Stores and toy-making companies do not have your best interests in mind. You can't assume that just because it's got great reviews that it's a great thing for you; the company marketing it to you wants your money, and they're willing to sell you garbage to get it. Sadly, even mommy-bloggers often promote or review toys because they're being paid by the company or an affiliate program to do so. Why not recommend "15 Must-Have Toys for Toddlers" if you make money from each referral?
I'm very sad that Christmas is a financially stressful season for so many because they feel like they actually need to buy stuff to make their kids happy, especially when the hottest toys are pricey and annoying trash. There's got to be a better way. Let's ask ourselves some questions before buying.
1) Is this going to encourage independent play in a healthy way, or is it creating emotional distance between my child and me?
There is so much value in letting kids play on their own so they can develop independence and creativity (and so you can have some time to yourself!), but if you're not careful, buying toys for your kids can almost push them away so they don't have to be involved in your life, and you don't need to be involved in theirs. Even from babyhood, constantly busying your child with a toy instead of inviting them to watch whatever the adults are doing can communicate "you are separate from us" instead of "you are a valuable member of this family and community." (Again, I'm not saying all toys or bad or that children should never play by themselves. I'm just asking that we think.)
2) Am I buying this because it's best for my child or because he/she demands it? (Who is really in charge here?)
Giving good gifts to your children is a wonderful thing; delighting in their delight, reveling in their wonder, it's all great. However, whether we're buying our kids gifts as a Christmas surprise or on-the-spot at Target, we need to be aware of whether we're giving to them as a gift or a bribe. Are we lavishing our child with a good thing, or are we appeasing their demands? If you're afraid that your child will be upset if he/she doesn't get a particular toy, or if you feel like you need to buy this toy just so you can get out of the store without a meltdown, the authority roles in your household might've swapped in an unhealthy, even dangerous, way. (I speak from guilty experience!) Your child should feel utterly loved and enjoyed, but he or she should not feel entitled to anything beyond necessities.
3) Will I hate this toy?
If you give your child something that annoys you---such as a toy that makes noise or a playset with characters you don't care about---you will most likely not want to play with your child using that toy. If the toy is creating distance, it is not needed! As previously said, independent play is great, but if the toy is insulting to your intelligence and sensibility, why subject your child to such mind-numbingness? But if you give your kids toys that you'll enjoy too, you can jump right in and play together.
4) Will I hate cleaning up this toy?
I have a conspiracy theory about this. I think many toy-makers create toys with so many tiny pieces because they know the pieces will get lost and parents will need to keep buying more toys. (Building toys such as LEGOs and Lincoln logs are an exception to this suspicion.) When you see the toy online or on the shelf, I want you to visualize it (and all its pieces) on your floor as you're trying to clean up before guests come over. Will this be strewn throughout the house? Will your child actually clean up the toy whenever you ask, or will you spend your valuable time cleaning up after your kids when you could have spent those moments with your kids?
5) Will buying this toy feed my child's materialism?
My children don't even have that many toys, but the same insatiable desire for stuff that exists in me exists in them too. When they browse the toy catalogs, they circle multiple items on every page. When they visit grandparents, they come back asking me for everything they've seen on the TV commercials. Though the kids know they are not allowed to ask for anything in stores or start a sentence with "I want", they figure out ways around it, like "Could you keep this in mind for my birthday?" My children are by no means little greed-monsters, but if I constantly feed their desires of dissatisfaction, what am I doing for their hearts? Am I strengthening or weakening their relationships with each other by giving them just one more thing they won't want to share? Is buying them all these toys going to help them become joyful, others-centered, and generous people as teenagers, adults, and future parents?
6) Is this an item that I can buy used?
You can spend $60 on a singular Lego set, or you can buy thirty pounds of Legos from a teenager who grew out of them for half that price. (That’s what we did; homeschool graduates are a gold mine.) Same goes with Thomas the Train, Lincoln Logs, etc. You can usually tell a toy is a good one if it can be resold even after a kid's childhood! Buy the high-quality brands, yes, buy them used. Check Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, and Craigslist, and you might be able to buy your child a much nicer toy than you were expecting and still come out under budget.
7) What is this toy going to do for my children?
The top toys this year (costing upwards of $50) are literally centered around opening the toy: watching the toy "hatch" from an egg (which, according to reviews, takes about twenty minutes) or opening up 50 little "surprises" inside a plastic dome that are all, 100%, complete garbage. Aside from the few moments of anticipatory glee (and maybe a little while of "caring" for the animal afterwards), is this doing anything for the child's well-being? Is it helping them grow as a person? Is it making mental connections, promoting compassion, or developing individuality? If the toy isn't giving the child delight of any kind of depth, is it really worth it?
Sure, call me the Grinch if you want, but I think it's good to ask ourselves questions about why we do things, especially when we're dealing with something as important as the hearts of the children entrusted to us. I have bought so many things for my children that I regret, I have had so many lazy-mom motives for treating them to things, and I have wasted so many hours cleaning up toys that accomplished so little good for our family. I'm learning from painful experience that materialism makes me miss out on the good stuff in life.
In January, after being inspired by the likes of minimalist Joshua Becker and others, I did a major purge and hid or got rid of nearly all the kids' toys. I have absolutely no regrets. (The kids did, of course, accumulate and find more toys. My house is still messy. It's a journey.) I'm also finally learning that when grandparents buy them toys, I can say "Thank you! They'll have so much fun with that at your house!"; they're happy that I'm not throwing the toy away, and I'm happy that I don't have to deal with the toy here. We've been so much happier this year since we've felt freed up to do so much without the burdens of toys.
Sans toys, the kids and I can spend the entire morning doing crafts together and reading a book aloud on the beanbag. We now have time to cook and bake together; my 5-year-old recently discovered that he can make a mean cranberry sauce with his own special recipe; I just wash the berries and give him free reign over the seasonings, and he does the rest! We are free to go on field trips weekly, to play outside for hours...toys were holding us back. I am now learning that motherhood is so much more enjoyable when I'm actually doing life with my kids rather than just trying to get stuff done while they're busy. I have some things up my sleeve for Christmas, but I expect each item to become a valuable addition to our family's life, not a mere appeasement to the child-gods.
I want to enjoy the best things in life, and a surplus of toys cannot offer that to me. I ask that you consider the same!
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My name is Hope.
I'm 25, married to a former skater dude, and raising little people ages 5, 3, 1, and not-yet-born. I like lime green and sarsaparilla, and I wear my Crocs until they melt. (Florida problems.)
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Articles I've Written on Other Sites:
Youth Ministry's Family Blindspot - Christianity Today