SFP 169: Too Many Toys?

Do your kids have too many toys? When it comes to toys, there is no perfect number. But in today’s episode we are talking about why children don’t need a lot of toys. Having an abundance of toys is not only unnecessary but could be harmful. We are talking about all that and more.

Complete Transcription:

Today, we’re talking about too many toys. How did we get here? How did our kids end up with so many toys? Our intentions were good. The grandparents, the aunts and uncles, whoever else is buying, their intentions are good as well. But too many toys aren’t just unnecessary, but sometimes they can actually be harmful. I know harmful is a strong word to use here, but I’m going to explain more about this. I’m going to explain why scaling back on the toys is actually not only in your best interest, less cleanup time, less chaos, but it’s also in the best interest of your kids.

Before we get into today’s episode, I want to bring you a 60-second ad from today’s sponsor. Today’s episode is sponsored by Cultural Care. Now, Cultural Care is an au pair agency, and what is an au pair agency you might ask? It’s an agency that links you with au pairs. Many of you know that we’re in our second year participating in the U.S. au pair program and we absolutely love it. Cultural Care is the name of the au pair agency that we use, and the way that they define an au pair is a caring and committed, adventurous, educated young person between 18 and 26 years old. They come from many different countries worldwide. All au pairs have childcare experience and undergo a multi-step screening and training process before joining your family as a live in child care provider.

I was surprised to learn that an au pair actually costs about half what a nanny costs in our area, and that was one of the first reasons that led me to explore the process. Au pairs can provide up to 45 hours a week of flexible childcare. That means you can use three hours in the morning and three hours at night, or 10 hours on a Saturday. So it can really work for people who have both regular schedules and irregular schedules.

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It is officially September and we are back in weekly mode for the podcast. That means you’ll get a new episode every week, and I’m getting ready to launch a new round of the Masterclass. Now, if you’re not familiar with a Masterclass, the Masterclass is my flagship program that focuses on simplifying the family. This will be the last time this year that I’m going to be offering the program and I would love to have you join me. It’s an eight-week program. We spend four weeks focused on simplifying the home and four weeks focused on simplifying your parenting. If you want to learn more, go to simplefamilies.com/masterclass, and there’s lots and lots of information there, as well as information about how to sign up. Each time I run this program, it’s such an amazing group of families and the feedback that the program gets is incredible.

, and there’s lots and lots of information there, as well as information about how to sign up. Each time I run this program, it’s such an amazing group of families and the feedback that the program gets is incredible.

I’m going to read you a few words from Madison, who took the most recent Masterclass, and she said, “I guess I hadn’t told my husband that I was taking the Masterclass and today he saw it up on my computer and said, ‘I saw the class you’re taking. Is that why you’ve been so chill?’ Your class has changed my relationship with my children and my husband. I’m happier, calmer, more understanding, and apparently also more chill. I don’t have much to simplify in the way of stuff, since I’ve always been the type to purge and organize and only keep what I need. However, I’ve simplified my routines, systems, and mostly my attitude and approach towards parenting and marriage.

I’ve slowed down and no longer rush out the door. I think about what I truly need to pack for our outings with the kids and I keep it simple. I’m spending more time at home playing and reading with the kids. I’ve improved my communication with my husband and I feel like we’re more of a team. I have simplified my outlook on household chores and I’ve been able to keep up with it, which means I’m less stressed about keeping the house clean. Denaye, your class has drastically improved our family life and I am forever grateful. Thank you.”

Madison, I so appreciate you sharing your words with me. I can’t tell you all how much it means to me to hear this sort of thing and to know that the work that I’m doing is actually touching people, and furthermore, actually improving lives. From a personal perspective, one of the reasons that I really love this program, and the other ones that I run, is because sometimes being a podcaster and putting out content online, I feel like I’m just talking at you a lot and it’s not as interactive as I would like it to be. So when I run these programs I actually get to know you, the people out there who are listening. It’s very reassuring that I’m not just talking to a wall, which sometimes it kind of feels like that. So again, Madison, thank you for sharing your very, very kind words and I am so glad to hear that the Masterclass had such an impact on your family.

The next round of the class is starting on September 16th, and the early-bird pricing is going to go until September 12th. So I would love to have you join me before that. You can get all the details that simplefamilies.com/masterclass. I hope to see you there.

In the spirit of the Masterclass, we’re going to be talking today about too many toys. We have a lesson in the Masterclass that talks about reducing the toys, how to do it, why to do it. I first want to talk about my own experience with toys. I found minimalism back in 2014, and back in 2014, I was wrapping up my Ph.D. in child development. When I became a mom the year before in 2013, I was already heavily invested on buying high-quality toys for my kids. I wanted to fill their lives and their bedrooms with lots of educational, durable, beautiful things.

I was thinking a lot about quality and never really thought much about quantity, which means every single educational, beautiful toy that I saw, I could make some excuse to buy it. So we had a lot of stuff. It was good stuff, but we had a lot of stuff. As I moved through parenthood and I wrapped up my PhD, I started to be able to bring theory to practice. What I mean by that is the theory and the philosophies that I was learning in my PhD program, I was really starting to put those into practice as a mother, and I was really starting to look at the impact of my parenting and the way that we were living our life and how that contributed to my children and their behavior and their development. It didn’t really take me long to realize that, yes, quality is important when it comes to toys, but so is giving consideration to quantity, because our kids do not need a whole lot of toys.

Now, many of us are going to see that our kids don’t actually spend a lot of time playing with toys. Now, a lot of kids are playing in some way, shape, or form all day long, but the thing is they’re not actually playing with toys all that much. Now, you might have kids who don’t even spend that much time at home. Maybe they’re in full-time daycare or they’re in school full time, and then on the weekends you’re doing errands and you’re out and about doing things. So you find that they don’t spend a whole lot of time at home, but yet your house is filled with tons of toys. Or you might find that you keep buying new toys, trying to look for things that are going to be the perfect fit and they’re going to be engaging for your kid because your kid doesn’t seem to care much about toys or engage much with the toys that they have.

Whatever the reason, most kids, at least here in the U.S. have too many toys. How did we get here? Why do we have this problem? Because it is absolutely 100% a first-world problem. There are two main reasons that I see kids getting a lot of toys. The first is we do a lot of front-loading. Now, when I say front-loading, that means we front-load the joy on our toys, and some of you may have heard me talk about this before. We love, love to see the joy when our kids get something new, the look on their face, the excitement, the expressions. Now, not just us, but the grandparents and the aunts and uncles and anyone else who’s buying toys, they also love to see this too. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying seeing your kid light up about a toy.

The problem comes in when we consider the fact that the things that get our kids really excited, the things that light our kids up immediately, are often the things that also get set aside pretty quickly. Our kids get really excited and enthusiastic about the toys that they see on TV, they see in commercials on YouTube. The things that relate to the hit movie that’s out right now. The things you can press a button and they light up and they talk and you know exactly what to do with them. Those are the things that are probably going to be on the Christmas list. Those are the things that are going to be on the birthday wishlist. Those tend to be the things that we buy that get set aside quickly.

They also tend to be things of lower quality that break and end up in the landfill, and toys are notoriously hard to recycle. Because of how hard it is to recycle toys, pretty much every single toy that’s ever been purchased, ever been manufactured, is sitting in a landfill somewhere. Now, of course there are exceptions to that. Let’s say the vast, vast majority of toys ever manufactured are in the landfill today, and take a second to visualize what that might look like. 50-plus years of plastic toys from every child from the past three generations. That’s a lot of toys in the landfill.

So when I say front-loading, that’s what I mean. We front-load the joy. The kids get all the joy upfront, right? When they open it, they set it aside, and often the toy goes untouched or isn’t played with for any significant amount of time or duration.

We’ve gotten away from front-loading the joy when it comes to toys in our house. I do give my kids input on what sort of toys that they want to get, what they want to put on their wishlist, that sort of thing, but I’m also really mindful of the fact that the way that I buy for my kids is teaching them. It’s teaching them how to make decisions about bringing materials into their life, and I want them to be intentional about it. So we talk about the decisions. How often are you going to play with this? How many different ways can you use this? How durable is this? How long is it going last? What’s gonna happen to it after we’re done with it? Is this something about we’re going to be able to pass on to another family, where perhaps it just won’t be interesting to kids because it involves a character that is losing popularity and is going to be pretty much unknown after your child is done playing with it.

When you buy toys more intentionally, you can back load the joy on the toys, and that means you might be buying something like a good set of wooden unit blocks that aren’t necessarily going to light your kid up with joy when they open it on the morning of their birthday, but the joy is going to come out slowly over weeks, over months, over years, as they learn new creative ways to use these toys. I don’t know about you, but that’s what I want to teach my kids about bringing new things into their life. I want them to buy more intentionally. I want them to buy things that are going to be useful and durable, to last for years rather than something that’s just going to get them excited and happy for a few moments. I truly think it’s never too early to start teaching that.

Now, that’s just one of the reasons that we got where we are today here in the U.S. We have an abundance of options when it comes to toys, and we also tend to fear boredom in our kids. We fear when our kids have downtime, because sometimes can be difficult during that window of time. Because we fear boredom, we sometimes buy toys to try to ease that anxiety, feeling like if you just provide them with enough stuff or the right stuff that they’ll stay busy, that they’ll stay engaged, they’ll play longer, when actually the opposite is true. The more your kids have and the more that you buy them, the less engaged they are, the less they take care of those toys, and the more they suffer decision fatigue.

Our intentions are in the best of places. If your kids have a lot of toys, don’t be embarrassed, don’t be ashamed. Just know that this isn’t a life sentence. You can change the way that you’re buying. You can change the way that the toys and the stuff are managed in your house. If you do make a change, it doesn’t mean that you’re being mean. It means you’re being intentional and you’re being thoughtful and you’re doing something in the best interest of your whole family.

If you’re front-loading the toys and you are thrilled with the joy that you see in your child’s face, when they light up and they get something new, that’s okay once in awhile. But be mindful of the fact that sometimes, or maybe even often, the toys that we are front-loading our children are the ones that hold their attention for the shortest amount of time. If you find yourself buying your kids toys because you fear boredom and you think that’s going to be the quick fix, it’s not, because once the newness of that toy wears off, the boredom is going to return. Instead of fearing the boredom, we have to embrace it and let our children have the chance to work through it.

Having a lot of toys isn’t just unnecessary, but I also said that it can be harmful. Having a lot of toys is unnecessary because, like I said before, a lot of kids just don’t spend a lot of time at home. Whether they’re in school or they’re in daycare, they’re out of the house a lot. But even the kids that are at home a lot and spending a lot of time within the home are actually spending a lot of time engaging in regular stuff. Our kids need imitation. They need to be able to spend a lot of time right next to us. They need to be able to explore the things around the house. Maybe it’s the vents on the floor, looking out the windows, helping in the kitchen.

If you stop and pay attention, you’ll notice that a lot of the time that you spend at home with your kids, they’re not even playing with their toys. They’re playing with other stuff around the house. It might be the cardboard boxes or the bubble wrap. They might be reading books. The reality is that most kids don’t spend their entire days playing with toys. That’s completely normal. If you’re feeling like you have a house full of toys that nobody plays with, you’re probably right and you’re definitely not alone.

I had said that having too many toys can actually be harmful, and I’m hesitant to use that word because it is such a strong word, but I do truly believe, and the research is starting to show us, that there are negative repercussions to having too many toys. There is research to show that kids play more creatively when they have fewer things. It’s not just your sanity that is going to improve when you get rid of the stuff because you’re going to have less clutter, and we do know, research also shows, that our own feelings of stress and anxiety go down when we have less clutter around. If your stress levels are lower, you’re going to be happier, you’re going to be more present, you’re going to be calmer with your kids, but your kids are also going to play more creatively. So you’re going to be happier, your kids are going to be more creative, and I’d venture to say that they’re actually going to be happier too, and they’re going to get the opportunity to learn how to take care of things.

I know, when I look back at my childhood, I never put anything away. I had way, way too much stuff. My mom spent years yelling at me to clean up my room, and I would go up to my room and look at all this stuff and just really think to myself, “I don’t even know where to begin. I don’t know how.” It was overwhelming for me. So if you’re looking at your kid’s toys and thinking, “Oh, this is overwhelming,” if it’s overwhelming for you, it’s absolutely overwhelming for them to manage and for them to deal with. I’m pretty sure you don’t want to spend their whole childhood yelling at them to clean up their room, and I promise you don’t have to. There is another way.

Also reflect on how you feel when you’re in the toy space. Does it feel cluttered? Do you feel irritable? Is it a place that you want to spend time? If it’s a place you don’t want to spend time, there’s a chance your kids probably don’t want to spend a lot of time there either, and that might be another reason why they are following you around instead of playing with their toys. A space that is clean and orderly is going to be more attractive to your kids and it’s going to be more attractive to you too. You’re going to want to send more time in there with your kids if you feel good there, if you’re not stepping on things every time you walk through.

My kids do a really great job of cleaning up their toys. Now, they are not perfect by any means, but everything has a place and they know where things go. So once they’re done with them, they can easily put it back, they can easily find what they’re looking for, and it has a big impact on the way that they play and the way that their space functions for them to play. When things are being put away, they’re going to be taken care of. They’re not going to get stepped on, they’re not going to get lost, they’re not going to get ruined.

There’s an implicit lesson in that. We’re teaching our kids that the things that we buy, the things that we spend our money on, are things that we love and things that we want to last and be a part of our lives for a long time. When it comes to kids, we have such a throw-away culture. Everything’s disposable. We buy it cheap and don’t keep it for very long. I think we can start moving away from that, but we’ve got to be purposeful about it, we’ve got to be thoughtful about it. That means changing the way we buy not only their toys, but also their clothes and the other things that they have in their lives.

The last reason of having too many toys is I think that it really implies this idea that kids are supposed to spend all their time inside because that’s where all the toys are. I often think about the kids who live in tiny homes or who travel full time with their families. Those kids don’t have room for a lot of toys, but what they do have is access to the outdoors. They spend most their time outside and they also probably spend a lot of time engaged and imitating with what their parents are doing too.

So start watching, start paying attention to how your kids naturally spend their time. If they’re not playing with their toys a lot, maybe they have too many. If you scale back, they’re more likely going to take better care of the toys, they’re going to be more engaged, more creative. I’d venture to say you’re going to see a pretty big behavior change. I know this because I’ve helped well over a thousand families do this, to reduce their toys and reduce the stuff in the home. I’ve seen firsthand, not only in my own family but in the families that I’ve worked with, the impact on the mental health and wellbeing that it has, not only on the parents but also on the kids.

I know it can be overwhelming to think about cutting back on the toys, but you’re not being mean. You’re not doing this as a punishment. You’re doing it for the betterment of your family. I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode and that you found it helpful. We’re talking more about this in the Masterclass. I would love, love to have you join me and be a part of it. It starts on September 16th and the early-bird pricing is in effect until September 12th. Go to simplefamilies.com/masterclass to get all the information there and to get on board.

Thanks so much for tuning in, and I will talk with you next week. Have a good one.

Denaye Barahona

Denaye Barahona is a loving wife and mama of two. She's a therapist for moms, an author, and the host of the top-ranked Simple Families Podcast. Denaye holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has been featured on the likes of The Today Show, Netflix, The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple, Forbes, and numerous other media outlets.