Breaking the Toy Addiction: How Do You Deal with Toy Overload?

Posted December 5, 2008 by

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Have your child’s toys taken over your house like a tiny army of Transformers and stuffed animals?  Do you regularly trip over a minefield of Legos on your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night? (If not, you’ve never been to my house.)

It’s not that we buy our little toy addict a ton of things ourselves, to be honest.  It’s also that we have a huge extended family, and each year, everyone winds up getting him something noisy and plastic for Christmas (preferably with a remote control that gets lost by Jan. 1st).  They do this with all good intentions and because they think these toys are “fun.” In fact, I bought items like these for my nieces, cousins and friends’ kids myself before I had a child. That’s when I finally realized that a small child will, without doubt, go for the noisiest, most annoying toy the first thing upon waking at 5 a.m.  (A fire engine of my son’s that used to shout “Never Play with Matches!” in a weird,  robotic way still haunts my dreams. This is probably because, when the batteries ran down, the voice sounded like it was saying, ever-so-slowly and ominously, “Never Playyy with Maaagic!”)

I’ve considered telling my in-laws not to give Alex more plastic goods. But every year, I just kind of give up, because I think, “They want to give him these toys so they can see his face light up when he opens his presents. And he loves them. So what’s the harm?”

But last year in the post-holiday toy carnage, my husband Joe had a brilliant idea. He started instituting a “Get one, give one” rule at our house.  Now when we come home with a new toy, Alex has to go into his closet and choose something to give to Goodwill. “This is for the kids that don’t have any toys,” he says. (OK, not sure if that’s always true — I love a Goodwill score myself, after all. But it’s the thought that counts, right?) Surprisingly, the whole system has been working out really well. I still have the Lego minefield to contend with at night, don’t get me wrong, but it’s definitely made the toy situation much more manageable, and I think (hope) it’s teaching our son a good lesson.

Over at “Raising Small Souls”, Ellen Braun blogs about the toy overload issue, and talks about John Rosemond’s Parenting by the Book, which contains more tips. I liked some of the ideas there; namely, telling well-meaning grandparents and relatives that you will give a toy away for each toy your child is given for birthdays and holidays. (Not sure if I have the blind courage to do that yet, but you never know — this might be my year!)

Anybody else have tips out there for how to keep the toys to a minimum? And what do you tell your kids about presents and giving during the holidays?


Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. bj Report

    Our two boys definitely hit toy overload this Christmas. The day after Christmas, our 4 year old pronounced that he “couldn’t find anything to play with” after opening dozens of gifts the previous day. Our instinct was to take away all of the toys he received. Is this wrong? How do you guys handle situations like this?

  2. Annita Report

    from a clutter-reducing-perspective, I am all for the give one take one…

    But, there is always the option of NOT making the reduction of gifts the focus at all…

    Some have said, children believe with their whole hearts in the Santa magic, the loads of toys made by elves, and somehow carried by sleigh all the way from the north pole and deposited under trees in homes everywhere in one short sleep. And it is this belief that drives the true spirit of wonder for this, the favorite holiday of any child.
    If you can, give them all that you can, encourage other gift givers to do the same and let Santa make everything merry and bright. Children will learn all about the sad reality of poverty and economic downturns and scrooges all too soon.
    When they are older, sadly wiser, they will not remember the toys you gave them. They will remember only one of the gifts you gave, the gift of Christmas magic, and it will inspire them to recreate the same, to be generous, to keep the spirit of belief alive for their own children.
    When this age of awareness is upon them, parents can begin to cut back and give a reasonable amount of presents and your now enlightened child can turn on his/her own generosity and share with reckless abandon her own Santa stories and help perpetuate the magic of the season to the younger ones. This is the ultimate recycling of the biggest gift you have given them, the gift of sharing the spirit of the season.
    If you can, give piles of presents, make the magic. They grow up so fast.

  3. R Report

    My children are 11 & 9. I have asked that G-parents donate to their college funds, give cloths (school cloths, shoes, coats, etc…), or give books (reading/activity). I have also requested that only one toy be given. I have done one large “family gift” for Christmas. Toy rotation has also works. We put away all toys except three for a few weeks. Then we put those three away and get out three “new” toys. We donate old toys before getting new ones for B-day and Christmas as well.

  4. Elisabeth Report

    I have to say, I love the ideas you guys are coming up with! Since my son is an only child (and the only grandchild on my husband’s side), he definitely has the tendency to think the world revolves around him. We try to talk to him a lot about sharing, and what it means to give, but I’m not sure how well he understands the concept sometimes! This year we decided as a family that we would buy presents for a boy in our community who would not receive them otherwise. It was a great thing to do both for the boy and for my son, who used money from his own piggy bank for a soccer ball that he purchased for this boy. It’s funny, I hesitated to do this at first, wondering if 5 was too young to tell my son that yes, there are kids in this world who have nothing, and who don’t even have food to eat all the time. It’s one of those big topics where kids have a lot of excellent questions, and I knew I wouldn’t have good answers. He was upset, but has been talking since then about how he wants to give every child in the world a toy. (Now he’s busy trying to figure out a way to make enough money to do that, and asked the other day if he was old enough to get a job!)

  5. Laura Report

    I’ve had to tweak the “one in, one out” rule a bit, to specify one in, “one of approximately the same size and shape and not broken” out. My sometimes too-clever son was trying to trade a single plastic worm (which he collects – go figure!) (not even a cubic inch) for a Rescue Rangers helicopter (about 2 cubic FEET!). With birthday and Christmas in the same month, this is a good housecleaning month for us!

  6. Brie Report

    I have recently been “cleaning/organizing/giving away/tossing in the trash” in the kids playroom about once a month. It feels so good to get rid of all those happy meal toys dating back from 1997 – my kids are savers of everything!

  7. hernibs Report

    I’m a grandma now of six. When my girls were little I made a ruling ‘if it’s advertised on TV, we can’t afford it.’ I explained the concept of advertising and how the item cost is escalated to cover expensive ads. That worked pretty well for awhile. I also outlaw plastic in my house now and take it as a challenge to not buy plastic for my grand kids. We started them on coin sets for birthdays and that’s what they get from us each year. Some day they might appreciate the thought that went into that but I’m not sure they do now because they can’t play with them but they have other grandparents who do a good job at toy buying so I’ve stuck to my plan. Well, most of the time. For Christmas we came up with a plan to circumnavigate the too many Christmases with too many parents and grandparents, we spend a weekend with the whole family at a hot springs resort paid for by grandpa Santa. It’s early in December so as not to be too difficult to get everyone together. We draw names so each child gets one present. That’s it. Simple, fun and so far everyone is really enjoying the plan. Santa threatens to cancel the credit card each year but so far he’s been a good sport. Love your blogs.

  8. Chaney Report

    We require that before each birthday and Christmas our children give back. We go through their toys and then each child takes the bag of toys to the local shelter or GoodWill. It really makes them feel proud.

  9. bwgrants Report

    I like the one toy in and one toy out concept. Thanks for the great idea.

    One suggestion that my son and his good friends have come up with on their own is borrowing each others toys between play dates. It’s cool because they negitate which toys they will let the other borrow and, surprisingly enough, often end up trading their favorites so its good lesson in being generous and letting go.

  10. nywndrwmn Report

    My husband and I were discussing how sad it is that we throw gift cards back in forth between family members all year long for birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas etc. When we call to ask family members what they want and it takes them 3 days to let us know obviously their needs are met. Why spend so much money on people who already have so much when so many have so little? My husband and I do not have any needs (we have wants a mile long-but our needs are met) so we have asked family members to find a single mom, a less fortunate family or a widow to bless with the money they would have spent on us. We have asked the grandparents and family members to be careful with gift cards for the kids as many merchants will be closing some of their stores or their entire company after the holidays. If you are asked what you would like for Christmas that is one thing; To tell people what to give you is rude in my etiquitte book-a gift is a gift and we should appreciate (not necessarily like) what we are given. We have asked family members to consider giving our children the gift of an experience (horseback riding lessons, ymca indoor pool memberships, gymnastics class, even less expensive things like promises to go to a new park a certain number of times or skiing for the day etc) this way they can experience the gift all year long or for a few months instead of enjoying the toy for a day or even a week. It will also create a memory which is what Christmas is all about right? Remembering why Jesus was born, remembering family traditions etc. Plus an experience keeps them active and healthy which is hard to do in the winter here in the northeast. I challenge all of you to find someone to bless this Christmas-do it anonymously if you can. Hope you all have a Very Merry Christmas and a Safe and Happy New Year!

  11. Julie Report

    Honestly? I’ve gotten really mean and controlling and now send the grandparents item numbers of exactly what thing they are allowed to get. And I’ve told everyone else that we don’t want gifts (bonus: we don’t have to buy them things they don’t want either). This might make me sound like an awful person, but the grandparents have expressed that they are much happier with this because they know the presents they get will be appreciated, and we are all much happier to not have plastic battery-operated junk infiltration.

    I love your one thing in, one thing out rule and might try to implement that. Actually, now that I think of it, I think we do that anyway, it’s just that the kids aren’t aware of the fact that I get rid of things to make room for the new stuff. I suppose it would be more honest and a better life lesson to involve them.

  12. Marsha Report

    We don’t go to birthday parties. during the week, we go and play for an hour and a half or so between meals. We also don’t eat there. It’s a lot of fun! I’m a sahm, homeschooling mom, so we can get by with that.

  13. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    Great suggestions, both of you. Christina, you sound like the organized person I aspire to be! We have also used “toy time-outs” which have worked really well. (Basically, we put our son’s favorite toy in time-out for a day, a week, etc. depending on what happened. We have also taken toys away in the past.) And Marsha, the idea of gift certificate to an activity is brilliant. I’m definitely going to use that one! (Though it may be awhile before I brave Chuck E. Cheese’s again. I think I have PTSD from the last birthday party spent there. )

  14. Marsha Report

    When asked for suggestions, I’ve been suggesting gift cards to Chuck E. Cheese, bounce house, local indoor multi-sense playplaces, zoo passes……….in other words, fun things we can do all year.

    (We still get toys though, but hopefully fewer)

  15. Christina Shaver Report

    We have a ton of toys at our house too, and it’s hard to keep them under control. Though I must say, I manage to do it!

    There are only two areas for toys to be put away. A small cabinet dedicated only for toys in the living room and a shelving system in the kids play area. That’s it.

    Throughout the day, the kids put the toys back in the toy’s dedicated space when they’re done playing with them. (This usually doesn’t occur spontaneously, but through some reminders from me.)

    At the end of the day, everything gets put back in its place. The shelves are open and the bins where the toys go are open — this makes it easy to see where to put which toys. Cars in the car bin. Trains in the train bin. Electronics in the electronics bin. Puzzles on the puzzle shelf. Etc.

    If there are too many toys to fit in the space allotted, then the kids and I go through the bin and figure out which toys stay and which toys go to the Salvation Army. We don’t have a special plan for the holidays — we just do what we always do. When we run out of room, we figure out what stays and what goes.

    Then, of course, there’s the toy tactic I use when my older son who has behavior problems doesn’t behave. He knows that if he is unable to “get himself together,” one of his (very escalated) consequences is that a toy gets taken away — permanently. And I always take his absolute favorite. I’ve only had to do this a couple of times. Let me tell you, THAT program works like a charm.



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