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Home Family Parenting Advice Letting Go of Old Toys - Good Parenting

Letting Go of Old Toys – Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I need suggestions for helping my children let go of stuff, especially toys. My daughter, particularly, has the memory of an elephant and would instantly notice something missing, even if she hasn’t played with it in three years.

I really don’t want to sneak things away anyway because I want to talk with her about why we need to get rid of things. They could be better used somewhere else, and less stuff makes it easier to find the things you need.

De-Clutter Bug

Dear D-CB,

Your reasoning is indeed pragmatic. Unneeded things should be dispersed to where they are needed. The fewer things you have, the more often each will be used – and more easily found. The problem is we’re dealing with children. And they didn’t create the problem.

A toy may hold deep meaning to a child. A stuffed animal or doll could be a best friend – always ready to play, always ready to listen to your hopes and fears. A toy truck could be a vehicle for adventure – willing to test a carefully built bridge of shoe boxes and magazines or execute a daring rescue. A ball may hold memories of accomplishment – a successful wild catch or a bold retrieval from under the back porch.

Toys are a child’s tools. They help her learn, solve problems, have fun, and feel secure. A baby will play with just about anything, but a toddler can become deeply attached to a toy as a comfort object. A three-year-old considers her toys to be an extension of her body as her hands become more and more skilled at making the toys “work”. For more on the meaning of things to children, please refer to a past column about this https://www.chesapeakefamily.com/the-meaning-of-things-good-parenting/.

When space is an issue, help your child choose the “toys of the week” and have a weekly ritual of exchanging playthings that can be left in the toy box or shelves with others that are boxed up and stored away. They’re not gone, they’re just temporarily unavailable. (You might already do this with outdoor toys for winter and summer.) Over time, this exercise in decision-making can help a child come to realize which of her toys aren’t as valued as they once were. Just be sure to take a few pictures of your children enjoying their treasured playthings before that happens!

Pass It On
Model by example that before replacing it with a new one, you donate the old toaster oven to a charity. There’s no room on the counter, nor is there a practical need to have more than one toaster oven. The same could be said about toys, especially something as big as an indoor tent or a mini-trampoline. Suggest making room for something your child needs or wants by giving away something that’s taking up needed space.

Clothing often gets passed down in a family as it’s outgrown, or passed around among families, while it still has wear left in it.  This is the concept behind the Buy Nothing https://buynothingproject.org/ model, to share creatively and tread lightly on the planet. The planet, like your home, already has plenty of stuff. Something has to go out before something else can come in.

Around the age of seven, children begin to appreciate the monetary value of things. This is a good age to begin suggesting a yard sale for clearance of toys that have diminished in their appeal. Each child can pocket or pool their gains toward the purchase of an item, or outing, or charity, of their desire.

It is a problem for many children that they have way too many toys. Where did all these toys come from? It’s a wonderful problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. Try deflecting a barrage of toys as gifts from well-meaning friends and relatives with suggestions of experiences rather than near duplicates of things already cluttering your home. They could give gift certificates to restaurants each of the children likes, or buy tickets to a concert or play for family audiences, or arrange a behind-the-scenes visit to a small airport or a horse stable, or pay for dance / music / swimming/ magic lessons, etc., according to the children’s interests. You might help your child pick a worthy charity for her next birthday and ask guests to bestow it with picture books, new pajamas, or children’s art supplies.

Hopefully you are not the culprit – attaching a toy to your every return from business travel, or as persuasion to gain cooperation at the doctor’s office, or to keep a child occupied when your attention is needed elsewhere. Just as parents are responsible for the choices children have in the kitchen, because you are in charge of what’s in there, so too are you responsible for how much there is to play with in the house. Enough is good enough.

If Grandma is the culprit, try coming up with a special activity that “comes with” Grandma, and that is over when she leaves, rather than yet another toy that stays behind. Does Grandma like to make chalk drawings on the sidewalk? Cook? Catch insects? Sing silly songs? Dramatically read picture books (hers or yours)? Impress Grandma, if needed, with how hard it is for the children to take good care of their toys when they have so many, and, on the other hand, how much they are looking forward to spending time doing special things with her.

Toy clutter is really a problem for the grown-ups to solve.


Dr. Debbie


Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist www.drdebbiewood.com and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum www.theccm.org. She will be facilitating a “Little Kids at Hope” https://theccm.networkforgood.com/events/26060-let-s-talk-zoom-parenting-workshops workshop for parents and others who care for children 0-5-years-old on Monday, July 12, 4-7 pm. The museum is hosting a Sizzling Summer Concert https://theccm.networkforgood.com/events/31852-sizzling-summer-concert and other outdoor activities for families on Saturday, July 24 from 9 am to 2 pm.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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