It’s a commonplace that kids these days are growing up with way too much stuff. In our family, one grandparent makes the observation weekly while three others do everything in their power to ensure its truth.
Stemming the stuffal tide is impossible. You might tame a few close relatives but then there’s the far-flung wing of the family that sends its love regularly in the mail plus the well-intentioned neighbours with their bulging garbage bags of hand-me-downs, plus your child’s darling friends who show up for birthday parties with parcels bigger than anything you ever recall receiving in your entire childhood.
But while I used to think that kids suffered from excess, that it confused and overstimulated them, six years of parenting has taught me that they’re actually pretty good at dealing with it, better than their parents.
For one thing, children have no qualms about repurposing. Last month, during the post-Christmas lull, my three-year-old son Liam was given a toy car, probably the 479th of his life. He removed it from its package, did a quality-control check – spun the wheels and dropped it on the floor a few times – and then began systematically dismembering it. My father, who’s visually impaired, asked his grandson what he was was doing but Liam couldn’t spare the neurons to respond. Having removed all four wheels, he gutted the interior, ripped off the battery cover (knowing his frugal mother would never give him the batteries anyway) and then requested a piece of string. With it, he attached his car carcass to his big brother’s still in-tact car, exclaimed “It’s a boat!” and proceeded to drag the denuded vehicle across my father’s Persian carpet, revving it up and down the ramps of splayed books, beaching it on bars of brown and depositing it in patches of blue.
Children also have standards and they stick to them. Liam, proud owner of at least twenty pairs of pants, wears precisely two. He refers to them – blue cargo-style pants from the Gap – as his “down” pants which I thought referred to their domain in his bottom drawer until a recent exchange that erupted as he fished a yoghurt-crusted pair of “down” pants out of the laundry basket for the fifth consecutive day. Having turned a blind eye to this practice for months, I decided it was time to draw the line and insist he wear a clean pair of non-down pants. Liam declined, explaining that “down” referred, quite obviously, to the pants’ broad-cuffed coverage of his feet (Liam considers his toes to be private parts). He went on to point out, quite rightly, that all my pants are “down” by this definition and gave me a choice – “down” pants or no pants – which, being midwinter, wasn’t much of a choice. The next day I found myself at the Gap buying Liam more “down” pants.
Lastly, kids can turn off the stuff. Following Liam’s 4th birthday party last week, he and his older brother spent Saturday morning surveying the wreckage: Playmobil kits with integral parts already missing, plastic transformers that don’t transform, a remote control car that won’t climb walls as shown on the box. At a certain point and without prompting, Liam’s brother put on his snowsuit and boots and walked out the front door. He came back in and said with genuine excitement: “Liam, come outside! The air is SO good!”
The real victims of too much stuff are the adults who have to sort, shelve, endure and ultimately get rid of it. They’re also the main culprits. What to do? Banning presents seems kill-joyish – plus which, you’d miss the true gems, like boiled wool snakes from Newfoundland and indestructible marble runs from Germany. Turning down hand-me-downs seems silly, because every other garbage bag contains precisely the pair of long johns or swim goggles that you need. In the end, and as with many things, we could do worse than to follow our kids’ lead on stuff: repurpose, filter and get away from it regularly.