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Your kids are OVERWHELMED by their STUFF

With the sudden Holiday explosion in every Kohl’s and Target, we need to talk about our kid’s stuff...

About three years ago my wife and I caught the “minimalism” bug. We watched a documentary and went to bed convinced that we would start looking for trailers to build our very own tiny house on the next day. But then we woke up the next morning, cleaned off the kitchen counter, donated some random kitchen appliance to Goodwill that hadn’t been used since it made its way into our house off our wedding registry, and thought “good enough for day one” and went on a walk. The next day we bought nine things we didn’t need on Amazon.

Since then, about once every few months we go through almost the exact same ritual. If you know, you know.

Do you know why we do it? Because it seems so intriguing. Deep down, we want our life to be simpler… but when it comes to actually giving (or throwing) it away, we can’t do it… Do you know why?

Because we’ve internalized the belief that our stuff has intrinsic value; and that possessing it imparts that intrinsic value onto us.

I’ve got news for you, that’s a load of crap

Your value (and your kids value) have absolutely nothing to do with the stuff you have. Our stuff is only as valuable as we decide it is...

So why does this matter for parenting?

Because as our homes fill with more and more stuff, there is less space for imagination, less space for creativity, less space for movement, less space for peace, less space for adventure, less space for decision (I’ll get to that in a minute) less budget for excursions; less space, in short, for a childhood. And you know what else? There’s less time with family as you figure out how you’re going to pay for all of it (plus private viola lessons, swim team, and putting some away for the looming monster “college”).

And you know what there is MORE of? There is more time spent cleaning and more time spent trying to convince your kids to clean. There is more annoyance as your impressionable kids (who are RIGHT NOW internalizing the very same things I mentioned above) nag you for the next thing on the way home from Target, new toy still in hand. There is more stress and co-parenting drama as we figure out where to draw the ever moving line.

For our kids there is more decision fatigue as they try and decide what to do in a never ending mountain of things to “play” with; more anxiety as they stress about what they want next (because make no mistake, getting more always leads to wanting more whether it’s dolls, video games, or followers on TikTok…); and above all more overstimulation and feeling of overwhelm.

And we have to pause on this last one for a minute because, honestly, it’s the most important. If you are like MOST westerners, your kids are overwhelmed by how much stuff they have and it’s driving them up the walls. Half the time they beg you to play with them and their mountain of toys, it's because they need you to co-regulate them from the crippling overwhelm.

Now, they might SAY they want (or even need) the newest Jurassic World Lego set, Nerf Blaster, or Encanto Collectable Doll set (accessories sold separately), but actually, they want it about as much as they want to eat all their leftover halloween candy for dinner… it will be unsatisfying, leave them wanting more fulfilling, and probably result have them melting down before you know it. And hear me, it’s not that Legos or Encanto Dolls are bad (just like a bite of a Snickers before dinner won’t ruin your appetite no matter what your Grandma says) it’s that they’re almost inevitably being tossed onto a mountain of stuff they already have… a mountain that has your both you and your kid living in a constant state of consumer driven anxiety. It’s STUFF OVERLOAD, and it’s overwhelming your kid.

But do you know what the alternative is? Play. Glorious, kid driven, imaginative, PLAY! Play where the sounds are made by little mouths and not ten cent speakers embedded in plastic. Play where the story is driven by a budding imagination and not by some middle aged guy's engineering of "what the toy does" (that, let's be honest, almost never works right anyway). Play that doesn't require "The expansion set" to "Really have the whole thing working right." Play that isn't driven by an endless stream of whining about "what Emma next door just got for her birthday." Play where a plain block could be a cellphone one minute and the foundation of a tower the next, or a meteor hurdling toward earth by tomorrow morning. Play where the most accessible toys are tools of creativity and not a mountain of overwhelming unappreciated options. Because, let's face it, the best "toy" your kid has is their brain...

So what do we do?

Well, I don't have much space left in this email to talk about it but here is a good start:

Step 1. One night when your kids are in bed (and preferably after a glass or two of wine) take out all their toys and put them in the center of the room. It's a lot isn't it. When did it get this out of control? And I can already hear the first protest "But Jon they sleep with their favorite stuffy..." No worries, you're going to leave that one anyway so don't sweat it. Separate it all into three piles: Broken junk (these are going in the trash, don't argue), toys that encourage open-ended play, everything else.

Toys that encourage open ended play are things like Magnet tiles, plain blocks, colored silks, art supplies, a perhaps one or two particularly sentimental stuffed animals (the ones that tend to go on adventures with your kid). The key here is that these toys are tools of imaginative play not objects that necessarily dictate the flow of play. (And you'll notice I didn't include affiliate links like I normally do because step one is pairing down. Closer to the holidays, I'll put out a list for those who don't have any open ended play tools and want a some.)

Step 2. With the trash pile, throw it all away and never look back. With the open ended toys, find a place where your child can access them without you. On the bottom shelf of a bookshelf or in a basket or bin. This encourages their independence in play and cleanup. With everything else, organize it, box or bag it up, and put it somewhere out of sight. For the next three months, there they will remain and your kid can have whatever comes to mind that they can specifically name and describe enough for you to find it and bring it out for the day.

What's wild is, the day after the "great purge", your kids may not even notice that the toys are gone. A lot of kids don't. It just feels like the house is clean and they start playing with what they can see (which all of a sudden isn't wildly overwhelming). They may ask in the coming weeks, "Where is my Catboy and his car?" and you will respond

"I have it. I didn't feel like you were playing with it much so I got it out of the way. Would you like it?"

They may answer "Yes" or perhaps they were just checking on it. In either case, at the end of the day, Catboy and Catboy's Car, move to a new box in the attic. The "Library". That's Step 3.

After six months, some or all of the toys initially hidden away which were not requested can move to the library or be given away. That's your choice. Maybe theres a toy in there that is sentimental to you but not your kid, or that was a gift from grandma and grandpa and we need to let it collect dust out-of-sight because the alternative is hurt feelings (this whole "stuff has value" paradigm really has us by the short hairs doesn't it?)

The Library becomes the new "by request only" toy library. It's just out of sight and inconvenient enough to make them think twice before requesting something and maybe, just maybe, that extra hurdle is enough to decide that Catboy and his car aren't as exciting turning the living room couch into a rocket ship today. And if you're didn't know (because 5 years ago I didn't) turning the couch into a rocket ship is about 1000x better for your child's development than mindlessly pressing buttons that trigger lights and (extremely annoying) sounds until the batteries go dead.

So are you up for the task? I hope so. Because if you are, your life is about to get a whole lot simpler, your kid a whole lot happier, and your house a WHOLE LOT CLEANER.

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