Our kids have too much stuff

At some point, something will have to be done about the stuffed animals. I haven’t counted them because, truthfully, I’m not prepared to know how many there are. But there are too many: packed into my toddler’s bed, in heaping baskets on the first level of our house, covering the floor of my kindergartner’s room. Then there are the puzzles (14), the assorted plastic toy animals (60-plus), the Legos (10,000, give or take). There’s the trike both my kids have outgrown (one, collecting dust on my porch). The half-broken toys relegated to the basement for eventual “repair” (roughly a dozen, including a cat keyboard that recently started making low, garbled growling sounds; it might be haunted).

There is already too much stuff, and now, staring down the gift-laden winter holidays, there is the stress (and guilt) of knowing even more is incoming. Lately, our neighborhood’s message boards and online community gifting page are alight with parents trying to make space, to clear out the things their kids no longer need. The tone of some of these posts can best be described as “emergency”: “Help!” they sometimes begin. “I HAVE to get this out of my house.”

There are simply too many things in our parenting lives, and not enough hours in a week (much less a week in December) to deal with them all. Even if you miraculously find time to tackle a closet or a stack of bins, other emotional traps await. You might find yourself slowed by nostalgia (remember when the 2-year-old couldn’t fall asleep without clutching that little wooden spatula!?), or by environmental remorse (where, exactly, will a discarded toy end up on our already overburdened planet?), or because you keep thinking about how your daughter calls this particular stuffed moose “Mallory” and you can’t stop picturing the incinerator scene from “Toy Story 3.”

“We have a basement storage area under the stairs where we have bins of toys that we’re supposed to swap out and rotate, and — I can’t,” says Colleen Cusick, a mom of three and teacher in New Jersey who absolutely does not have time to maintain a toy rotation schedule. “So the toys have just been in bins, under the basement stairs, for years.” She sighs. “We should get rid of them.”

We should, except sometimes we can’t.

“We are never getting rid of those,” says Carleen Haylett, a mom of a 12-year-old son in Vermont, referring to the growing collection of stuffed bunnies that her son has amassed over his Christmases. The bunnies are conduits for so many memories, she says; they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

“My sisters keep giving me things,” says Tresa Wiggins, a mom in Ellicott City, Md., with a 10-month-old and a 3-year-old. “I have, in my attic right now, bins that probably go up to size 4T boy clothes.” She makes a sound that is half-laugh, half-snort: “We don’t have a boy.”

The chaotic clutter of parenthood is, in large part, what made Naeemah Ford Goldson decide to become a professional organizer. Goldson, the executive director and founder of the National Association of Black Professional Organizers, is also a mom of two, and she wanted to help others navigate the material sprawl of parenting, which often begins before a child is even born: “Unless you’ve taken on that minimalist mind-set early on, you are made to feel like you need everything,” she says.

But even if you yourself are determined to be minimalist, there are the other people in your life. “My mom loves buying things, and we had to get to a point where we were like, ‘Mom, please, they don’t need any more toys,’” Goldson says. “But there were times where she’d want to do it anyway.”

The proliferation of kid stuff is relatively recent, but it is the outcome of a long, gradual cultural shift, says Gary Cross, a professor at Penn State University and a historian with a focus on childhood and consumption in 20th-century America. To understand how we got here — drowning in all those stuffed animals and Legos — it helps to look as far back as the late 19th century, he says, when the dynamics of an American family began to shift in significant ways. That’s when the line between family and work split: “Parents were no longer passing their jobs on to the children, so there wasn’t the same bond over learning a trade,” Cross says. “Instead, you connect across generations through the gifting process. From the early 20th century on, goods became the things that define relationships between family members, and the way of marking success as a family.” For those privileged enough to indulge, buying things became a love language of sorts.

At first, these gifts were limited, and defined by gendered, adult expectations: Girls were given dollhouses, to help prepare them to be homemakers. Boys got erector sets, because they might become engineers. It wasn’t until the 1970s, Cross says, that toy manufacturers started marketing directly to kids through movies and television. “Toys became part of a fantasy world of children, separate from adults,” he says. With that pivot, Pandora’s toy box was blown open; half a century later, we’re all buried in “Bluey” figurines.

All these belongings accumulate rapidly, especially in the early years of parenthood, when kids outgrow clothes and toys and accessories quickly. Some parents stave off the emotional pang of parting with baby items by boxing them away with the idea that another beloved child — a future niece or nephew — might make use of them. Cusick, who has several younger sisters, saved everything for her siblings and their future families. But now that her sisters are becoming parents, they don’t actually want any of her stuff.

“The aesthetics of parenthood, the aesthetics of childhood objects, change quite a bit,” Cusick says. “I saved so much baby stuff, planning to give it to my sisters when they eventually had children, and then my first sister to have a child had a baby about a year ago, and she really didn’t want very much of my stuff at all. She wanted the chic, minimalist mobile for the crib. She didn’t want my Skip Hop Treetop Friends play mat — it was too garish, orange and green.”

Cusick gets it, she says; who would want an original NoseFrida snot sucker when the new ones are electric? (Electric!) But: “Now I have to figure out what to do with all this stuff that I kept for 11 years in the anticipation that I’d be passing it along to someone in my family.”

Tresa Wiggins and her husband, James, both have older siblings — Tresa has six older sisters — who are eager to offload all the sentimental childhood items that they couldn’t bear to part with.

“They want their stuff gone, out of their house, but they don’t want to throw it away because it’s important to them,” James says. “They get upset when we don’t take it.”

That’s how they wound up driving home from a family Thanksgiving gathering in South Carolina last year with a huge toy car strapped to the roof of their truck. He’d told his sister-in-law that he didn’t want the truck, he says. “But they made us feel guilty, and convinced us that we needed to take it. And they didn’t even have a charger for this truck, so we’d have to buy that, and it was sort of run-down and degraded, and we had to drive it back to Maryland.”

Tresa and James live in a small house in Ellicott City; they don’t have unlimited storage, and they try to be thoughtful about what they acquire. They give things away through Buy Nothing, and try to focus on experiences they can share with their daughters. When James volunteered at Goodwill in South Carolina a decade ago, he says, all the donated baby toys were immediately thrown in a dumpster: “The store had a whole section of baby stuff that nobody was buying. You couldn’t give the stuff away.”

James has seen photos of donated clothes that pile up in landfills in other countries, and he wants to be mindful of the Earth his daughters will inherit. But there is only so much he can dictate. “I can give my kids wooden toys all I want, but I can’t control what the grandmothers do. It becomes this socially awkward thing. You become the weird parent who doesn’t want your kid to have presents,” he says.

When sentimental emotions get involved, Goldson urges her clients to be discerning. “If there are one or two things that really hold significance to them, then maybe put that in a keepsake box,” she says. “But everything can’t hold significance.”

In her own home, Goldson likes to include her kids in the work of purging their clothes and toys. They know that the items they don’t need anymore will be given to people who can use them, to families who might not be as fortunate as theirs.

“Getting them involved helps them build those habits of letting go,” she says, “so then they don’t become adults who are too connected to material things instead of experiences, or people, and the memories we make with people.”

Her point resonated, so a few nights later, I sat down with my 5-year-old and an overflowing basket of stuffed animals. I told her that we should find some to give to refugees in our community, children who recently moved here from another country and had to leave all their own belongings behind.

She immediately plucked a pink bear from the pile: “We can give them this one!” she said, and set it to the side. “That’s good!” I said. She added an owl. “That’s great!” I said. She picked up a stuffed tiger. “This one —” she hesitated. “This one wants to take a nap with the turtle,” she said, and tucked it beside a stuffed turtle on her bed. “That’s okay!” I said. We do what we can.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *