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5 Ways to Set Stuff Limits for Your Kids

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We are so so grateful to have kids who are loved by their relatives. I’m sure you are, too.

But…do birthday parties at your house look like a toy store exploded? Have you ever found your two-year-old so overwhelmed at Christmas, she only plays with one thing? Or perhaps she even prefers the boxes and bows to anything under the tree? Do you ever look around after these special occasions and sort of dread dealing with all this STUFF?

It’s no secret our lives are filled with stuff. Many of us are literally bursting at the seams of our houses with toys and accessories, clothes, Legos, Barbies, Littlest Pet Shops, and Star Wars everything. Kids’ rooms and closets become voids where it’s impossible to enjoy or even find the things they have.

On that now-infamous day when I took away my kids’ toys, I learned a very profound lesson–they didn’t really need all that stuff, or even really want it.  While I expected them to freak out, it didn’t happen. Instead their creativity flourished and they began appreciating the things they do have even more. And while it has been several years now, we’ve never gone back to the “old” way.  Our kids do have toys, yes, but only just a few.

As adults, we’ve grown accustomed to the mentality that we should always have “more,” score better deals, and save money by bringing in more stuff. But kids haven’t been tainted by the idea of “bigger, better, faster, more” yet, and they’re simply happy with what they have.

If you’re drowning in a sea of toys, here are some practical ways to set stuff limits for your kids:

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Setting Limits with Relatives

As beautifully as my girls adapted to the new idea of having less “stuff,” our relatives and friends didn’t quite embrace it as fully.

My husband’s sister, who passed away a few years ago, had no children and loved our daughters like her own. She LOVED giving them gifts and spoiling them as much as possible. It was always well intentioned and came straight from the heart.

Unfortunately, it also led to the chaos of our already-stuffed-to-the-gills house. One Christmas in particular, she gave our girls so many gifts we hardly knew where to put them all. Many of the items ended up in the attic, and later, as we were organizing and decluttering, I packed them up to donate to charity.

I took a photo showing how many things we’d “cleaned out” and posted it here on the blog. My sister-in-law saw the post with the photo showing so many of her gifts in the pile, and was, understandably crushed. I apologized up and down but felt terrible, and still do, to be honest. It was such a cringe-inducing moment, and I know it hurt her feelings.

But looking back on it, I realize that the real misstep was in our hesitation to set strong limits with family beforehand. Yes, we said, in a half-joking voice, “We’re cleaning out. No more stuff this year!” But we knew full well that there would be gifts.

A better way to handle it (and what I’ve found works best today) is to be up front and honest about it. A sincere request and explanation can really help steer things in the right direction and prevent awkwardness and hurt feelings later on.

For family like grandparents, who tend to overdo it when it comes to gifts, explain you’re trying hard to set some limits. You’ve recently been cleaning out and getting organized and you want to help your kids embrace the idea of charity and appreciation for what they have. Explain that you’d really appreciate it if they’d help you with this parenting endeavor and support you.

If they say they just love to shop or they really find joy in picking out Christmas gifts, you can suggest they help you adopt a family in need. Have the kids help pick out gifts for a “Secret Santa,” while forgoing their own gifts or picking just one or two items that are really special.

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Give Needs Over Wants

Another idea to help alleviate some of the excess during holidays and birthdays is to request assistance for a specific need. This might be seed money for a college fund, donations toward a school trip, or help with defraying the cost of uniforms and supplies for a sports team or hobby.

Ask family members to buy cleats, football pads, or hockey skates, or to help pay for lessons your child really wants to try. If your daughter has been begging to give ballet a whirl or try horseback riding, it would make a wonderful gift!

Asking for specific clothing also helps fulfill some needs. Perhaps your son needs a new winter coat or boots. Maybe new, cool shoes for school or an outfit for a dance or special event would be even more meaningful as a gift.

As parents, it can be hard to shift your mentality to asking for “needs,” especially if you don’t subscribe to the philosophy of “it takes a village” and you embrace self-reliance. However, allowing relatives to give something meaningful that can also help out with your financial constraints can be a real gift to the whole family, not just your child.

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Request Experiences Rather than Gifts

Rather than giving items, ask insistent friends and relatives to give experiences, rather than gifts. It doesn’t have to be a cruise or Disney Vacation. It can be something simple—a day of cookie making with Grandma, a trip to a children’s museum, or going to a movie together.

These small moments can be the most meaningful and create memories your kids will cherish for a lifetime.

For a birthday party with friends, it’s perfectly gracious to write on the invitation, “No gifts please. Your presence is our only request.” Or, ask each friend, “Instead of a gift, bring your favorite stuffed animal to join in the party fun.” If you plan a trip to an amusement park, swimming pool or another activity where cost is a factor, most fellow parents will greatly appreciate not having to shell out for a gift in addition to the activity. In fact, you just may find them following your lead for their child’s next birthday party.

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Gratitude Above All

When your child receives a gift (or several gifts), no matter what, always encourage graciousness. Teach your kids to always say thank you and follow the basic rules of gift etiquette from an early age.

This means opening the card first and reading it aloud. Express appreciation (never disappointment) and tell the gift-giver how much you appreciate the thought. While you, as a parent, may privately need to talk to a family member about overdoing it on gifts, your kids should always learn to accept things kindly and graciously, especially in front of an audience.

No matter what you end up doing with the gift, teach your kids how to write a well-thought-out thank you letter, telling the recipient not only how much they enjoyed the gift, but more importantly, how much they enjoy their relationship with the gift giver and the meaning behind the present.

Even at a young age, kids can learn to draw a picture and help mom compose a thank you note to go along with their present.

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When to Decline

In most cases, it’s probably best to accept the gift, say thank you and move on, even if you’re frustrated with a relative who keeps giving gifts against your requests or preferences. It’s much easier to try to stave off over-giving on the front end then to put the toothpaste back in the tube once the gift has been given.

That said, there are a few things you can do when you’re given a gift you don’t feel comfortable accepting. Above all, always say thank you right away. Thank the giver for their thoughtfulness, kindness and sentiment.

Let them know the gift is far too valuable and you’re not comfortable accepting it. If the gift is something that doesn’t match your parenting philosophy or something you don’t approve of, simply let them know you appreciate it greatly, but you know they didn’t realize you don’t allow the item in your house, so you’ll have to decline.

In most cases, however, it may be easier to simply accept the gift and further down the line, just let the giver know you’ve been cleaning out and decluttering your home. Explain how you’re trying to embrace a new philosophy on fighting the flow of stuff, and while they were so generous at the last birthday/holiday/etc. next time, would they be willing to skip gifts? In all cases, this is a conversation for the adults. Kids should learn to just accept the gift graciously.

Fighting the flow of stuff means working hard to keep new things from coming into our homes and cluttering up our lives. When we’re blessed to have people in our lives who love us and our kids, and who want to show that by giving gifts, it can be hard to stop it. You might feel like a killjoy or “fun ruiner” by keeping gift giving at bay.

However, when it comes down to it, it’s really about the relationships and not about the stuff. It’s about cultivating our friendships, expressing our gratitude, and holding our loved ones close. It’s about letting them know we appreciate their expression of love and tokens of affection, but what we really want is their time and connection. Sharing this love and mindset can help us change up the pattern and perhaps even someday get unstuffed.

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14 Comments

  1. October 14 at 10:33AM

    Great blog thanks for sharing!

  2. Ann
    October 14 at 05:55PM

    I still have so much trouble with this. I ‘get’ both sides. I’m sure it is better to have uncluttered places for children to play. But one of my greatest joys is giving people gifts. Handing a child a ticket to a ballet — even though they would love it — just does NOT give the same joy. Perhaps when the children get older it would be exciting for them to open that, but not a younger child.
    Sigh… just had my first grandchild and so haven’t had to deal with this issue too close to home… but it will come, I am sure.

  3. Sharon
    October 14 at 09:06PM

    So… what do we do if we’ve had these conversations MULTIPLE TIMES with EVERY RELATIVE and still nothing changes? We’ve tried the pre-conversation, post-conversation, thank-you-and-ignore, purge-later-but-don’t-tell, everything and more. But nothing has changed. And I’m not just talking one relative. Every grandparent, every aunt, every potential gift-giver. For 5 years worth of birthdays, Christmases, every other holiday, and random non-event giving. What do you do then? (FYI, we have moved over 10 times in the last 4 years, 5 of them international moves, usually living in a 1-2 bedroom apartment with no extra storage space for a family of 3 then 4 now 5)

    I think another hard part for me is that I don’t feel that I can give my kids any gifts because all the ideas of what they actually need/want have to go to people who will buy them stuff anyway, regardless of how often we suggest/beg/push for the experience or the trip or the whatever. We’re not stuff people or big gift-givers; we’ve always been much more into experiences and trips. Sure I still feel happy when the kids are excited about a gift they got from someone else that was my idea, and I’m not looking for the praise or recognition. But every now and then, I’d like to be the one to give my child something (that I’ve usually put my heart and mind into thinking about what would really interest them or excite them) instead of having to give the idea away to a relative.

    Stopping the flow has been our biggest challenge since our kids came along because our limits are ignored, no matter how we present them. So what do you do when even the 5 Ways to Set Stuff Limits hasn’t worked?

    • Cherise
      October 15 at 01:13AM

      Honestly I would just give the gift back as in not take it with you when you leave. Your home is your boundaries. If you don’t want it in your home, don’t accept it. Especially if you have tried other means to settle this between you and the giver. Leave it with them to return or do as they please. Tell them you simply don’t have space to bring home more things but would prefer gifts of experience.

      • Lara
        October 17 at 05:41PM

        Gifts of experience can end with a photo album or other memory book if the giver really wants the child to have something tangible.

    • Brenda
      October 15 at 10:55AM

      Give stuff to local Children’s home or foster care program. You can bless others as you are being blessed.

    • Brenda
      October 16 at 12:51PM

      Rather than refusing “new gifts”, why not donate older toys to charity. This allows the givers the pleasure of giving and I haven’t met many kids who don’t like something new. If its really something you don’t want be gracious, then give it away. If you have an idea of something you want to give your child yourself, then don’t share that idea with the relatives. Keep it for yourself. Simple.
      As a grandparent of only one, not giving gifts would break my heart. Gifts are one of my “love languages”. I do love the experiences idea tho. I am planning a trip to a glass blowing studio with my 9 yr. old granddaughter. I have been and she loves the orb I made. She will love making her own.(She meets the age requirements). Experiences will be much more memorable for both of us.

  4. October 15 at 07:59AM

    Requesting experiences is such a great tip! My children don’t need anymore toys or electronics! I will definitely be sharing this with my family this holiday season!

  5. October 15 at 11:33AM

    This is something we have been working on in our family! It is particularly hard with grandparents. When complaining to my sister about being overwhelmed by gifts at our house, my sister pointed out that for some of our relatives, gift-giving is their “love language.” This helped me understand that gifts are an expression of their love and helped me better accept them with graciousness.

    Even with that understanding, I do admit to feeling a bit miffed when I’m the one dealing with the clutter and encouraging my unrelenting 5-year old to donate unused toys to charity!

    Thanks for this post–it helps to know that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

    • Brenda
      October 16 at 12:41PM

      My children are now grown, but every year in November, we donated toys of their choice to charity in preparation for the new toys that would be coming. This kept down the excess. My kids had no problem letting go of some things but kept the ones they really loved.

      • Lara
        October 17 at 05:46PM

        Clean out in November before all the Christmas stuff piles up in the living room—–What an awesome idea!!! I usually have my girls clean-out before they can take new Christmas or birthday gifts into their room but that means those things stay in the living room for at least 2 days. By being pro-active and doing this before the event they have space for the new items right away. Love it!!

  6. Cath
    October 18 at 09:09AM

    I know some people manage it by having their kids leave the majority gifts with the relative who gave them – that is, if they see them fairly regularly. That way, they have toys to play with when they visit. The relatives see they are being used, and the clutter doesn’t enter the house.

  7. October 18 at 10:32PM

    Great article – those are some great tips. I totally agree with the gift of experience. Hands down the best!

  8. Tg
    October 23 at 01:14PM

    I’m surprised by your comment: “If you plan a trip to an amusement park, swimming pool or another activity where cost is a factor, most fellow parents will greatly appreciate not having to shell out for a gift in addition to the activity.”

    My understanding has always been that if you host the party, you are responsible for paying for everyone you invite to the party. Just a month ago, I was, for the first time ever, faced with a birthday party invite which stated that the children invited would need to pay to attend, and that the $20 would cover the children pizza, cake and games. I was honestly shocked at someone expecting for me to pay for my child to attend their child’s party. (And yes, I know it is expensive… We had a party at the same place in a previous year).

    Even if you request no gifts, I think it is extremely tacky to expect guests to pay their way for the party…

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