Monday, March 24, 2008

Drowning in Stuff

The house we are moving to this summer has a pool, and we have been educating ourselves on the importance of pool fences to protect our children from the drowning dangers pools pose.

Alas, no fence exists to protect us from peril confronting us at the moment: We are drowning in stuff.

Beginning before Halloween and ending at Easter, our relatives have fallen victim to society’s exhortations to buy stuff for our kids. In October, the stuff was candy (junk for the body). In November, the stuff was stickers, thingamabobs and whatchamacalits related to Thanksgiving (junk for the mind). In December, the stuff was Christmas presents (junk for the soul). In January, the stuff was STILL Christmas presents, this time from people we did not see over the holidays (junk for the already-junked soul). In February, the stuff was a mix of Valentine’s Day candy and stickers. In March, the stuff was the double-whammy of St. Patrick’s Day doohickeys and Easter (what else?) candy.

You’ve heard the expression “Up the river without a paddle”? Well, we don’t even have a boat. The torrent of stuff washes over us and threatens the stability of our day-to-day existence. It is so hard to get our children to eat nourishing food when jelly beans are sitting in an Easter basket in the next room. It is so hard to find worthwhile uses of our family’s time when plastic toys demand our children’s attention and crush their spirits when they break, often on first use.

On the one hand, we feel guilty and ungrateful for reacting this way to our relatives’ kindness. But we didn’t ask them for the stuff, and, really, it’s not their fault anyway.

Americans can’t go out to stores without being pummelled by the urge to buy something -- anything! -- that they didn’t have (and didn’t know that they even wanted) before they saw it, sitting there, marked with a sticker that says “70% off”. Who can blame anyone for wanting to buy something for 30% of its value? Of course, its “value” must not be the number that you’re paying 30% of, because otherwise it would have sold at that price and wouldn’t be marked down at “70% off”.

It would be one thing (and still not a good thing) if people had tons of disposable income to spend on stuff. But, as we’ve been told over and over again recently, credit card balances are rising, mortgage payments are being missed, and we have probably not even seen the worst of the economic crisis yet. No worry -- the government has proposed a solution: It is going to send us all money, and it has told us that we should use it to…go out and buy more stuff. (It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. Read on.)

What’s more, the people whom the government has decided have enough disposable income to spend on stuff aren’t getting the money; instead, it is going to the people who don’t make enough to have disposable income and whose buying of stuff without having the money to pay for it helped get us all into the mess in the first place.
And when we say the “government” is going to send us all money, what I mean is: Our elected officials have decided that it is a good idea to redirect tax receipts from those who make too much to qualify for its largesse and to give the money to the other people, so they can spend money like the people who make too much to qualify for the government’s largesse.

Back to our four walls. We are raising five little people who, in the blink of an eye, will work to earn bread for themselves and their families, and they will have to make choices about how to spend their money. We may make enough for the government to decide that we have enough disposable income, but we don’t make enough to afford to let our children learn bad lessons now. Society is trying to teach them that stuff can make them happy, that buying something -- anything! -- can make a bad day good.

Sending them out into the world having learned such lessons would be tantamount to our eschewing a pool fence and taking our chances that they won’t be tempted to creep to the edge of the pool when the weather gets warm.

We need to be rescued. No less than if we were drowning in a backyard pool.

Help. Please, somebody, help.

[Guest post by Mary Alice's husband. Mary Alice feels the same way but doesn't have the time to write about it. She has to go throw away some stuff.]


jawats said...

Dear Mary Alice and Husband,

Each time my child receives a toy large enough to take up significant space and time (not food - not stickers, but plastic knick-knacks, paddy-wacks, dog bones, etc.), we ask her (we have two, but the second is still only one) to pick something to throw away or donate to a worthy cause.

In this way, you have not refused relatives' generosity, nor are you drowning in things, and your children are aware that there are more needy ones out there who can use the things.

Helps with virtue, etc. :-)


Katherine said...

We have had that problem in the past as well.

As far as candy or other foods that are unhealthy, we regulate them. I don't care if we wouldn't finish them for years, only so much getting eat at a time.

As far as toys and books and such, we keep wishlists for each of the kids and I only put things on them that I know where they will go when we get them. We also have a bank account for each child and encourage relatives to simply deposit money into those accounts for college and as an adult life nest egg. This way they build a savings account and, if you have relatives like my mom who simply want to buy things, at least you can control what they get. Mostly I put books on their wishlists. I also use this as a way of keeping too much candy from being given to them - if relatives give them books and a couple toys, they don't feel like they need to give them chocolate too.

Sandra said...

Around here we call it "affluenza," so much stuff it makes you "sick!" We are still working on a cure at my house too!

k said...

I think the difficult thing here (and I know Alice already does the give-away or throw away when you get something new policy, which is great) is talking to the relatives about it.

It is really hard to say..don't buy them anything...or just buy them what I tell you to (not for some people, my brother LOVES the amazon wishlists I make, but my in-laws I am terrified to tell, I don't want them to get the wrong idea).

It's that difficult Miss Manners thing that has been beaten into me that I am not supposed to ask for a specific kind of gift because then I assuming gift giving will take place. So...instead my kid just gets tons of stuff he doesn't need and is really c-r-a-p pardon my french.

This is a subject dear to my heart and I find it so difficult to come up with solutions...maybe I just need to work on my communication skills with my family, but man is it tough to stem the flow.

And as the post is a national problem, I was in a big chain store (a rarity for me) before Easter and there were FOUR aisles of Easter stuff, 2 were candy alone. IT'S EASTER! Some jellybeans and bunny were the extent of the baskets in my youth. And my basket got reused every year, we didn't get new baskets, how many baskets does one house need!

Ok I'm getting worked up, I am eager to hear more suggestions on how to deal, we only have one child and I am already steaming about the stuff, I can't imagine the stuff times 5!

Juris Mater said...

As for gift requests, what about finding a way NOT right before the holidays/gift giving seasons to plant ideas... and pose it in a way like "the kids are SO into these particular kinds of things these days, they just can't get enough of x" or "we're always thinking of ways to keep these energetic preschoolers productively busy around the house, and I wish we could afford to buy them more/better x...." Here are a few of the categories in which we request things:
- Quality arts and crafts supplies (including stickers for minor holidays--my kids go through these immediately, so there's no problem having them lingering around)
- Durable books/classic books
- Montessori-type toys (suggest particular affordable name brands like Melissa and Doug board toys--educational and easy to store); Duplo blocks
- Thomas the Tank Engine wooden trains and track pieces (expensive enough that you don't get piles of them, quality enough to hold up, easy to store)
- Clothes: specific requests for more quality stuff like dress shoes, jackets, swimsuits
- Dress-up clothes
- No "lights and noises" toys that are the functional equivalent of the TV

B-Mama said...

We, too, are drowning in stuff... So much so that my personal blog entry today in Gasperini-Ville was about how it took GG and I over two hours just to "tidy" our little home. What happens next year when we add a child and extra square footage? I can only imagine our problems will worsen.

K touches on an important point--the need for communication to relatives, either through wishlists or direct conversation. I'm thinking of saying for next Easter--"if you plan to give the kids gifts, please nothing plastic or uneducational; only one chocolate bunny." I don't think such a statement is overly presumptuous and at the same time, is informative and helps address the problem from the getgo.

We have friends who have made it crystal clear to family members from the beginning that they desire no toys with batteries (as Juris Mater mentioned). I think this is a wonderful idea! Just wish we had thought of it way back when...

Mary Alice said...

Okay, now I am here and I am going to be just plain bratty about it -- my kids would use up a sheet of stickers, too, and have fun with it, they love the one sticker they take home for the pediatrician.

My communication problem stems from the fact that when any one thing gets the green light, we get inundated. I mentioned that stickers were a fun way to occupy the twins during school time, and
since then, stickers have been being sent to my house in packs of 540! Per Kid! Per Minor Holiday -- Presiden'ts Day, Valentines Day, St Pats and Easter! That means that right now we have over 8000 stickers!

So then, I turn into some sort of raving psycho who yells at the nurse when she hands my kid a sticker after her shot!

I came home from Easter with 15 wind-up fish! How is this possible?

Anybody need some stickers?

Kat said...

ET and I were just talking about this topic, and both of us can't stand the clutter that comes with accumulating lots of little, useless toys. We're also looking forward to the oppotrunity to give away a lot of items in the process of moving. We have communicated with family members about limiting the amount of presents that our kids get, and both sides of the family are pretty good about getting practical and/or needed gifts.

On the other side of the conversation, I do have a soft spot for grandparents when they buy gifts for their grandchildren, and here's why: At least in our situation, both sets of grandparents live far away from their grandchildren - every opportunity to visit with them is a big deal and a reason for celebration. I'm always so touched when I see how much my parents and ET's parents love our children, and how our kiddos bring so much joy into their lives. Of course the grandparents do not need to "buy" our children's love by getting them gifts; however, I do think that gifts can be a "connecting point" for them. If they get our kids a new toy, they can use that toy to play with them; if they get a new book, they can read it to them, etc. It can be hard to reconnect with a 3 year-old that you haven't seen for a few months, and bringing along a toy is a simple way to make that connection happen. Just my two cents.

Happy Easter!

"H" said...

Some good ideas about handling needless gifts from relatives to children. Any ideas on how to encourage relatives to stop giving needless stuff to us grownups? Every holiday, major or minor (Thanksgiving, Easter, even just because we're throwing a party), my mother in law gives me some "decorative" item that I have no interest in. Flowery teapots, weird glass items that have no function but to sit on a shelf (but no self-respecting person under 50 would display it), etc. All breakable dust-catchers. I hate the fact that she's wasting her money on this, and that our "regift" pile keeps getting bigger and bigger but I wouldn't dare regift these things to any friend? How do I get the junk flow to stop?

Right Said Red said...

We too have a major 'stuff' problem. We just had a birthday party for Gianna, and Easter, so I'm feeling the need to root through our playroom and give away or trash a bunch of toys.

The problem seems to arise in that nobody really wants to spend a lot of money, so everyone just does one small thing for the kids. Unfortunately, that small thing is a cheap toy, and we have 3 kids, all getting one cheap toy from each of 10 different relatives. That's 30 cheap toys!!!!!! I wish there was a way to have everyone just give $10 to a college fund...

I wish there was a way to politely pass around a jar labeled "Gianna's pianno lessons." If everyone put in their $5 or $10, it would pay for the first couple of months. I would much rather have that than a bunch of whatchamacalits. It just seems that no matter how much I hint, a gift is a gift and I can't force the issue without being rude. I wish I could, because like MaryAlice and family, I AM SICK AND TIRED of all the stuff.

Right Said Red said...


We can always use extra stickers as Charlie plays with them while I am doing "school" with Gianna. If you want to save some for us, I'd be happy to take about 500 off your hands. I don't know what you can do with the other 7500.


k said...

Alice, I seem to recall a children's book that involved a little bear learning how to be nice and instead "share" his stickers with his friends who ended up with stickers all over them (can't remember the name, the stickers however were orange stars--nice memory).

Perhaps you just need to start telling your kids to sticker your relatives every time they come in the door maybe they'll let up on the stickers then :)

On another note, the regifting/giving away thing has been bothering me of late as well. I am, after years in the toy industry, an admitted toy snob. I could share some stories of the toy industry that are fairly appalling. So yes, I don't want a lot of these toys in my house. We like things simple. But then, I really don't want to inflict our junky toy rejects on other folks either!?!

Really I would just prefer that they stop being bought, and therefore stop getting made.

Is that too much to ask? Hmmm, probably.

Katherine said...

We don't have 8000 stickers, but I keep them with the art/craft supplies and when Cecilia wants to play with them, she has a scrapbook I converted to a stickerbook and they all go in there. Dunno if that helps anyone any, but it keeps all the stickers in only 2 places.

Anonymous said...

Having people in your lives whose (perhaps sole?) pleasure is loving your children and trying to make them happy is not your burden, it is your gift. So receive these gifts with grace, and in the spirit with which they were given.

I'll echo that there are plenty of underprivileged kids out there (as a result of their parents' injudicious spending or not; I'll leave the judgment to someone actually in a position to do so) who would delight in receiving a new toy or full sheet of stickers.

What is a minor inconvenience for you might be for someone else--from the well-intentioned but misguided isolated elderly relative selecting the "junk" to the needy child ultimately discovering a shiny new (plastic) toy--a major source of joy, comfort or connectedness.

(I'm not quite sure, either, whether you object to the economic stimulus funds themselves, or to the fact that you do not qualify to receive the funds.)

Anonymous said...

[Mary Alice's husband responds]:

I appreciate the gentle chiding and will try to change my spirit.

I will not, however, change my approach to developing my children's awareness of the dangers of materialism and the pursuit of cheap thrills.

Mr. Red said...

Right on, Mr. Mary Alice.

The people are a gift, the junk is not.

I, for one, think this conversation has been productive, and not mere whining. I hope it continues, and I hope we find some real solutions to a real problem.

Mr. Red

Anonymous said...

We've done pretty well with discouraging the inundation of junk, but we started BEFORE we had kids. What we've found helpful with zealous grandparents is that it can't be just a 1shot conversation. The theme of less stuff comes up several times a year, and we make it clear it's not just about the kids but a significant lifestyle choice for us.

For example, the year I decided to give away 40 things for Lent, I told them about it. We tell them that we donate stuff to parish fund-raisers, etc. Also, when they see photos or visit, it's clear that we don't have a ton of junk AND that we do NOT have the space to store much. For our kids, every bookcase or shelf takes away space they can be playing in.

We certainly were lucky (can't say we planned it this way) to start on the simplicity message before we had kids. But what we found was that after a few yrs., the set of grandparents who needed the message most discovered that they liked less stuff, too. Direct suggestion would have gone nowhere if it had been about their habits, but they were eventually influenced.

texas mommy said...

I suppose Dash's peanut allergy has helped us a bit in this area as I have sufficiently scared all grandparents away from buying us cheap, bad candy and snacks or anything in a package since they all could have come in contact with peanuts. Since we try to avoid packaged food anyway it works out well.

I made it clear very early on that books were really the only thing we needed or wanted, but now we have a lot of twaddle-y books. I use the Amazon wish list as well, but for some reason neither grandma can make it through costco or sams without picking up some book. Dash loves to learn about things right now so I may try to steer them towards encycolpedia type books in hopes to avoid the elmo valentines days types!

I do want to incorporate the kids into regular giving/donating/charity, but haven't done so yet unless you count leaving them strapped in the car seat while I drop stuff at the goodwill trailer. Any ideas for hands-on charity work for little ones? Maybe somewhere where we could sort food cans? Some families of larger age ranges in my homeschool group practice songs together and sing at a nursing home, which I thought was a fantastic use of a families musical gifts. Maybe making cards to go along with books to give away at a hospital?