Baby C is celebrating her 5th birthday this weekend, and, as the only child, niece, and grandchild in the family on both sides, this means that our 2 bedroom condo is about to be overrun with new toys. Given our small space living, and the desire to create limits, foster gratitude, and appreciation for the privileges this kiddo has, Mr. Carrot and I have been developing an intentional approach to how we will allow for “stuff.”
When Baby C was still a baby, we tried to be very minimalist with toys in general. Most of the stuff we had in the house was what we were gifted or inherited from friends, and we tried to be pretty analog too, keeping the noisy flashy toys to a minimum. I say this with absolutely no judgement on the toys themselves – as an introvert and someone who’s not a fan of noise, noisy toys were really not my jam anyway, so the only things we really allowed were things that played music or were focused on learning, like ABCs and shapes and such. As Baby C got older and began expressing interest in things, we tried to follow her cues and direct her accordingly. Our friends and family have, thankfully, been very gracious in asking what they should get for Baby C, and we always tried to aim toward things that she was drawn to naturally. In the early toddler years, that included lots of containers to put things in and out of, blocks to stack, and early puzzles.
It was really when Baby C got into the “I want this” stage that we started to really be intentional about what we would do when she asked for something in a grocery store or Target. This approach has evolved a bit over time but we’ve been sticking to these basics:
- Allow for one thing, with restrictions, per weekend. Because Mr. Carrot and I are at work all week, our outings that may come in contact with something Baby C would want are limited to weekends. This primarily includes our grocery store, which has endless racks of books and some toys; Target, when we run household errands; and most often, this comes up when we go out to a museum or somewhere that may have souvenirs. We tend to fill up our weekends, so we know that at least 2-3X in a weekend, Baby C will be faced with temptation for something she wants. Our parameters are that she can pick one thing to buy in the entire weekend, and then we add parameters to that as well. If we’re at the grocery store, it has to be a book or a coloring/activity toy, like stickers. This is primarily to avoid the cheap plastic junk that’s constantly in grocery stores (and we tend to avoid that aisle entirely as much as we can). If it’s at Target, it has to be something from the dollar section. And if we’re out somewhere that has souvenirs, we allow for a toy, but it can’t be bigger than the length of her arm, from hand to elbow. I realize that this approach is one of great privilege, and I am fully cognizant of that, so we set these limits as a way to teach Baby C patience, reasoning, working within limits, and it’s a way for us to practice our negotiation and enforcement skills.
- Adjust for special occasions. In February, we went to Disney World for the first time with Baby C. We knew exactly how much temptation would be there for a 4 year old, so we had a discussion about souvenir rules before we even left. The rule we set was that Baby C could get one thing every day, and it had to be something small (using the elbow-hand size parameter). We reminded Baby C, when she lunged for something at the start of our day, that we could come back and pick up that thing on the way out, and that she could see more things throughout the day. This worked only sometimes, and we did have some grumbling and complaining, but overall, she was very mindful and respectful of this rule as we went through our week at the parks. Again, I recognize that this is something we can do from a place of financial comfort, but it still helps us meet our goal of controlling for how much stuff we have and for teaching Baby C limitations and thinking through her choices. A friend of mine set a rule for her daughter when they went to Disney that she could pick out one big gift (like a costume or something pricier, but only that one thing), which is another approach we’ll consider in the future.
- “Unlimited” categories. Mr. Carrot and I agreed that we are comfortable spending money on Legos, books, and puzzles early on. They are all things that we have particular love for ourselves, and believe them to be worthwhile to spend on, vs stuffed animals or things that get less play. It just so happened that Baby C is very inclined toward Legos and puzzles, and has been since early on, so we allow ourselves to buy her Legos and books that she asks for. We still enforce our limits, so she can’t get a Lego set and another toy in the same weekend (though we do allow for a toy and a book), and we guide her toward more active toys, like Legos, but we don’t put as many restrictions on Legos size and price-wise the way we do with other toys. To keep our costs reasonable, we’ve explained the Amazon phenomenon to her, so she now understands that it may take 2 days before her Legos show up because we have to order them on the phone.
- Regular clean-outs and rotations. This is an area we are still struggling with, but one that I am very set on instilling as a habit. As a selfish preschooler, it’s very hard for Baby C to give away her toys, and of course, when I remind her that she hasn’t played with that thing for months, it’s her favorite thing right away. At present, I go through all of Baby C’s toys about once a quarter, doing this while I’m at home on my own, and donate anything that she hasn’t touched in a while. I also go through and make sure that her toys are as accessible as possible, so that things don’t end up out of sight and out of mind, and I think about what she’s naturally drawn to, so that I can maximize exposure to that and put away other, less engaging stuff.
- “No gifts” birthdays. For the past 3 years, we’ve had a birthday party with Baby C with classmates from her school and our other friends, and every time, we included “no gifts please” on our invitations. We know that our parents and family will splurge on her, and we don’t want our friends to do the same, and in our area, this is a fairly common practice so no one really blinks at it. This has really helped keep “stuff” much more manageable.
As Baby C is getting older, Mr. Carrot and I are thinking about ways to start teaching her about money, and are looking at tying that into our “stuff” management rules. We’ve talked a lot with her about how lucky we are to be able to buy things when we want to, and the importance of giving to others, and we have been honest about things that are just too expensive and unreasonable, but we haven’t quite found a way to start delving into money management with her, so I’m looking forward to researching and figuring that part out. Mr. Carrot and I both grew up in very low income households, and it’s important to both of us that Baby C learn about the value of work and money management, as well as self control and restrictions. I realize that it may seem contradictory, given how liberal we are with what we buy for her, but we’re finding as Baby C is getting older, that she is internalizing these rules and limits. It’s been a marvel to watch her reason and negotiate with us over things like getting two small toys that together fit into the length of her arm (the answer is still no, only one thing, even if it’s smaller), thinking longer term about delaying gratification, and having to manage disappointment when we put our foot down on what she can’t have.
What are some of your best practices for managing “stuff”?