Last year we asked our families to kindly cut down on the number of gifts given to our kids. It was very difficult having these conversations. In some cases I wrote emails in addition to multiple face to face and telephone conversations. Hardest thing ever. To tell the people you love, and who love your kids, to please please stop buying presents for them. But we had to. Liam was only two and
getting presents every time he saw his loving aunts, uncles, grandparents, parent's cousins, great aunts/uncles, great grandparents, extended family, friends...everyone. We have a large family. We love our family so much and we know they love our kids and think of them when they go on vacation, or when a holiday is approaching, or when there is a sale, or because they saw something cute, so, they buy them a gift. Or six (that is not an exaggeration). Our house was becoming full of toys, the grandparents houses were becoming full of toys and Liam was overwhelmed.
We are not alone! Most parents I've talked to have this same issue. They do one of two things 1) Keep the toys and resent the fact that they live in a toy store. 2) Accept the toys and then secretly give them away to charity. We did not like either of these options. We knew we could not keep getting the large volume of gifts, it was increasing and would likely double when we had our second child. And, we did not want our families spending thier hard earned money on toys we were secretly giving away. So we did something else. We asked them to please stop buying our kids gifts. I won't lie and say it went over well. It did not. For some people it was like asking them to cut off their own arm. I was told that I was "taking away the joy of being a (insert relation here)". There were tears. I have been called ridiculous, selfish, irrational, ungrateful and controlling (each in different conversations and some together, just for good measure). If we didn't have a good relationship with our family to start out with this could really have been bad. But, as bad as it was at first, eventually, they began to understand us. I think. Maybe. Perhaps they are just appeasing us thinking it is a phase that will pass. Another one of those kooky things we do, like using cloth diapers and eating organic food. Bonkers we are!! (PS For those of you that don't know, we have been faithful cloth diaperers for both our kids and buy a heck of a lot of organic food.)
The following are the things that we have learned about too many gifts/toys, from observing our own kids and a little research. We discussed these reasons with our families with the hopes that they would see where we were coming from and understand why we were asking them to stop buying things for the kids.
1) Regular receipt of gifts can create the expectation that gifts will always be provided. This was by far the most important reason. We did not want our kids to equate relatives visits with gifts. Or worse, equate gifts with love. I think I would pass out from humiliation if my kid were ever to yell "Where's my present??" when someone arrived. And yet, this is where we were leading. There was RARELY a time when a relative or friend arrived empty handed. We visited with people at least bi-weekly. There was always something. Maybe it was little, maybe it was on sale, maybe it was just something they picked up, but it was something for the kids. Or several things. Every time. From everyone. It was not long before Liam would be smart enough to realize this and we were horrified. Not only might he learn to always expect things, but on the rare occasion that he didn't get a gift, he may think "What did I do wrong that I didn't get a gift?". So then NOT getting gifts would be a problem. Oh my. Gifts do not equal love. Family (or friends!) equals love, period. Show up at our house empty handed. PLEASE! We want your company, not your things.
2) Large volumes of toys are overwhelming to young children. Too many choices of things to play with leads to quickly picking the closest toy, playing with it for just a minute, tossing it aside and picking the next shiny one, and then the next and the next. Pretty soon, all the toys are everywhere and the kid is in the middle with his head spinning, unable to find anything to play with. This is over stimulation. Fewer toys, organized neatly on shelves still let kids have a choice, but do not overwhelm them. This applies to books as well. Ever ask a two year old to pick a book from a shelf filled with books? You'll be there for an hour and all the books will be on the floor and he will not have picked one yet. Compare that with asking them to pick one out of three books. Much easier for them. Our kids are at increased risk for ADD and in my research I found that fewer toys, neatly organized in a consistent way (same place each time) are less stressful for kids and allows them to focus better. The child's environment has a huge affect on behaviour. Um, who's kids are not freaked out by a trip to toys r us? They are practically beside themselves by the end. Too much stuff, too much colour, too many choices, too much everything. Imagine if your house was like that AND your kid had trouble concentrating? You'd be peeling that kid off the walls every day.
3) We are teaching our kids NOT to be consumers. Consume, consume, consume. Buy, buy, buy then throw away. This is the world in which we live. This type of behaviour is not sustainable. The earth (and us) cannot continue to live if we continue to buy and dispose of frivolous things at the current rate. If we don't need it, we don't buy it. And then, we don't want it gifted to us. We try and minimize the things that come into our house and the things that go out (recycle, trash). Things for the kids are not an exception. I'm so glad Liam is learning in school about being kind to the earth.We try and live our lives with minimal impact to the environment and this is a very important way to do that.
So, what happened? Did we say no gifts at all? No. We said please save all your gift-giving urges for birthdays and Christmas. And then, please, please, please only buy one gift. Did that work? No. Not at first. We kindly reminded people over and over about not giving gifts, we asked people to please take their no-reason-at-all gift back and give it at Christmas instead, and we actually sent a huge bag of superfluous gifts back at Christmas (OMG was that a drama disaster). It was freaking hard. People just like to give. We know that. We have a wonderfully generous circle of friends and family. It was hard for them. It is probably hard for them every time they shop. But over the past year...they did it. They tried to understand. They tried to not buy things. They greatly reduced the number of gifts. And for that, we are truly truly thankful. (See, we are not ungrateful people!)
We don't want gifts for our kids, so what DO we want? We want our family and friends to spend time with our kids. Come over for a visit - stay a few days even! Spend money on a trip to the zoo, not a stuffed animal. Take them to go get ice cream. Play in the yard with them, not with the toys downstairs. Or just be with them. Our family and friends' presence in our kids' lives, spending time with them, is the best gift they can give them and one that they will always treasure.
Living the Dream...
For Liam's 3rd birthday we had a big party, 50 people. We didn't have the big party as a gift-grab, we had it because it was his birthday and we were super excited and wanted to share the day with everyone!! So we said "please no gifts" on the invitation and that actually went over quite well! Only one person told me that I was "totally ridiculous". Ha! Anyhoo, Liam loves animals, especially lions, so I found a charity in Africa that rehabilitated and reintroduced lions to the wild. Our family and friends were very generous and we collected their pocket change at the party and donated it to the charity. Liam was thrilled that he helped the lions. I think we will do something similar every year. He still got birthday gifts from us as well as both sets of grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc., so don't go thinking I'm a birthday party-pooper ok? Geez. But he would have had 25 MORE gifts had we not done this...what three year old can even get through opening that many?? Liam almost passed out at Christmas!
Speaking of Christmas...it's coming. We would love to see you and spend time with you! And we will thank you to not buy us anything! THANK YOU!!! Just say, Merry Christmas, here's a hug. Perfect gift!
UPDATE: Things are still going very well!
We have continued with our tradition and in the past three years for each of our kids birthday parties we have said "no gifts" on the invitation and donated to charities instead. The charities are ones that are meaningful to the kids (Liam picked his own charities for his 4th and 5th birthday parties) and the family (we donated to the NICU for Adeleine's 2nd and 3rd birthday). The kids are growing up knowing that on their birthdays they get to make a difference in the world. And that is a special gift that all our friends and family have given to our kids and we are so grateful!