Excess and Imagination: How much is too much?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about excess and materialism – or more specifically, American parents’ need to buy buy buy for our children. Jude’s birthday is coming up in a few weeks and then Christmas is around the corner which means that A LOT of junk too many toys will make their way in to this house in the next few months.  Here’s the funny part, though. We currently have a large basket of toys in the den and a variety of playthings in Jude’s nursery, but I’m realizing he only plays with those for a maximum of about ten minutes at a time. What would he rather be doing?

bothering the dogs……


making loud noises with pots, pans, bowls, or spoons


playing with the washer as I unload clothes


And of course his favorite……touching things he shouldn’t touch.  Buttons on electronics are the most fun.

Other favorites include flipping through board books you can buy for $3 at Target, playing with anything that resembles stackable blocks, climbing the staircase (with my help), playing with my refrigerator magnets, and most of all, playing and talking with mom or dad.  And yet, do we still buy toys?  Yep.  Do we still accept toys as gifts?  Yep.  So I began thinking about it and realizing how little the toys get attention around here and how clutered they can leave our living space, and I requested no gifts at his birthday party.  Yep.  Mean mama.  I know that Emily Post says it’s rude to mention gifts at all on the invitation, so I wavered, but in the end I did it.  I found out from friends of mine who have done the same thing, however, that people bring gifts anyway.  So I decided to be even more rude and ask that guests not feel the need to bring a gift and that their “presence ” was enough but that if you do bring one, we prefer books rather than toys.

Let me say a few things on this.  First of all, I know I am being rude in asking for specific things or nothing at all. Luckily, his party will be about 20 people who know us well, and I’m hoping that these family and friends will be forgiving of my knowing ettiquette blunder.  Let me also say that there is certainly nothing wrong with showering your child with toys on a birthday; birthdays are intended to be special.  It’s just for a ONE year old?  Really?  What does he want or need?  He loves looking at books, and they store easily and you never throw them away.  Let’s be honest for a moment and speculate on what would eventually happen with 20 plastic toys. There is a reason Goodwill is a goldmine for playthings.

So I received some nice comments on the invitations and the insert we put in them, and people seemed to understand my request and the reasons for it.  But then I got a couple of comments recently that were to the effect of you are so weird why would you deprive your son of toys on his birthday which left me feeling like maybe I was the weird, mean mother in making this request of our guests and making a conscious effort to simplify our lives a little.

But then I read an article that is totally validating. I love it when that happens.

In case you don’t have the time to click over to this fabulous article, let me summarize it for you.  Claire Lerner, a child development worker, carried out a study that discovered that too many toys can actually stump a child’s intellectual development, even those toys that claim all over the box that they are “educational.”  Lerner explains, children “get overwhelmed and overstimulated and cannot concentrate on any one thing long enough to learn about it, so they just shut down.”  The article quotes another study that determined that expensive toys are a “waste of money” and kids learn “just as much” from your own objects around the home.  One Oxford child psychologist is even quoted as saying “The mistake that many parents make when they buy a toy, especially for very young children, is they get toys that can do a lot, instead of getting toys a child can do a lot with.” The imagination suffers when you have a toy that does it all for you.  So the plastic toys?  The lights?  The noises?  The obnoxious colors?  It turns out that they are not only cluttering our home, but have the capacity to clutter Jude’s brain a little as well.


So recently we were at a gathering with some other adults with children, and someone noticed Jude was really enjoying playing with a plastic toy that was no doubt as large as the chair I was sitting in at the time.  That person said to me, “Oh!  You should totally get him that for his birthday!” which was a nice, observant comment seeing as though he loved the toy and was enjoying playing with it.  She then asked what Scott and I plan to get him for his birthday, and I sheepishly explained that his one year memory album was his main gift and that I’d purchased some great wooden blocks on Etsy because he loves blocks so much.

Nothing was said in return.

Later in the conversation, another adult chimed in asking if Jude had a large plastic car of his own to drive and when I said no, the reply was “Oh, he needs a car like that.”  Really?  Needs?  I don’t know that needs is the right word.



There’s this beautiful photo that I keep on a side table in our formal living room.  Every time I pass it, it makes me smile.

It’s my Grandmother when she is all of maybe 10 years old.  Here she is, sitting cross-legged in the grass in front of a tiny white house.  It’s a simple photo really, and I know it’s my love for my Grandmother and her family that leads to my adoration of this image, but just look at it.

She’s smiling genuinely.  It’s simple. It’s happy.  It’s beautiful.

My grandmother grew up in that 2 bedroom home with her four brothers and sisters and two incredible parents.  They were a Depression-Era family, and times were tough.  I’m not sugar-coating that.  Did they have a lot of things?  No.  Did they have everything they needed?  And more.  They would eat every day around the same table.  They would listen to the radio together.  They’d sit on the porch and talk after dinner.  They’d play ball in the front yard and my tiny, bun-haired, 4’11” great-grandmother would play with them.  They helped her work in the kitchen, and sometimes they’d help my great-grandfather in the fields.  Through everyday tasks and interaction, they learned that living is an art and imaginary play is a treasure. You know what my grandmother remembers as one of the most happy, most magical Christmases of her childhood?  The Christmas when she got a bottle of nail polish from Santa.  A bottle.  One.  And she was a happy, happy girl.

I know the world has changed so much in the past 70 years, and we can never go back.  But I, for one, often crave that simplicity we once knew.  When Jude grows and I am long gone one day, I don’t want him to remember piles of plastic every birthday and Christmas or what he received as gifts.  I want him to know me, love me, and remember the time I spent with him and the simple joys we shared.

6 thoughts on “Excess and Imagination: How much is too much?

  1. I loved reading this! It really puts things into perspective and I don’t think many people truly realize how much our kids just want us! I am agree with you 100%, you made me cry, I’m sure that wasn’t your intention, but it saddens me to think about how much time and money people waste thinking they are doing the best for thier kids when the kids could really care less about all the crap they accumulate. Books are way better than any plastic toy! Go Mama The Reader!!!!! Jude will love you even more for this.

  2. I love this, and I’m completely onboard. One of the things that bothers me most about our older kids is that they have no idea how to entertain themselves or keep themselves away from boredom. They would rather sit around and look at us than find something to do.

    I didn’t have this problem as a kid because I had imagination, and I was urged to be independent. My #1 hope for Greyson is that he can experience this type of fulfillment with LESS!

  3. I love this post! (Don’t I say/think that about all your posts?) It resonates so much with me. We’ve long been the weirdos in our family who don’t love plastic toys or too much junk for Christmas & Birthdays. And, if I’m honest, despite my hippie leanings I struggle constantly with materialism on my own and on behalf of my kids. I want to give them everything they need. And too many commercials try to convince me that they *need* things that are shiny, plastic and have lots of bells & whistles. In fact, just the other day I almost started crying at a Disney World commercial because I felt like I was a bad mom for never taking my kids to Disney World. Lord, how I need perspective in my life sometimes.

    At the end of the day, my kids favorite things to play with are pots & pans outside, chickens they chase through the yard, and the grody (to me) worm farm in the back yard. Okay, and Barbies. But, I can’t seem to banish those from the house. What can I say? I’m a bad feminist. Ultimately, they love the simplest things we have. And you know what? Those were my favorite things when I was a kid, too. So why is it so hard to believe that when people question why my kids don’t have 5 American Girl dolls and all the accessories that go with them? If only I could convince myself I am as right about our toy philosophy as I am about “depriving” them of Happy Meals from McDonalds!

  4. I love this post (and I love grandmother)! I totally agree with you on all of it. I feel like I have to list a ton of disclaimers when I tell people we DO NOT get birthday or Christmas presents for our kids. When they are older that I am sure will change, but for now they have plenty and we throw the party or make the trip to the family holiday so that is our contribution 😉 My memories of growing up are of playing outside and using our imagination. That is what I want for my kiddos. Also I have had friends write the same thing that you did on bday invitations and I think it’s great!

  5. totally agree. my kids prefer pots and pans to the toys 🙂
    I found that once i put away most of the toys in the attic, it is so much easier to clean up, and most importantly my kids (3 and 1 year old) can do it themselves!

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