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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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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