Updated on 01.05.11

The Post-Christmas Challenge

Trent Hamm

This year for Christmas, most of the items my wife and I received were small and/or served some specific utility in our lives. I received some grape juice with which to make homemade wine (pinot noir), a replacement for our small saucepan, and some books (among other things). My wife received similar small items.

Our kids? Not so much.

Here’s the challenge with our children. My parents have traditionally gone way overboard on all of their grandchildren for birthdays and Christmas. On the other side of the family tree, our children are the first grandchildren of my mother- and father-in-law, and the first nieces and nephews of my sisters-in-law.

They all want to give our children memorable Christmas presents – and, frankly, I completely understand that. Our challenge comes in when we return home with all of these gifts and wonder where we’re going to put them all. They fill up multiple toyboxes and spread across the living room. The vast, vast majority of them are gifts from various events – birthdays and Christmases, mostly.

There’s a double challenge here.

The first challenge is simply finding the places to store these things. Our children are of three distinctly different ages and levels of cognitive development. Our oldest loves playing and building Lego sets, for example, and has a penchant for action figures. Our middle child loves building towers out of Magna-Tiles. Our youngest? He’s pretty content with a few stuffed animals and baby toys. As they grow, though, their interests change. Soon, our youngest will want to have his hand in the Magna-Tiles. And what if we have another child?

The second challenge is the implied lesson: teaching our children that less is more from an early age, that there’s great value in having a smaller number of toys that you play with extensively, that you don’t really need a mountain of toys. A mountain of toys stands in direct contrast to this lesson.

For us, the second challenge is perhaps more important than the first. The idea of having more stuff than you can possibly ever play with seems heavily tied to a sense of rampant consumerism as adults, where they buy more stuff than they possibly have time for. When you’re buying like that, you’re begging for financial difficulties.

Here are some of the solutions we’ve come up with for dealing with these concerns.

First, we’re starting to do “toy rotation.” Simply put, when the children are out of the house, we take a bunch of the toys at the bottom of the toybox and put them in a tub to store in the garage (temporarily). Occasionally, we’ll take some of the toys that are in storage and rotate them back into the mix, often pointing them out in a “Remember that toy? You haven’t played with that in a while” way.

Obviously, if they miss a toy that we’ve stored, we retrieve it for them. However, that hasn’t yet happened.

In the spring, we’re going to have a yard sale. Not only will we sell off almost everything in the garage tubs, we’ll involve the children in selecting toys that they’re willing to sell off. Our goal is to save a small number of toys for each child – the ones they enjoy the most – and sell off the rest of the toys.

The money from this yard sale – all of it – will go into a “family fun” pool which will pay for all of us to do something fun together (likely largely of the children’s choosing). Our best idea so far is to go to a water park that’s about two hours away from where we live, using the proceeds of the yard sale to pay for it.

In essence, we’re trying to turn excess “stuff” around our home into a fun family experience. The idea, of course, is that experiences trump stuff, and if stuff is just sitting around, it’s not an experience for you. It’s just dead weight that might as well be used in a better way.

We’re going to donate the yard sale leftovers to Goodwill. This way, once it’s decided that toys are going to go, they’re out of the house for good.

For now, though, as we look around our living room, we can’t help but notice the excess of kid’s stuff. Thankfully, now we have a plan for dealing with it.

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  1. Jackie says:

    In our house, we make time to do a big toy purge BEFORE Christmas and birthdays, so that we can donate those items and make space before the next onslaught of gifts. We are in a similar situation to you because our children are the only grandchildren for 6 out of their 8 grandparents (plus they have so many grandparents to begin with). This has been a good lesson for our kids as well.

  2. Rebecca says:

    We have a somewhat similar problem, and there are several things you can do.

    We have very open and honest talks with relatives about gifts, primarily because my 2 oldest are autistic and have different needs for toys than most boys their ages (5 and 6). We also tend to buy toys for them as they show new interest in something or reach a new place developmentally, rather than wait for the holidays, so they don’t need much at christmas.

    I try and find gift ideas, including experiences, to suggest to relatives, because I know my kids will enjoy them, and in the end that is what the extended family wants for my kids. This year we asked for a donation to our “new trampoline fund” instead of toys. Our old one was second hand and it fell apart over the summer. Our 3 kids use it daily year round for regulation needs and it is a must for us to get a new one asap in spring. Our family knows we need one, and know my kids will use it daily for years to come, so they like giving gifts towards that goal.

    For organizing toys, I would suggest clear bins with lids. We have a photo and word label on each bin and lid so it is easy to sort and pick up toys every day. Toddlers as young as 1yr can help clean up. The kids know what they have, and rotating the toys is very easy.

    It also is easy to store toys the older kids have out grown, but the younger ones aren’t ready for, I don’t suggest donating too much until your youngest has outgrown them, you may end up repurchasing some same toys again. But toys in bins store easily.

    We also start talking about which toys they no longer play with before christmas, and also talk about how not everyone gets toys at christmas because they can’t afford it. As our kids get older we plan to have them come with us to donate cleaned up gently used toys to shelters for homeless and displaced kids. It is different that donating to goodwill because you actually get to see the joy on their faces. Even my 2 yr old understands that the doll she didn’t play with made another little girl very happy because she had never had a doll before. It is a beautiful thing.

  3. KC says:

    From my experience, both personal and what I’ve observed, less is more. When I was a kid my parents were middle class (probably on the lower end financially). My sister and I got a lot of things we asked for like earrings, dolls, etc, but we also got clothes, shoes, socks, underwear (things we didn’t ask for, but were necessities). We also got one book. Books were fairly expensive and not as easy to come by pre-internet. I can remember each book from every year. I knew their value – I couldn’t afford to buy books – too expensive. What I don’t remember are the toys – I know I got them, but they just weren’t memorable like the books – the toys were more plentiful – the books less so.

    I was talking with a friend of mine who has a high school senior son. They are a well off family. I know from conversations we’ve had about politics and taxes that she is in the bracket that Pres Obama refers to as wealthy (more than $250k income annually). So I asked her what she got her son for Christmas. She mentioned clothes, shoes, some aftershave, some things he needs for tennis and…one book. I asked her about the book and she said she always gets him one book for Christmas – that she picks out. She said it is usually his favorite gift.

    So I found that amusing – her son and I definitely grew up in different financial circumstances, but our one cherished memorable gift each year was a book that was carefully selected by our mother. So less is more.

  4. Maureen says:

    Perhaps you could suggest that grandparents and aunts and uncles collaborate and purchase a single WOW gift. You could also suggest that they buy a smaller gift and contribute to an educational fund or buy a non-cluttery gift such as a family pass to the science center or zoo. Invite them along for the outing or at least share lots of photos of the children enjoying themselves.

    As your children grow up you can suggest that giftgivers buy things like art supplies that are consumable.

    Books also make terrific gifts. I think it is so important that children live in a literature rich environment. I think owning their own books is an important part of that. We also made frequent trips to the library, but building up a family library really encourages literacy.

    Be grateful that your children have extended family that want to be a part of their lives and shower them with gifts. Your children are very blessed.

  5. My kids are the first and probably only grandkids for my husband’s side of the family, and boy oh boy does it get out of hand! Pretty much every time we see Grandma, the kids get something new. It’s not always a big thing, but it is still one more thing! And the holidays get crazy. I really like your idea of the toy rotation, but my daughter has a steel trap memory and would instantly know if something is missing. Instead, since all of the grandparents live close, I pack up bags of toys that aren’t played with regularly and pack them off to Grandma’s house, so that the kids have stuff to play with when they are there. It was kind of fun to give Grandma six big bags of toys and say “Here you go!” :-)

  6. DeeBee says:

    I love the idea of taking the yard sale proceeds and putting them towards a family fun event. I will think of that for the future. Great idea!


  7. Kerrick says:

    My grandmother always got each of her children (and now gets each of her grandchildren) something to wear, something to read, and something to play with. I think that minimal and practical, yet memorable and enjoyable, mix of gifts is a fantastic idea. Add that to your toy rotation ideas, and it makes for the perfect way to handle this sort of thing, it seems.

  8. Mark B. says:

    Great post. I felt sick to my stomach as I watched my children open toy after toy on Christmas. It just screamed consumerism to me. The amount of waste (packaging, toys that will be played with only once, etc.) was astounding. My oldest in only 4 and we are already taking bins full of toys to goodwill. There has to be a better way.

  9. Monica says:

    I love the idea of contributing towards an experience versus an excess of gifts.

    And don’t underestimate practical gifts! My brothers and I eagerly look forward to the toothpaste, Q-tips and other like items that fill our stockings each Christmas. Though I do think you have to reach a certain age before those gifts are appreciated! It started in college for us and has become a tradition over the years.

  10. Jessica says:

    I feel your pain. I have a 4yo girl and 6 month old boy. I bought each child just a few Christmas things, in addition to a set of luggage this year.

    However, my parents went totally overboard. Like you, my kids are the only grandchildren my parents have or will ever have. They went overboard, and I was angry about it because they are in a very bad financial position. My dad was out of work 9 months and now works as an on-call substitute teacher’s aid, with no benefits. My mom is currently laid off again. They have no health insurance. They’ve had serious medical problems in the past year.

    They asked for a list of what to get the kids. For the baby I asked for bibs, bowls and spoons. For my daughter, I asked for pjs, barrettes, watercolors and a specific book. Not too much, nothing expensive.

    They got all that and more and MORE. A furreal friend and baby alive that drove me nuts before they were unwrapped, and so forth. Those are the types of toys we try to avoid. My parents even admitted that they knew they shouldn’t get those for the kids but the did it anyway. I’d rather they put the money into savings for the inevitable medical problem that will pop up.

    My daughter was overwhelmed opening all those gifts. And what has she been playing with in the past week since she opened the gifts from her grandparents? THE SAME OLD TOYS SHE HAD BEFORE. But she is enjoying the pjs, barrettes and book.

    I blogged about this and most of my commentors agreed with me, but one person said I was being disrespectful and I should be happy to have parents to spoil my kids.

    I don’t want my kids to associate their grandparents with “stuff”. If my parents had held to the list, then they could’ve afforded gas for another trip to see my kids, for example.

    My inlaws also got my kids more than I’d prefer, but less on the type of toys I don’t care for. They purchased a zoo membership and science museum membership for us again, which they’ve done for a number of years. Those gifts, I love.

  11. PF says:

    Thanks to you Trent, we got magna-tiles for Christmas. My husband and 3 yo daughter played with them for 4 days straight. If not for you, I would have never heard of them. What a wonderful invention and it takes up very little room. Thankfully, my SIL asked us what we wanted before she bought stuff. I asked her to combine the gifts for the 1 and 3 yo to get the magna tiles. I’ll try to do that again in the future.

    We’re doing toy rotation now too. We took about 2/3 of the toys and put them in the basement. Tonight I’ll switch them up a bit. With too many toys, they can’t really play with anything; they are too overwhelmed.

    As a gift-giver, I almost ALWAYS give nephews and nieces books.

  12. Lauren says:

    I was pleasantly surprised by the gifts my parents got our 2-year-old daughter for Christmas. Two nice quality toys she will truly enjoy and then some essentials (clothes, shoes, batteries, etc.). After Christmas, I thought to myself, “Wow! They get it!”
    My husband’s parents? Not so much. They gave my daughter a bunch of junk toys (plus several books, which was the only good part). And, to top it off, they gave me and my husband each a big box of junk, too (plus some of our fav chocolates, which was the only good part). Every year I try to explain that less is more, one nice useful gift is better, but they just don’t get it. I’ve resolved myself to that and I’m looking forward to making a donation to Goodwill soon.

  13. Josh says:

    One thing my wife and I do to curb the problems from the get go is asking relatives for experience type gifts or things for the whole family. We often ask for things like season passes to the zoo or museum. These are gifts that keep giving time and time again and dont clutter up the house.

    The toy rotation thing is also helpful. We have children close to the same ages of yours and we have begun doing the same thing. They get so excited to see “new” toys when something comes back out, and it really does teach them that less is more.

  14. cv says:

    Unfortunately, many Goodwill locations and other thrift stores no longer take toys thanks to the new laws about lead testing that were meant to control cheap toys coming in from China but have affected secondhand shops as well. I hope the law is amended to fix this problem, but in the meantime, you might have to call around to shelters and other places to figure out how to pass along your used toys.

  15. Jen says:

    When my nephew was born, he was the first grandchild on both sides. My sister laid down the law from the beginning – one toy from each gift giving unit (my husband and I as example) and something else (book money to college fund clothes, etc) This has been pretty successful for the last four years. We give him a toy and slip a gc to my sister for whatever he needs for clothes, etc. She saves it and uses it during the between times – July birthday and Christmas.

  16. Carmen says:

    I really like to use Freecycle to pass on many of the outgrown clothes and toys. It’s a nice, convenient, community based concept and when you are in need of something reasonable, you can often get it for free.

  17. Kris says:

    When I was a kid, I had a large toy chest. My mom was a neat freak, so if it didn’t fit in the box, it had to go. Every year after Christmas, my mom would have me decide which toys to keep and which ones to give up. Since I’d always done it, it was normal to me and not a huge crisis. I still do this in my own house. Bringing things in means taking other things out.

  18. Jane says:

    Boy oh boy does this post resonate with me! I actually had a bit of a mini-meltdown this Christmas when I saw how many toys and things my infant and toddler received from family this Christmas. We tried to focus the gifts this year and have both practical and fun suggestions. But even this can be problematic. For instance, I told people to get them socks. I believe my infant ended up getting thirty or so pairs of socks and roughly ten onesies. Since he is the second boy, this is really excessive. I already can hardly close his drawers they are so stuffed. We also got six hooded towels – practical but excessive when you add it all up.

    It’s so hard, because I think in some respects it is disrespectful to return items that people have lovingly picked out. But we have a small house, and like Trent, I am bothered by the potential message that so much consumerism send to my son. By the end of some present opening sessions (we have several with various branches of the family), he almost had this half-crazed look on his face.

    We ended returning at least $100 worth of things that truly were not necessary or wanted, but the rest just has been stuffed in an already crowded house. I can’t wait until I can begin to get rid of some things, but of course, then they will get more to replace those toys!

  19. Stephanie says:

    I am glad to hear about parents teaching their kids that old stuff eventually has to go. There were a few people in my family that thought that just because they bought something for a child, that it had to be held on to forever. There are no more children in the family since they have all grown up. Because of that kind of mentality though, I give money at friend’s baby showers and their kids birthday parties. The parents can do whatever they want with it, but I express the intention that it is for the child’s savings account. I got access to one my grandparents started for me when I turned 21 or so and it was way better than an addition to my toy collection as a kid!

  20. Cynthia says:

    We are right in the same boat as you. We are inundated with toys. It’s time for us to go through them too but it’s always at the bottom of our to-do list! We have our kids go through them with us and choose which ones they want to part with. Then they help us price them and sell them at our summer garage sale. They get the lessons of less is more along with money lessons at the same time! (I have a 6 year old, 3 year old and 8 month old.)

  21. Stephanie says:

    We have 2 boys ages 4 & 6 and a little girl age 2. I totally understand where you’re coming from. We have both boys with birthday’s in January. So, we have the Christmas toys and then birthday toys about a month after. I have been considering a “gift optional” line on the birthday invitation. Some people are for it and some staunchly against. What do you think? The boys don’t need another truck, car, or train, honestly. But people feel a serious NEED to buy things for our kids.

  22. Amy says:

    I have to say, I don’t have kids but I particularly enjoyed this post because it’s so darn sensible. And I like that the proceeds for your yard sale go into a family fun fund.

    Keep up the good work!

  23. Peggy says:

    Would any of the relatives consider giving the children money to go towards their higher education in lieu of toys? Money in an interest earning account is a gift that keeps on giving.

    How about a ‘wish list’ for the kids on Amazon that includes books, puzzles, crafts, etc. Ask all those who are considering giving gifts to talk to each other so gifts aren’t duplicated and nothing that’s not on the list is bought.

    If people feel the need to give a tangible gift let them rotate throughout the year as to who gives the gift/toy, and who contributes towards the college/savings fund.

    The one toy I most fondly remember as a child was my doll house that had some plastic furniture, a few people, and a car the people fit in. I used to play make-believe with that for hours on end.

  24. Holly says:

    I have 4 grands, 51/2, 23/4, and twins 13/4. All bdays are in the next 6 months. I have a set gift budget. I ALWAYS have something for them to open but anything budgeted I do not spend becomes a check for their college fund.

    For Christmas they all got 2-3 items to open + 1-2 books. Most of the books came from the annual summer used book sale and were $1/less each.

    Because of the age/sex spread my daughters have been trading toys back and forth from the birth of the 2nd grand.

  25. Millie says:

    All good suggestions! I have two, with purging, if one toy comes in, one toy has to go. I have to do this with my clothing or it gets out of hand very quickly.
    Another suggestion is to open the toys on the big morning and then each child chooses two new toys that can be set aside for next Christmas to put in the Toys for Tots box somewhere. This will teach them to make decisions about what they really want.
    I have a friend who has a granddaughter, well actually two. These are the first two grandkids in the family. The other side of the family is well off, my friend’s side not so well off but there is this huge competition between the two grandmothers. It really sickens me the amounts of money they spend on toys, trips, etc trying to “outdo” each other even though I don’t think that is the main reason, they really want to give to the kids. The first child had absolutely obscene amounts of toys and clothing the first few years until the second one arrived. I finally quit talking to my friend about it all, I suggested that they take the money they were going to spend and give half of it to a women’s shelter so their kids could have some kind of Christmas, or put it in a college fund,b but no, these children had to have EVERYTHING. And everything teaches them that they deserve EVERYTHING in life. Which of course, we all do but rarely get. Talk about learning to live with disappointment the hard way! I’ve never been to Disney World and don’t miss it although I would like to go there and to Las Vegas (and of course some other places like the Grand Canyon) just once to see what the hoopla is all about. These children go once and twice a year to Disney World for several days.
    And yet, there are children out there who cannot even go play in the snow because they have holes in their tennis shoes and no boots.
    I’m not saying that people should not do as they please with their money, it’s just that this oversaturation of gifts is teaching these girls that there are no “no” answers and everyone has them on little pedastals.
    I have cut back so far on my gifts and my resolution this year is only handmade gifts to be given out. I have started on this project and will be working on this a few hours each weekend. It’s hard to give kids handmade gifts but a new sweater that grandma knit is a wonderful thing, too. Let others give them the bicycles, toys, etc.

  26. Pattie, RN says:

    As a grandmother who raised two boys, may I make another few suggestions?

    1. As your older kids outgrow toys and games, be sure to save the good quality stuff to put away and have on hand for the next sibling down the line as they reach an appropriate age. Throughout over twenty moves on three continents and into semi-retirment, we kept the Biro wooden trains and all things Lego which our five year old grandson enjoys when visiting!

    2. When my boys were stuck inside during long, cold winters, I kept about half of their toys stored out of sight in a closet [basement, attic, whatever you have] Every few weeks, I would rotate the toys, bringing out the stored toys to be played with and storing the otheer half. When they were young (under five or so) this resulted in a Christmas morning experience once a month for the little guys, and cut down on boredom with toys.

    3. As a grandmother, we focus on books, old fashioned games, and wooden toys that will last forever. The “other” grandmother buys the hot toy of the season (Bouncing Tigger comes to mind) which our grandson plays with for three minutes before he is back to the blocks or begging someone for another ruthless hand of UNO!

  27. Anitra says:

    I am so thankful that, for the most part, my family (and my husbands’) does not go overboard on gifts.

    My toddler daughter is the only grandchild/niece until our baby is born later this month. She did have a pile of presents as big as the one for 4 adults… but in retrospect, a lot of those presents weren’t toys – they were clothes or consumables (candy, mostly, but that’s another story). There were also a lot of art supplies – not all of them age-appropriate, but I can store the ones that aren’t for a few months or give them away to an older child. There were a few “big” toys (60 piece block set, outdoor wagon) that will be useful for both children at the same time.

    I do think I like the technique of one grandparent (my father) the best – my husband, my daughter, and I each got two presents from him: one was something to wear, and the other was a relatively big toy or “fun” item. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he is the only adult relative who has other children to buy gifts for (two step-grandchildren).

    I think this problem becomes acute once you have 2-3 children in varying stages; that’s where the mountains of toys (usually) result. We’ll probably be rotating out and donating more toys next year at this time.

  28. Kate says:

    My child and spouse expressed their desire for one present and, if we wanted to do more, to add to a college fund or savings account for our grandchild. It has been a struggle at times because it is a natural desire to want to buy things. It was easier for us than for the other grandparents–our Christmases have always been somewhat minimalistic because we didn’t hve a whole lot extra when our kids were growing up and didn’t believe in going into debt to buy the perfect Christmas.

  29. mike says:

    just a thought. My nephew doesn’t want me to get him any new toys because when he gets a new toy it means an old toy of his has to get thrown out/ yard sale or donation. I wonder what kind of damage is being done here to the child’s self worth. when things he sees as his are discarded without his real and actual consent. yes i know he can be convinved that its for the best going to needy or what not but..aren’t you devaluing gifts he recieves because they create a “problem” for you. Kind of selfish isn’t it…wonder what it is doing to his ability to create attachments and empathy to people. I know attachments to things aren’t really important but its part of creating and developing a sense of appreciation of the world around us and our connections to other people and if your attached to something and mommy and daddy say out it goes anyways how much damage is done????.

  30. Kate says:

    I wonder what kind of message is being sent that toys come and go so easily–that cannot be a good message.

  31. Andrea says:

    I also wonder how the family members who gave these or prior gifts that will now be sold off in the spring/summer will feel knowing that their $25 item was sold for pennies on the dollar. That might be the very thing that helps convince them to either contribute to the experience fund or do things differently. It is wonderful to have generous people around, but I also struggle with the excess. My son received 17 birthday presents (one from each child who attended his party). Talk about excess, and I’m just as guilty becuase you dont want to show up at the party empty handed. We were thankful, and he wrote thank you notes for each item. Most items arent getting played with six months later. Which is a disappointing reality. This post has given me the courage to start giving $7 for a 7 year old when we start making the next rounds of parties. Then there is the opportunity for giving and saving by the recipient not just getting. Hopefully other moms will follow suit.

  32. Kate says:

    Andrea: can you give gift certificates to things? Like the movies, etc.? I think that kids are more used to those kinds of things now and once they use it, it is gone.

  33. Andrea says:

    Yep, definitely want it to be useful and not just another expense for the family. One $10 gift card to Super-Duper-Fun-Center wont do the kid much good if they never get to actually go there becuase the family cant afford to take everyone else or the tickets are $30/person. I’ll definitely give the gift card idea some more thought though and perhaps coordinate with other moms. Thanks!

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