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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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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