy rotation.” Simply put, when the children are out of the house, we take a bunch of the toys at the bottom of the toybox and put them in a tub to store in the garage (temporarily). Occasionally, we’ll take some of the toys that are in storage and rotate them back into the mix, often pointing them out in a “Remember that toy? You haven’t played with that in a while” way.

Obviously, if they miss a toy that we’ve stored, we retrieve it for them. However, that hasn’t yet happened.

In the spring, we’re going to have a yard sale. Not only will we sell off almost everything in the garage tubs, we’ll involve the children in selecting toys that they’re willing to sell off. Our goal is to save a small number of toys for each child – the ones they enjoy the most – and sell off the rest of the toys.

The money from this yard sale – all of it – will go into a “family fun” pool which will pay for all of us to do something fun together (likely largely of the children’s choosing). Our best idea so far is to go to a water park that’s about two hours away from where we live, using the proceeds of the yard sale to pay for it.

In essence, we’re trying to turn excess “stuff” around our home into a fun family experience. The idea, of course, is that experiences trump stuff, and if stuff is just sitting around, it’s not an experience for you. It’s just dead weight that might as well be used in a better way.

We’re going to donate the yard sale leftovers to Goodwill. This way, once it’s decided that toys are going to go, they’re out of the house for good.

For now, though, as we look around our living room, we can’t help but notice the excess of kid’s stuff. Thankfully, now we have a plan for dealing with it.

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