Last Christmas was the breaking point for me. I remember standing amongst the chaos on the 26th of December and feeling upset to the point of nausea. There was so much stuff. Everywhere. Flung carelessly in every corner. Already discarded less than 24 hours later. Not to mention all the packaging, but don’t even get me started on that.
I looked at my daughter and on a whim asked her if there was anything there that she thought she might not want. Surprisingly, she looked around and quickly grabbed a craft kit of some sort. She handed it to me and said, “Here mommy. I’m not going to play with this.” I suggested we donate it to other children who didn’t get much for Christmas and she happily agreed. That’s when I knew for certain something had to be done. When even a young child realizes there’s too much, it’s definitely a call to action. Add to that research that shows that kids with less toys develop more creativity and imagination as well as stay more active, and a fire was lit under me.
So we decided to make some changes, but realized that convincing two small children that receiving less gifts was a good thing was going to take some time. So we chipped away at it over the entire year. We had a good amount of time before their birthdays came around again so we set an intention to change their way of looking at things.
We started by purging toys that they were no longer playing with. We told them that we had to make room for new stuff by getting rid of old stuff. We pointed out to them how we do that with clothes that are too small or worn out so we should do it with toys too. My partner told them they each had to choose one thing to give away every day for the entire month of January. I thought that was way too ambitious but guess what? They did it without complaint. I was floored.
At the end of the month we sorted what should just be thrown out, what should be given away, and what could be taken to Boomerang (a local children’s consignment store). We explained that when we take things to Boomerang we get new things like hats and mittens in exchange. We took them along to see that someone else could enjoy their old stuff and they could choose cool new stuff.
We also started talking a lot about experiences that they really enjoyed. When we went to the beach, the movies, or anyplace special we talked about it for a long time after. We reminded them months later of how much fun we all had and the new things we saw and did, and how they remembered them much more than they remembered what they got for Christmas.
Opportunities to change their mindset presented themselves often when we knew what to look for. For instance, our daughter went to a birthday party for twin girls her age. The party was not only attended by school friends, but also the girls’ extended family and family friends so there were a lot of people there. The gift table was about eight feet long and completely piled with gifts. My partner pointed out to our daughter how many gifts there were and she agreed there were a lot. We asked her what she thought they were going to do with all of that stuff. She looked at us and said, “They’re probably going to give it away.” Wow. Parental fist pump.
Holding the Course
We continued throughout the year to put the emphasis on fun experiences and we also continued to purge the toys. I can happily say we got down to Legos, books, games we can play as a family, and a reasonable amount of cherished figurines and mini cars. Parental happy dance.
Then came the first really big test – our son’s birthday. After having attended lots of other kid’s birthday parties, both of our kids saw the gifts and the birthday kid opening them all. What kid doesn’t like opening tons of presents? We knew we had our work cut out for us, but we also knew we had been sowing the seeds for months.
My partner had found this amazing web site called Echo Age. It is a wonderful new way to do kid’s birthday parties. Rather than having your guests bring a gift, they make a donation. The birthday child picks a charity and half of the donation goes to the charity while the other half (minus a small administrative fee) goes to the child. This way rather than receiving 15 small gifts (let’s face it, most of which the child is never going to play with) the child can pick one big thing they really want.
We wanted so badly for this to work for so many reasons, but our son was just turning five. We were afraid at his age he would never go for it, but we put our faith in all the groundwork we had laid and talked to him about it. We explained that he got to pick the charity and that at the end he would get to pick something big to buy for himself. Then we held our breath and told him he wouldn’t be having any gifts to open at his party. To our surprise he readily agreed.
The day of his party he never said a word about not having presents and we got lots of positive feedback from the other parents. He was so happy to go shopping the day after his party and be able to pick what he wanted. When all was said and done, we ended up with two things he really wanted and everyone was thrilled. And once our daughter saw that her brother got to pick what he wanted with his own money, she jumped right on board for her birthday too.
Next big hurdle – Christmas. Not from the perspective of our kids, but from the perspective of friends and family who love buying stuff for the kids. We asked everyone not to buy stuff, but to give experiences instead. This is a hugely contentious issue amongst friends and family, and amazingly has been known to cause huge rifts. We held our breath again and waited. In the end we still ended up with stuff, but definitely less than last year. Some people fully embraced the idea and will be giving the kids experiences such as a sleepover and a live show, or a trip to the movies.
We consider it a great step in the right direction. We continue chipping away at the kids’ mindset and showing them that experiences are far more memorable than stuff. After Christmas this year we asked them if they remembered a single thing they got last Christmas. Of course neither of them did. Then we asked them if they remembered going to the beach in PEI, seeing the animals at Parc Omega, or going to the movies with their aunties, and off they launched on an enthusiastic and detailed recounting of their adventures.
Getting young children to give up on opening a mountain of gifts on their birthday or on Christmas morning is no easy feat. But I believe that with time we can show them that things we experience with people we love are way more memorable and important than stuff. Next challenge – working towards having the kids purchase experiences with their birthday money rather than toys. What? We can all dream can’t we?