We’ve passed the halfway point of January. The last of the holiday decorations have likely been put away, any lingering pine needles have been swept up. If you’re like me, you’ve moved on to the deep-cleaning, forced-bulbs-and-branches, and candles-everywhere portion of the month.
But one thing that’s been very apparent over the past few weeks is that there remains for some of you a lingering sense of ill-ease about the overabundance of the holidays. For parents of young children, the concerns seems to be especially acute. There’s wondering about how to incorporate so much abundance into your space without feeling overwhelmed, questions about how to gently let friends and family know what kind of experiences (and things) you most wish for your children to have, nerves about hurting feelings.
I’ll begin by stating the obvious, which is that I am only a year-and-a-half into this parenting gig. I can’t anticipate precisely what will unfold in my house over the next ten or twelve years. When we came home from the holidays this year, we came with an array of new toys and goodies for Faye that required some rejiggering of our space to accommodate. This is always part of the process when something new comes into our place: The making room; the settling in, the reassessing.
Earlier in the fall, we’d done a bit of this rejiggering already. Rattles and teethers and infant toys that Faye’s largely outgrown, we weeded through. The ones that we most cherished were zipped into a small case in the linen closet. They live in the same small, hopeful space where I’ve also nestled the maternity clothes that I bought for myself while pregnant with Faye. Other things—duplicates and redundancies and less-cherished items—we passed along to the neighborhood thrift store.
Gifts are, of course, things that are supposed to be enjoyed. It’d be a rare thing for someone to give a gift with the sole intent of causing a problem. And yet, it’s clear that many parents view gifts as a challenge; something to be dealt with. My approach is to be as gracious and thankful as we can be, without also feeling that our spaces and our belongings are out of our immediate control. Here are a few tactics that can help maintain a sense of control, keep a focus on graciousness and gratefulness, and, hopefully, offer a few ideas for alternatives to an ever-growing pile of toys.Send A Clear Message:
I think there are both gentle and clear ways to let loved ones know that you might be hoping to embrace less rather than more when it comes to gifts for your kids. For me, the opportunities for spreading this message began from almost the moment I announced my pregnancy. In the same way that I opted out of a traditional wedding shower, I opted out of a traditional baby shower. I didn’t want a party in my honor based around giving material goods and I explained that I wanted to keep things very simple for the baby-to-be. The supplies that I gathered before Faye came along were very few and carefully considered. As I write about in my book, I did, at my mom’s urging, put together a small registry of items from a variety of small shops that I thought I—and a baby—would love. It included just a few things but for friends and family who were very eager to give a gift, the list provided a jumping-off point and an indication of the kinds of things we were hoping to bring into our home. Co-workers pooled resources to purchase us our stroller. Aunts and cousins pooled resources to buy us a baby carrier. Many friends gave gifts not on the registry: books and music and rattles and precious onesies. I loved all of them. In expressing from the start an interest in doing things differently, I avoided feeling too overwhelmed by gifts in those early months.
As kids get older, I think a similar kind of messaging can be effective. Many people I know have requested no gifts at birthday parties and gatherings. (Many people, myself included, have ignored the bidding, but the point is to try.) If asking for no gifts seems so staunch as to be surely ignored, try, perhaps, an alternative suggestion:
+ If you’d like to bring a gift, please consider making a contribution to our art supply box.
+ If you’d like to bring a gift, please bring a non-perishable food item that we can donate to our local soup kitchen.
+ If you’d like to bring a gift, please consider bringing a children’s book to donate to our local homeless shelter.
In my experience, friends and family who really want to give a gift will often ask for a bit of guidance. Anything Faye needs? Anything you’ve been thinking of getting? Here’s your chance! Take a few moments to respond thoughtfully. In my family, my mom is a champion gift giver. She really loves the hunt. She loves finding the perfect little thing and the other two things that go along with it. I don’t deny her of the thrill of gift giving, but I do offer some ideas for things that might be most useful. (And, admittedly, I outsource to her some of the hunting that I find personally less satisfying. We all have our strong suits; use someone else’s gift-giving enthusiasm to your advantage!)
Shuffle What You Display:
Once the gifting is finished, we’ve always had the best luck with leaving out only a selection of toys at a time. Personal anecdotes aside, research shows that children respond better to a simple collection of toys than a vast one. A child need not have a shelf stacked full-to-brimming with options. If you are given more than you feel can be used or enjoyed or displayed without feeling crowded, opt to save some of it for later instead. An occasional rotation out of old and in of new is exciting for little guys. Whether it’s brand-new, or borrowed, or just re-emerged from a little sojourn in the closet, novelty wins every time. So tuck an extra-beautiful set of blocks under the bed and only take them out to build a gigantic castle. If you notice that a certain toy isn’t getting played with, put it on the top shelf of a closet to present again at a different time. We don’t have room to stockpile a huge number of toys, but we’ve managed to find little places to tuck things away.
As children get older and more attached to their belongings (and more interested in creative control of their space) this same practice of curation might prove beneficial. Provide a space for them to display their cherished objects and encourage a periodic reassessment. I remember particular joy at having a tag sale as a child and getting to mark the prices on various stuffed animals and toys that my parents had gently encouraged my sisters and I to sell.
Faye’s too young to fully grasp the concept, but I think there’s something to be said for starting early to instill a sense of charity in children. Some of these ideas, I already listed above, but when, despite your best efforts, children receive more than they need or could use, why not encourage them to give the gift to someone else in need? Local religious institutions and community centers often accept gifts of this nature all year long, but you might also save a collection of things to give to a family in need at the holidays. Like the tag sale story from my childhood, it might be a useful moment to teach a child the value of a gift beyond their personal enjoyment of it.
It’s the play dough kick going on in our house that’s speaking, but I think on the giving side of things, it’s lovely to think about giving gifts to children that don’t necessarily require a longterm place to store them. Or else, to give gifts that encourage an activity or experience beyond what needs to be kept on a shelf: tickets to a museum, membership to a public garden, swimming lessons, an art or music class, etc. Even the very loveliest handmade toys can become overwhelming in multiples and most will eventually be forgotten. But the gift of a special lunch out with an aunt, or a trip to a local aquarium with a grandparent, or a solo-drive with an uncle to spend the day at the beach? Those are all things that won’t go forgotten. In fact, they might just be the very things that get remembered.
It goes without saying that graciousness is really the only route to take when it comes to gifts. It’s hard to change people’s minds about what is good or useful or fun to have. Indeed, it’s likely impossible. Pick your battles. Your family might not love your handmade sugar scrub either. But accept graciously, send a thank you note, use the gift if you can. If ultimately a gift is not right for your home or your family or your child, graciously give yourself the permission to let it go.
What about you guys? I’d love to hear what’s worked for each of you!