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Why I Took My Kids Toys Away: 6 Years Later

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A little more than six years ago, I wrote what has become a now infamous post about  taking my kids’ toys away.  

At the time, I honestly had no idea what a brouhaha it would cause.  I was simply sharing our own experience—a moment in time where, as a mom, I was frustrated by the fact that my kids had way too many toys, could never keep them picked up, and were seemingly more and more dissatisfied. It was almost like the more they had, the less content they were, and as a mom, it worried me.

Over the years, the comments and reactions to that post have run the gamut, from parents applauding the decision and letting me know that post inspired them to do the same, to many others who were sure I was causing permanent psychological damage, depriving my children of a happy childhood, and setting them up to be neurotic hoarders who will require years of therapy. I’ve been accused of being a sociopath and a child abuser, received hate mail and death threats, and have had entire Tumblr pages and forum threads devoted to what a horrible person I am.

And then, just this week, the whole controversy was revived when the story was first published on Bored Panda and then picked up by the Daily Mail, and I once again became the most hated mom on the Internet.

Oh my.

The thing is—even at the time, I knew my kids’ problem with too much stuff was my fault. How could it not be? I had been filling their lives with stuff the same way I was filling mine. I think in some way, I looked at it a way to fill a hole inside of me, and to right every wrong that had been done to me. I wanted our lives to be perfect, and my vision of perfection included a perfectly decorated bedroom filled with beautiful things, a life where they would want for nothing. I equated giving them stuff with making them happy.

But in hindsight, that impulsive moment I took their toys away was the moment I realized it wasn’t working. All the stuff was NOT making them happier. If anything, it was having the opposite effect.

Was packing up all their toys in one fell swoop an overreaction by a tired mom of two young kids?

Probably.

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But it was also a much-needed turning point for our family—and especially for me. It was the moment where we stopped letting stuff control our lives. It was the moment we decided to value experiences and imagination and togetherness over image.

And looking back, it was the moment that we decided to choose contentment.

So much changed in that moment—big changes that would never have occurred had I simply cleaned up their room one more time, or tried to get rid of a little at a time. We needed the paradigm shift. It was the catalyst that spurred so much real and necessary change in our lives.

budget planning

My husband and I became more intentional about simplifying in all areas of our life. We went on a 2-month spending freeze, took a Financial Peace class and together worked to become debt-free, a journey I wrote about in my book Living Well Spending Less, and then again in Unstuffed.

That huge pile of toys sat in our hallway for about a week, and then we eventually figured out what to do with it all. Eventually I was able to sort through it, but very little actually got thrown in the garbage. More than half was sent to Goodwill, while almost everything else went up into the attic, and, (especially when the girls were younger), we began a system of rotating out just a few toys at a time

We tried to focus on only keeping items that spurred creativity and imagination, and also became much more intentional with birthdays and holidays, choosing to gift experiences rather than just more stuff.

First day of school picture

It has been six years, so my then 3 and 6 year old are now 9 and 12, growing into smart, kind, funny, creative, amazing young women with their own very distinct personalities. Every year I say this is my favorite year yet as a parent, just because they are so much fun (even as they sometimes drive me crazy!)

As far as causing lasting psychological damage to my kids, I can promise you that this has never been a concern.

Of all the things I worry about for my kids, scarring them by limiting the number of toys they have is not even on the radar screen.  In fact, I worry about the opposite, the psychological damage caused by a society that is constantly telling us we need more stuff to be happy.

My daughters are in no way deprived.  By most of the world’s standards, with plenty to eat, a comfortable home, and access to schooling, sports, medicine, art, and music, they are still extremely privileged.  They have had opportunities that most kids their age could only dream of, like traveling to Australia and South America and Europe.

Family vacation

My goal is for them to grow up with an attitude of gratitude for all that they have, not to complain about the stuff they missed out on. And to be honest, it is a conversation that we have regularly, even now.

At the end of the day, intentional parenting is always going to be a lot of really hard work.  I won’t pretend, even for a second, that I always know what I’m doing, or that every decision that I’ve made has been the right one.

I fail as a mom on a daily basis.

Sometimes I’m impatient. Sometimes I don’t listen the way I should. Sometimes I yell. Sometimes I’m unfair. There are many, many moments I don’t relish as a mom, and many other moments I’m not all that proud of.

But the thing is, there is no magic solution for raising perfect kids.

No parent is perfect, no parent has all the answers, and teaching our kids all the things they will need to know to be productive and joy-filled adults–how to work hard, use their manners, eat their vegetables, think about others, clean up after themselves, to problem solve and use critical thinking skills, is always going to be a work in progress.

Taking my kids’ toys away was a pivotal moment in our lives, but that moment was also just one moment in a whole lifetime of parenting moments.

And six years later, it is still a moment that I will always be grateful for.

P.S. Want to continue the conversation on this hot button topic? Let’s connect on Instagram.

 

Ever wonder what happened to the kids whose mom ignited a firestorm when she took all their toys away?  Six years later, this follow-up post addresses all the questions brought up by that still very controversial post.   A must read!

14 Comments

  1. October 26 at 12:26PM

    I don’t get why people are so upset- yes, you emptied the rooms in one swoop of toys. but you didn’t take them ALL away, you do the rotation system. Which is what I do now. It’s amazing.
    I still have too many toys in my kiddos room but I swear I didn’t buy even half of it. It’s all family. 🙂

  2. October 26 at 12:28PM

    That post os actually the reason I started following you. I wish someone would jump out from behind their screen and tell me I’m horrible because I don’t parent the way they would. Like my 9 year old says, we do not appreciate your judgy judgemental judgement.

  3. S. Bledsoe
    October 26 at 01:05PM

    I was incredibly shocked at the comments you posted. I’ve always been against an abundance of toys and “stuff” Growing up we had all the latest toys, video games and a TV in our room. We were just surrounded by things. I loved to read and my mother made sure I also had books and such, but really – that’s all I cared about. The other things took over and I swore that I would not just buy toys for my child. My son is five and he’ll tell you “mama doesn’t buy me toys mama buys me BOOKS!” Even as an active, healthy and sometimes crazy, kid – he knows how to unplug and just grab a book and chill in his comfy nook. I cannot believe that people can actually be angry at a mother who wants her children to experience the world, communicate, practice gratitude, and more importantly – talk to one another. Of all the sad stories I hear of child abuse, I cannot believe they would even think to compare what you’re doing, to that! Best of luck raising two strong, beautiful and smart girls, and I wish you and your family nothing but pure joy and happiness.

  4. Sally Howarth
    October 26 at 03:08PM

    I must be worse than you. I didn’t let my kids watch regular TV as children. PBS or videos. That was it. Why?? Cuz I didn’t want them to want everything they saw on the commercials. I rotated toys, all the played with the same small collection of toys. My boy and two girls, they didn’t start getting their own toys till they were nearly double digits. Now they are adults and they value relationships and not things. They are loving, kind, and thoughtful. I feel very proud of them.

  5. Helen
    October 26 at 03:59PM

    Wow, the hatred in those posts surprised me to say the least. Almost all were ultimately equating happiness with material things. Those posters may be surprised which children need therapy in adulthood.

  6. October 26 at 04:24PM

    It’s shocking the way people treat other people. I’m sorry you had people say these things to you- especially when you’re trying to figure out the best possible way to raise your children. Honestly I think if people took your approach more often we would see healthier family relationships. When a child’s world isn’t cluttered with stuff, they have more room to be creative and grow. The other side effect of taking away toys, is you spend more time playing/reading to your kids. I’ve done the same thing. It’s such a great trade! Keep at it, girl!

  7. October 27 at 03:43AM

    Hi Ruth,
    I’m in the stage of big decluttering these 2 days, been sorting out 2/3 of our storeroom & donate 10 toys/kids books. I plan to tackle kids toys next Monday & have been thinking to get rid of most my kids’ toys the whole week. But I still don’t know I will do it or not. There were times I get rid little by little but it didn’t work, specially in the area of sticking them to daily routines, gratitude, discipline to pick up after themselves. I know I do play the big part that they havent succeded in this area. Your post really resonates to me & will help me to think & consider my next step. Thank you.

  8. October 27 at 10:59AM

    Wow. I never came across the original post, but I wholeheartedly admire your attempt at helping your children understand that ‘less is more’. My kids are older and beginning to see for themselves that ‘stuff’ is not what makes life worthwhile. They have to make their own journey (I’m a great believer in that), but it’s wonderful to see my 13-year-old declare she ‘doesn’t do brands’.

  9. Candyce
    October 30 at 02:03PM

    This is so interesting. I had three children each about 2 years apart. I stayed home with them so there was very little money for toys or even McDonalds. I kept thinking but what they will remember most is I was with them. And that is exactly what happened.

    Fast forward to when they were 18, 16 and 14 and we had a surprise baby boy. By now I was working and between the older ones and me we got him so much stuff. Which he would play with the first day and rarely would pick up again. So I pulled back and he did so much better. He no longer cried to get something every where we went.
    Now he is a young adult and doing so well.

    So I support what you are doing!

  10. November 1 at 01:04PM

    (Insert emoji with hand on the face and eye roll) We live in a world of what I like to call “Instant Opinion.”

    I got nasty comments on my Kids Chore List printable that I made for my son. According to whoever these people are in the world, “I’m a child abuser,” “need my son taken away,” and “I’m also what’s wrong with the world.” (Insert eye roll emoji again.) My son is a better human for learning to take care of and respect our home and all of our families belongings. Teaching him all these things is a big role in being a mom to my son, but others of course have their opinion on that.

    Back to your post you made, First of all, good job momma! I truly believe we live in a consumers world. People consume so much, especially in our country (I believe the US is actually #1 or at least in the top and has been for some time). I am NOT a collector of anything at all and I teach this to my son too. If we have things that we don’t use or that we can live without, we give it to someone that needs it. Don’t get me wrong, I like nice things and our family doesn’t go without but I also want my son to grateful for all he has.

  11. November 2 at 07:23AM

    It’s about your family and love ones, so I believe none can teach you what’s the best way for you and your family. I believe if your children are happy with the change you made, if they are happy with their life, then of course it’s the good decision. But if only you are happy with the decision you made, and if they are not truly happy, then I think you should make some changes.

  12. jennifer
    November 2 at 09:31PM

    I think you are a great mom! You are not crazy, those other commenters may be though….
    You are one of the first people to ever inspire me to simplify! Thank you for that!

  13. November 5 at 09:15PM

    I’m a BIG believer in this! I donated 90% of my 4 sons’ toys over 7 years ago and haven’t looked back. I think what most people don’t realize is that minimizing stuff actually frees kids up to use their imagination more, to live more deeply in the toys they do have, and to play better in general. Kids get overwhelmed just as much as, if not more than, us adults. I love this response post and I think you stately it all perfectly!

  14. November 16 at 07:14AM

    Thanks for sticking to your convictions on this! That post was how I found you and your blog. And because of that journey, I took EBA and am building my own blog and business!

    I couldn’t agree with your “toys stance” any more. If kids are basing their happiness and life worth on how many toys they have, there are more problems than toys going on.

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