Cleaning out the junkyard

This holiday season, let’s buy our kids presents that are a little less worthless.

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Heather here. I hope you all finished your leftover turkey and kicked off the holiday season the way you wanted to. We spent the long weekend out of town but returned home with enough time for a pre-season toy purge, which is the topic of today’s newsletter. Just don’t tell Amazon, k?

I am writing this week from our basement floor. Well, not the floor exactly, but a miniature chair at floor level. When our oldest daughter was born, I insisted on getting a version of this chair from Pottery Barn Kids that’s upholstered in pink with gold hearts and her name, Hazel, embroidered in the center. It was the perfect vessel to balance a baby for milestone photos; the perfect climbing apparatus for a toddler looking to turn everything into a gymnasium; and the perfect quiet place to sit with a board book and learn the letters of her name. It was perfect, for a while. 

Hazel grew up. She needed room for a desk and a proper bookshelf, and we stopped taking photos of her in the tiny chair, because ew, Mom. I always said when Ruby was born, we’d buy a new chair cover with her name on it, but let’s be real: second children lead second child lives. We positioned Ruby on Hazel’s pink chair, covering the name with her head. She detached from the chair sooner, because really, it was never hers. 

Until today, the chair has been collecting dust in the corner of our basement playroom, serving as the foundation of a mountain of plastic debris from abandoned toys. I likened this corner to a landfill. Maybe upon closer inspection you could identify a whole item, but mostly, you’d be guessing whether a tiny umbrella belonged to Barbie or a Little People (Person?!); whether a battery-operated magic wand could ever be reunited with the talking unicorn it came with.

As parents of young children, Doug and I tried to sort it out. We lost whole evenings arranging pretend food items into the pretend grocery store in a commonsense manner (all the produce should be together!). But after the workweek or a playdate, we always ended up in the same place: a basement full of crap and a Sisiphysian task before us. Eventually, we stopped sorting. The kids stopped playing.

So many things that cost somebody money at some point in time became worthless. 

I’m writing from our floor, because we just excavated the landfill. All toys we could piece back together will be donated and the rest will be tossed. As I sit amongst the boxes of cardboard cutouts and footlong dinos, all I keep thinking about is how meaningless it all was, except for the chair. A gift that seemed expensive but for years brought so much value to the girls’ lives.

You’d be living under a toy rock to not know the holidays are underway, as our mailboxes, televisions, algorithms, and Amazon landing pages are filled with gift guides for kids of all ages. Maybe you can get the best deals of the season on trinkets your kids found on YouTube, but you’re still spending money on something that likely has a limited shelf-life. Maybe it’s time we acknowledge that upfront. 

Please know, we’ve walked in the shoes of parents living in a “collector’s phase” of life. With little kids experiencing their first few Decembers, it’s easy to get caught up in the commercial hooplah. We want them to have an abundance of many boxes and all the wrapping paper and whatever they say they want because they saw it once and said “Mommy, that.” We think we are doing the right thing by emptying our wallets and cluttering our basements, but so many presents provide such short-term joy that we have to question whether they’re worth it.

Kids lose interest in their favorite characters when they start watching new shows. Little landscape playsets fall apart. Even most learning toys are so niche they don’t actually make sense. My daughters didn’t need a pink clock monster with eyes and feet to learn how to tell time, or a giant plastic globe that takes 400 batteries and an entire tabletop to learn about geography. 

We can do better. This year, instead of panic-purchasing the entire Amazon holiday toy catalog, I’m asking myself some questions. 

What do they need? If we can package something they need anyway as a gift, that's not just a win for us, but it might even recenter their perception around how things appear in their lives. Obviously, I’m not suggesting you stuff their stockings with nothing but athletic socks. But here’s an example: Hazel is attending sleep away camp for the first time next summer. The packing list is extensive. She’ll need not only clothes but fun stuff like cute blankets, accessories in camp colors, etc. There’s no reason to buy everything in the spring when these items can pull double duty now. Doing so will also reinforce that sleep away camp is a huge privilege and that everything associated with it is a gift. The same applies for sports equipment, a new sleeping bag, or a million other things that they need.

What could we do? I love giving the girls gifts they can experience. Big events are great, like seeing the Rockettes at Radio City, but events don’t need to be big to be memorable. Staying up past bedtime to eat dessert in the car and drive around looking at holiday lights is something they’d remember just as much. Packaging together small items like slippers and a bath bomb to have a home spa night is also fun. Board games are another example of gifts that give more than the physical item itself–they give the gift of time spent together. We didn’t give away a single game in this most recent purge. I think that says a lot. 

What are they aspiring to? I’m trying to think longer term about what’s in store for them in the year ahead. Ruby is recognizing letters and suddenly has an interest in reading and writing. Hazel is developing her own taste in music and is diving deeper into the technology she has access to. Instead of thinking about what will keep them busy, I’m thinking about what we can challenge them with. Ruby will receive her first set of little reader books, and Hazel’s getting a stylus pen for her iPad to create digital art. They might not be ready to take full advantage of gifts like these today, but they’ll be motivated to grow with them.

We know we aren’t done cleaning our basement for life. There will be more crappy toys. But as I lean on this tiny chair, which I just accepted $25 for on the Facebook marketplace, I have a much better idea of what’s most valued of all. 


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