Popular children's author and illustrator David Shannon put out a book last year that made kids laugh and their parents cry. The book, Too Many Toys, 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.
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.
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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. But it's not as if Wood and Sie live in a toy-free home. Their son has aunts and uncles and grandmothers who love to shop for him. ‘‘Believe me, he isn't lacking for presents," Wood said.
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, Calif., 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 in 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 charity pile.
"I liked the intention behind it, but we felt kind of ripped off," Zelman says. "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 is an American ritual. Ask extended family to get your kids practical things like socks, and they may 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.
Perhaps the best happy medium comes 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 4th birthday party to donate $10 to the swing set that he had picked out. When 4 of the 16 families invited 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."
Even better, she collected $350 toward the $700 swing set.
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.
"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.