Decluttering kids’ toys is a monumental task for any parent, but it’s made even more difficult by all of the “junk” that can invade kids’ lives on a regular basis. Goodie bags, prizes, and kids’ meal surprises, trips to the dentist, and rewards given out for merely existing…My kids refer to it as “treasure,” and I usually call it “cheap plastic crap.” If you have kids, you know what I mean. And you probably hate it as much as I do!
Here’s the problem: Kids LOVE that stuff. And if you refuse to allow any of it into their lives, to quote Taylor Swift, “all you’re ever gonna be is mean.” I’m OK with being strict when I need to be, but I think that instituting an outright junk ban will just make the kids want it even more.
My approach to helping my kids avoid a junk addiction has been a long, slow process with many shades of gray. It’s involved laying a lot of groundwork, having a lot of conversations, and giving my kids the tools to (hopefully) make good choices for themselves as they continue to mature.
We don’t live a junk-free existence by any means. But as my girls get older, I can see that my efforts over the years are starting to pay off. Just the other day, after her school carnival, my daughter promptly handed over this lovely inflated monkey that she won and said, “Mom, you can throw this away. I don’t want it anymore.” MOM WIN!!
These are not blanket suggestions that will apply to every age or every situation. There’s no way that a two-year-old is going to understand the concept of “Made in China,” or that a three-year-old is going to willingly pass up a lollipop dangled in front of his face. And sometimes you just need a Happy Meal toy to buy you 10 seconds of peace in the car before you lose your mind. I get it.
If you gradually employ these suggestions, however, I think you’ll see a definite payoff, too. Maybe not today, but someday soon.
1) Say no…sometimes.
I’m never going to tell my kids they can’t accept a goodie bag at a birthday party or a reward from their teacher. But in situations where I can control the junk flow, I try my best to say “no.” It’s less about eliminating the junk and more about teaching my kids that happiness and fun isn’t tied to “stuff.”
Fast food toys are one thing I like to turn down. If we’re on a road trip where a new little toy to play with in the car for an hour might preserve everyone’s sanity, then OK. But otherwise, I remind the girls that eating out is a treat in itself, and that they don’t need a prize with their nuggets and fries.
Freebies are another thing that get the ax. The kids don’t need the balloon with the insurance company logo, or the rubber wristband at the ball game that’s 10 sizes too big. And just because there’s a bowl of free plastic spider rings by the register doesn’t mean they have to take one.
I also make a point to say “no” to junk when we’re already doing something that’s fun. If we’re going to a movie, bowling, a festival, a show, or a sporting event, I want to teach them that the experience itself is a reward.
2) Create a “treasure” box.
I bought each of my girls a clear plastic bin with a lid, and put their names in glittery sticker letters on the top. Then I gave them these rules: When they bring home junk (aka “treasures”) that they really feel they can’t part with, they must put it in their treasure box. When the treasure box gets full, it’s up to them to go through their treasures and decide what must be sacrificed in order to make room for the new treasures.
This took a while to pay off. At first they just put everything they got into their boxes immediately. But now that their boxes have gotten full, I’ve seen them weeding things out, trading treasures with each other, and really thinking about what they want to put in there in the first place. I never thought I’d see the day that my daughter would willingly trash a bouncy ball and a wind-up frog, but that day has finally come!
3) Buy some high quality toys.
I’m not implying that you should only buy high quality toys, just that you should buy some. When my girls were younger, they didn’t know the difference between $100 hand-carved wooden blocks and a cardboard box. But as they grow up, I want them to recognize the difference between a quality item that lasts and a piece of junk that just provides a momentary diversion before being discarded.
Believe me — I know that a toy doesn’t have to be expensive to be cherished. My oldest daughter’s beloved stuffed bunny probably cost 5¢ to manufacture. But it bothers me when I hear parents complain about the cost of certain toys like American Girl dolls or Legos or Playmobile, saying things like, “I could get 10 toys for the cost of that one.” Yes, you can go to the dollar store and buy an entire cart full of toys for the cost of one big Lego set; however, when you’re only focused on how much you can get for the money, it sends the message that quality doesn’t matter and that “more is more” when it comes to toys. I’d rather my kids learn to be happy with less, and really consider the value of what we bring into our lives.
4) Have honest conversations.
I’m not afraid to talk trash on my kids’ junk. When they ask why the frisbee from Chuck E. Cheese doesn’t fly, or complain that the eyes fell off of the stuffed cat they just won, or cry in frustration because their yo-yo won’t yo, I let them know as nicely as possible that it’s because that stuff is JUNK. They’ve learned that they can have fun with their junky toys, but that they shouldn’t expect them to last long or necessarily do what they’re supposed to do. We also talk about the commercials that come on TV, and that sometimes the things on commercials live up to their claims, but more often than not they’ll be disappointing.
As they get older, we discuss how much things cost, what makes one item more expensive than another, and why. Now sometimes when they see commercials, they’ll ask, “Do you think that toy really works like that?” We’ll read reviews together and talk about why or why not it’s worth the money. I’m hoping that our open discussions will give them good “junk-dar” and help them make them wise buying choices over the years.
It’s hard to strike that balance between cutting down on junk and still allowing kids to be kids, but I think it’s worth the effort to find that the middle ground. How do you guys handle the “junk” in your kids’ lives? Please share in the comments!