Halloween is over and Thanksgiving is coming up, but there's one major holiday that's already on everyone's mind: Christmas! For those with children, that usually means toys and lots of them. As we prepare for the gift-giving season, Maria and I are doing our best to keep Dessa's interests at heart when selecting presents for our little girl. To us, that means providing her with a home that allows her to grow and develop without the distractions of excess. Which makes our job as parents a bit more difficult around the holiday season. Fortunately, we have a plan to help keep the barrage of excess toys out of our house. Our feelings about toys run deep. Here's the story of how we formed our beliefs about childhood books and toys, what we do to keep the toys to a minimum, and why we think fewer toys in our house is better for Dessa (and for our own sanity).
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What is Simplicity Parenting?
If you've read the blog before, you know that Maria and I believe in simplifying our lives. We follow Dave Ramsey to simplify our finances and we declutter our stuff using Marie Kondo's KonMari Method. So it should come as no surprise that we try to simplify our parenting, too. Which is where the book Simplicity Parenting comes in.
If you're not already familiar, Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne is all about simplifying a child's life so that he or she can grow and learn and explore without the overload that adults deal with today: from too much stuff, too much information, too many activities, and not enough routine. When children are overwhelmed, the stress bubbles over into their behavior. How they act out depends on each child, but children simply don't have the mental processing power to handle overwhelm as adults do (let's be honest, most of us adults are not at our best when we are inundated with too many demands, tasks, activities, and material things).
Kim has four main approaches to help parents simplify their household, the first of which deals with the child's environment, i.e. the overwhelming amount of toys and books that many children have today. Long story short, kids with fewer toys are less overwhelmed and play much more deeply with the toys that they do have. And since play is the work of childhood, deeper play really means more meaningful work on the part of your child.
As a kindergarten teacher, Maria has had significantly more experience than I have with young children and their development. Reading Simplicity Parenting resonated with what she had observed with her own students over the years. I don't have the same early childhood expertise, but the cause-and-effect relationships that Kim lays out in his book make sense when you stop to consider them and I was quickly on board with raising Dessa in a simplified household.
Kim's approaches to parenting mesh very well with other books Maria and I love. We are big fans of Matthew Kelly, who encourages his readers to strive to be “the best versions of themselves.” We believe our role as parents isn't to shower Dessa with material possessions, but to equip and raise Dessa to be the best version of herself, too. And we couldn't see any way that excessive toys, books, and material possessions would possibly bring out the best in our daughter.
How We Simplified Our Toy Situation
Maria and I never intended to have our home overrun with toys, but reading Simplicity Parenting helped us to purposefully shape our home environment. Toys undoubtedly play an important role in childhood and we have no intention of denying Dessa the joy that comes from playing with childhood objects. The very best toys have a purpose. They are not limited to a couple functions or button pushing. Instead, meaningful toys are open-ended and allow her the freedom to make it whatever she wants it to be. They allow Dessa to unlock her imagination, learn more about the world around her, and foster the development of new skills. We wouldn't dream of depriving Dessa of any of these valuable experiences, but we do carefully select and curate Dessa's toys so that they help to foster her development, rather than hinder it.
Dessa's toys are, for the most part, really simple: blocks, plastic chain links, balls, stuffed animals, a plush baby doll that we bought at the grocery store, a pair of toy eyeglasses, and a push-along musical bird. Maria often jokes that the more boring a toy is, the more Dessa loves it – and that generalization has certainly proven to be true with our daughter. Dessa is only entertained by bright flashing, musical toys for a few fleeting moments before she moves on to the next object; but, she will sit and deeply engage with her tiny suitcase filled with links and blocks for ten minutes or more (she mastered the opening and closing the latch on the suitcase long ago).
And, just like any other toddler, she especially loves playing with household items, like blankets, bowls, coasters, decorative fall pumpkins, paper and plastic containers from the recycling bin, and of course anything with buttons. Dessa does have a plush battery operated toy: a Violet My Pal from Leapfrog. Once Dessa figured out how to make Violet talk or sing, she had lots of fun pushing the buttons on the toy's paws, but these days, Dessa pretty much just treats Violet like any other stuffed animal and showers her with snuggles.
Out of Sight and Free from Overwhelm
We happily took Payne's advice about toy storage and keep Dessa's toys tucked out of the way in bins while they're not in use. If you were to walk into our house, you wouldn't notice a ton of toys. There might be one or two balls or a doll lying on the living room floor or a few pieces of junk mail from the paper recycling in the kitchen. It doesn't feel like Dessa has overtaken every room in our house. It feels like a living room and a kitchen that a child plays in, but it isn't her space.
Even if you go upstairs to Dessa's playroom, you wouldn't immediately guess that the space's primary purpose is to entertain our daughter. The bungalow is very tidy and just looks like a cozy little empty room with a loveseat and a TV tucked in a corner. But for Dessa, that room is filled with magic. It's where she runs, plays, snuggles, reads, and explores. The simply furnished playroom is without a doubt Dessa's favorite place in the house. Every time we say, “Do you want to go upstairs?”, she squeals in delight and runs for the door to the stairs. Dessa likes the open space. She often grabs a few books, stuffed animals and blocks, but she only seeks out the toys she really wants to play with and could entertain herself for long stretches of time in that little playroom.
Keeping it Simple through the Holidays
So how do we keep our toy levels to such a low level? Lots of diligence and self-control, that's how. Everyone, including us, wants their child to be happy and it is so tempting to impulse-buy a toy because we want to see our child's eyes light up when they receive a new toy. And yes, children experience a fleeting moment of joy when they first lay eyes on a new toy, but not in productive, long-term happiness kind of way. Like so many other things in life, more toys does not equate to more happiness. More toys usually mean less space, more misplaced pieces, more mess, and more work to maintain. Maria and I believe that our child needs to grow up in a way that she can unfold into her own person at her own pace and without the distractions caused by an unhealthy environment. Which means we have to guard ourselves against impulsive toy buying to maintain a calm, joy-filled home.
Managing the toys Dessa receives as presents is a little trickier. People just love buying toys for children, and that's ok. We've tried to stem the flow of toys by letting our family and friends know, as politely as possible, that we prefer non-toy gifts for Dessa, such as clothes, books, money for college, and experiences (like a zoo membership or gift cards to Goldfish swim school). Maria started this with a small note in the invitations for Dessa's first birthday party and it has worked really well for us:
We are so excited to share Dessa’s first birthday with you! We are trying to help Dessa enjoy a simplified childhood filled with simple treasures and joy without excess. She owns several toys and only reaches to play with a few items in her toy collection.
Rather than overwhelm Dessa with a boatload of toys or books that are likely to remain untouched, please consider gifting Dessa with an experience gift that we can enjoy as a family. Dessa will begin swim lessons at Goldfish swim school this summer, as well as enrolling for a play class at Gymboree.
Dessa currently wears 18 month clothes and could use 24 month clothes that she can wear in early fall. We have also already begun to save for Dessa’s college.
We can’t wait to see you on July 14th!
Love, Rob and Maria (and Dessa too!)
Our family and friends understand and have been great about following our wishes. There are a few toys that we've patiently been waiting to add to Dessa's collection and we placed them on Dessa's Christmas list for those well-intentioned family members that really want to watch Dessa's eyes light up when she unwraps a new toy.
We want our daughter to grow up in a way that lets her expand her imagination without the burden that comes from too much stuff. If that means that we have to exercise a bit of self-restraint when it comes to buying toys, we're ok with that.