What happens when you stop giving kids toys?

When I was growing up, we didn’t really have toys. There was the stuffed panda that had been handed down from somewhere, and the panda-in-the-bamboo-forest puzzle with a piece missing from the centre. And there was the baby and bath set my aunt had brought me when she’d come to visit.

Later there was a wooden sword (which I had been trying to make myself except my father spotted me wandering around with a saw and a hammer and intervened) and a purple teddy bear. For some reason, there were always yo-yos.

That’s pretty much it as I recall. No Lego or Barbies or any of those typical 80s toys kids in my generation had. We simply didn’t have the cash.

This wasn’t unusual. Many of my friends had similar childhoods. Without toys, you just had to go out into the back yard and bake mud cakes or invent some kind of game to entertain yourself. One time we tried to build a swimming pool with some bricks that were stacked up against the back wall (a resounding failure) and another time we tried to build a tree house (that idea barely got off the ground, so to speak). We made paper boats and paper jets, and used plastic syringes from my uncle’s surgery as water guns.

So why am I reminiscing about my largely toy-free childhood?

Well, there’s a study that has been doing the rounds recently and that’s gotten a lot of people talking about the benefits of a toy-free environment for children. It’s based on a scheme put together by two public health officials in Germany who work with drug-addicted adults. They believe that the roots of addictive behaviour go back to childhood. To head off addictive behaviours in adulthood, they developed a programme that they hoped would help improve children’s social skills and their ability to deal with boredom and negative feelings.

The idea is that children distract themselves from negative feelings by turning their attention to new toys in much the same way that adults may distract themselves from difficulties in their lives by turning to drugs. If they could teach kids to avoid this type of self-distraction early on, they figured they’d be less likely to exhibit addictive behaviour later on as adults.

So, in a trial programme at German kindergartens, they took away all the toys for three months and left the children in their empty classrooms to figure things out for themselves. With no toys to be found, the kids would be forced to deal with their peers and the uncomfortable feelings that arise when there’s conflict. The programme was such a success that they’ve continued to do it for a few months each year since then. Whether it’s had an effect on drug addiction remains to be seen – it’s only been a few years since the original trial.

Take their toys
This take-away-your-kids-toys idea has been floating around for a long time.

Some people say cutting back on the number of toys kids have teaches them gratitude and prevents them from developing  a sense of entitlement.

Others say it teaches them to be more creative, to take better care of their things and improves their attention span.

This less-toys thing sounds like a good idea all round. But when you’ve had a fairly toy-deprived childhood it can be really easy to slip into the habit of wanting to get your child all the things you never had.

Love Lego? Here’s some Lego. Here’s more Lego. Here’s that Lego you didn’t know you wanted but that I spotted in the toy shop window after picking up the groceries.

He really loves his Hot Wheels. Here are some Hot Wheels for brushing your teeth for a week, for not crying at the doctor, for staying in your seat on this flight, for sitting quietly at a wedding. Here are some Hot Wheels because I got your cousin some and I thought I might as well get you one while I was at it. Here’s one because I happened to spot it in the toy aisle at Pick ’n Pay and it looked different from your others.

Before you know it you’re stepping on Lego every time you turn around and all the kids ever use the Hot Wheels for is making that lovely, metallic crashing sound when they up-end the entire box onto the floor.

Last year we read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the bestselling book by the Japanese decluttering guru Marie Kondo. (Yes, being a decluttering guru is apparently a thing.) And it really got us thinking about how the things we hold on to take up not just our physical space but our mental space too.

So we started decluttering the house, and the kids weren’t spared in that process. If it was broken, it was being recycled. If they’d aged out of something, it was going to a friend or to the charity shop.

The kids are hoarders. You could take out a raggedy old broken doll that they hadn’t seen in two years and they would say “Nooo! I love that! It’s my favourite!” There was no easy way to cajole them into parting with their toys so eventually, we just asked them to choose. We told them things like “You have three of these, you can keep two,” or “You have so many of these cars. You can keep enough to fill this box but we’re giving the rest away.” The things that they returned to time and time again – swords, Lego and musical instruments – got to stay.

Do we have a perfectly decluttered, minimalist toy situation at our house right now? No. There are still things that we’d happily send on their way. But we’re not overwhelmed with stuff. We have noticed a lot more make-believe play lately. They love to collect all the pillows and blankets in the house and use them to build houses or cars or spaceships in the living room.

To be fair, I don’t know if this is actually because of the diminished toy quota. My guess is that it’s more age related. Suddenly drawing, colouring and make-believe are in. Six months ago, they weren’t.

Are we on the verge of taking away all of our kids’ toys in the hopes that it will make them more resilient and able to deal with conflict? I don’t think so. Honestly, we’re just not that brave.

What we’ve focused on more in recent months is stopping ourselves from buying them toys on a whim or to surprise or reward them.

If they ask for something or point out something in the Lego catalogue, we tell them “Maybe you’ll get it for your birthday.”

For some reason I always remember Paul McCartney telling Oprah, when she asked how he and his wife managed to raise such down-to-earth kids: “We never gave them anything. We spoiled them on birthdays and Christmas but other than that, we never gave them anything.”

As far as I’m concerned, that’s #goals.

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