Popular children's author and illustrator David Shannon put out a book last year that made kids laugh and their parents cry. The book is called "Too Many Toys" and tells the story of a boy named Spencer who floats happily around his house on a cascading river of toys. But when his dad steps on a Lego piece in his bare feet (ouch!) and his mom trips over race cars while doing the laundry (youch!) they decide that Spencer has too many toys. And so begins an epic negotiation in which Spencer tells his mom he cannot relinquish any toys. They are all his favorites.
Sound familiar? It did to one Amazon reviewer from Texas.
"Imagine my emotions when I happened upon this literary treasure," she wrote. "As I turned page after page, my eyes welled up, and I knew I had to have a copy. It seriously made me cry. . . . I feel like David Shannon came to my house and peeked in my windows."
Shannon's book taps into a truth about being a parent today: Many of us feel as if we are drowning in a sea of stuff. The chaotic clutter of cheap plastic, organic wood, "educational" electronics, heaps of princess costumes and a menagerie of stuffed animals can transform the home into a nursery school. We lose control of our personal space and harbor guilt that our children are living in excess, that they consider toys disposable, that they don't understand waste or appreciate the value of things.
Some parents rotate toys in and out of their child's play space, and others reserve shelves in the garage for storage, but eventually those toys wind up at yard sales or in the trash because thrift stores have stopped accepting them. Just because a parent decides to buy fewer toys doesn't mean the accumulation will stop. As Shannon points out in "Too Many Toys," Spencer also gets his toys in fast-food meals, at the dentist, at other children's birthday parties and every time he sees a relative.
Before you write this off as a rich person's issue, consider this: In 2009, the average retail price of a toy was $7.68, according to the market research company NPD Group. At yard sales, gently used toys go for as little as 50 cents. Toys have gotten so cheap and so abundant, no wonder some parents are trying to impose limits.
Doug Wood and James Sie have thrown their 8-year-old son birthday parties where, in lieu of a gift, guests were asked to donate to a charity of the birthday boy's choice. "One year we donated to a children's fund for Katrina victims, another year we did the Heifer [International] foundation where you can buy ducks and geese and they donate them to villages in Vietnam," Wood said. But it's not like Wood and Sie live in a toy-free home. Their son has aunts and uncles and grandmothers who love to shop for him. "He gets plenty of presents," Wood said. "Believe me, he isn't lacking for presents."
Although the charity party has worked for Wood and Sie and for others, good intentions can go awry. Diane Zelman, a mother of three in Berkeley, remembers taking her daughter to a birthday party where the parents decided that their son would donate half of his presents to the Children's Hospital of Oakland. Zelman initially felt almost envious at the nobility of this idea, but then the birthday boy opened the gifts. The ones he liked, he took out of the box immediately, and the ones that interested him less were discarded to the charity pile. Zelman's daughter had spent a lot of time thinking about what to get her friend, and she was upset when her present ended up in the sick-kid pile.
"I liked the intention behind it, but the way it pans out shows it is wrong-minded," Zelman said. "And we felt kind of ripped off. We bought this present for him, and we wanted him to get it. We could make a donation to the Children's Hospital on our own."
Giving toys at birthday parties, and during the holiday season, is an American ritual. Ask extended family to get your kids practical things like socks and underwear, and they may get angry and say you're depriving your child of joy. After all, even if a new winter jacket or a check for the savings account makes sense, it can be less fun for a giver who would rather present some amazing toy that delights a child.
"There is a biography there, when you buy someone a gift," said Mark Osteen, editor of "The Question of the Gift: Essays Across Disciplines" (2002) and a professor of English at Loyola University Maryland. The givers, Osteen said, are expressing their relationship with the receivers. "When somebody buys you the perfect gift, you find out that person was really thinking of me and knows me. It is a wonderful feeling."
Zelman said that buying presents for a child's friend can become an exercise in empathy. "When we go to a party, I want my kids to participate in the gift giving, thinking about what the child would want," she said. "If I just went out and bought something, it is a missed opportunity."
Perhaps the best happy medium I heard was from Kiyoko Miller, a mother of two who recently moved from an apartment building to a house. Her family brought with them five boxes filled just with toys.
"We realized we couldn't have another party and get a bunch of toys," she said. Instead, she asked guests of her son's fourth birthday party to donate $10 to the swing set that he had picked out on the Internet. When four of the 16 families invited to the party showed up with gifts, Miller wasn't annoyed. She was thrilled.
"It was very nice of them," she said. "My son was happy he got four gifts, because he didn't think he was going to get any. So it was a surprise for him."
Even better, she collected $350 toward the $700 swing set, and friends and family could know they were getting her son something he would really enjoy.
Even if parents can't hold back the toy deluge, they can take comfort in the fact that it won't last forever. Shannon started working on "Too Many Toys" when his daughter was 9 and based the story on his own experience at the time, but he said things are starting to get better.
"She's 11 now, and the birthday parties are fewer, and toys are beginning to be more substantial. They're turning into DVDs and CDs." he said. "Now it's all about 'clean your room.' "