Confessions of the Toy Tyrant

Welcome to our latest guest blogger, Teresa!

TeresaTeresa Diehl is a freelance curriculum writer who also helps with her husband’s sailing/snorkeling day charter business in the Caribbean Teresa and her family enjoy the simplicity of sailing, ocean exploring, and living off the grid aboard their 44-foot sailboat, Liberty. When not stowing toys, she enjoys sewing with upcycled sails, baking, paddling around on her surfboard, and homeschooling their two girls. When she gets a second, she updates her blog about raising children on a boat:

Do you feel that pang of dread, yet? If so, it must mean that toy-giving season is creeping up on us, isn’t it? Honestly, I kindofalmost enjoy spending countless hours of research online intended to spare me the horror of navigating a brick and mortar toy store. Hunting down the perfect toy at the perfect price can be a fun self-vs-self competition, unless of course you’re in a bidding war on eBay. Don’t even get me started on that insane sort of scenario that I have admittedly engaged in to snag things such as a Playmobil beach scene that I probably wanted more than the kids it was intended for. Like all parents, I feel that my children are extraordinarily unique and deserve nothing less than life-changing gifts on special holidays, but the whole toy thing can throw me into a tailspin of neurotic, controlling behavior, and I feel completely justified.

For starters, our home doesn’t have much space at all for non-necessities. I keep most of the indoor toys  (books and stuffed animals don’t count) in an unseen compartment under the “dining room” seating. Next to that secret bin, all the craft items are stored in an equal-sized compartment and replenished as necessary. So think about this: if you had a space about 18 inches tall, 15 inches wide, and even less deep, what would you keep in that space for your 4 and 6 year-olds? Crazy talk, right?

Well, we have a lot of puzzles (Ones from cardboard boxes go into Ziploc bags with just the picture of what it’s supposed to look like inside). There’s a Playmobil castle that keeps giving joy, and the aforementioned beach scene (in a baggy, of course). There’s a big butterfly and flower sculpture puzzle thing, a couple broken toy phones that sometimes flutter, beep, or sigh, a mini etch-a-sketch, a bag of plastic animals, lower-case alphabet letters you can sew (more enticing to the target audience if viewed as a toy) as well as a bunch of foam letters that pop out and form a puzzle. There’s also a big bag of cassette tapes with good children’s music and stories on them, but I’m feeling snobby these days Polly Pocketabout their weak sound quality and would love to strategically relocate them (in a dumpster, perhaps). There are some Polly Pockets in their own mini Outback backpack, as well as their lesser-quality counterpart plastic dolls in granny housedresses whose arms and heads routinely pop off. The latter’s redeeming quality is that they came with beds, dressers, and sinks, and they get along pretty well with the Polly Pockets, not at all jealous of their ravishing hair and bodies. There’s also a toy alphabet/word/sound laptop thing in there that recently died sort of.  Its apparent demise warrants further investigation at least. There are also a couple tambourines that I classify as toys, not instruments, only because I don’t know where else to store them. I’m probably forgetting something, and measurements are estimates, but the kids are in bed and I don’t like to venture under the seat cushion when not absolutely necessary. As I mentioned, space is a premium around here, so if you want to play with something new, you gotta put something back– unless the various friends are playing together nicely (animals and dolls for example).  OK, so that’s what I fit into our official toy space. I feel like I just showed total strangers my underwear drawer!

Even if I had the money and space to supply unlimited gifts for our kids, I’m not sure I see the value of letting them have so many things all right at their fingertips. These days, there are more toys are on the market, there is more pressure on parents to supply them, and before you know it, more and more things have crept into and taken over your home. I think kids get overwhelmed with too many choices so readily available, and it doesn’t seem fair to parents, either, who once in a while would probably like to feel that they live in a home that showcases their nice furniture. My own decor is nothing to write home about, but I am forced out of necessity to really keep things minimal, and I see the benefit. Unnecessary clutter is a little disturbing to everyone’s psyche and doesn’t foster good habits. They have to put things away at school (and eventually at their jobs), so I think it’s good to maintain that consistency. I also like to walk around and sit without a superhero, pirate, or princess’s arm poking me in uncomfortable places. Doesn’t always work out in my favor, but we can try.

Where I fail in carrying out my philosophy on and organization of toys the most: Magnatiles, Barbies (which I initially fought against), and costumes. More on Magnatiles in a minute—they stay out, readily accessible (aka in the way). One Barbie was recently granted sanctuary in a mini hammock next to the six year-old’s bed along with her personal belongings in a plastic Ziploc (note to self: make a mini suitcase for her), but the mermaid and dolphin trainer have been squatting. Not sure where their permanent home will be, but they’re pretty happy to be camping on the kerosene fireplace (unused grown-up toy?) next to the dining table for now. Thinking about sending them out to sea, but the dolphin trainer is kind of cool and wears a painted-on rash guard and shorts, so I don’t hate her too much. I recently plucked up various hook-hanging, bothersome costume pieces I couldn’t pretend were actual clothing any longer and put them in one big bag. I felt like supermom til I realized that the bag now needed a home. Closets aren’t really an option, so it hangs in 4 year-old’s room until we are late getting ready to go somewhere and she needs to be putting on shoes and brushing teeth. At which point, she decides she’s going to be a pirate and must get into full regalia. With Mommy’s help, of course.

Would I change anything about the existing toys that live with us? Of course! Case in point, parents of girls, beware of Polly Pockets. They’re supposedly for ages 4+, but I’ve seen very dexterous parents struggle with the skin-tight rubber pants and tops these dolls wear. Love that they’re small, but there are much better small dolls out there that come with cool habitats (I heart Playmobil!). Kids simply cannot manipulate these things on their own. Give them a Barbie instead. Yes, I said it! I used to fight against Barbie and her ridiculously sexy figure, but I’ll tell you what: it only made them want them more. So I gave up and allowed them to have at it. Barbie can be good for the imagination and fine motor skills if your kid chooses to go that route. In fact, the less I fought the whole disgusting princess and Barbie business, the less my girls were interested in it. 4 year-old Astronaut Barbiegave her two Barbies to six- year-old sister, and they get played with only sometimes, despite hovering above the dining table. Six year-old claims she prefers dolls that have a life besides sitting around, dressing for balls (brainwashing occasionally works in your favor if they don’t watch television). She somehow managed to turn her beauty-queen-with-hooker-shoes-Barbie into a one-armed gymnast. I silently cried tears of joy. Needless to say, I have already clocked hours looking for the right astronaut (her chosen profession) Barbie for this year’s Christmas on eBay.  Wouldn’t you? So anyway, forget Polly Pockets, don’t fight Barbie too hard, and do spend the money on Magnatiles. Magnawhat? you might ask. Magnatiles. I used to send my kids to an incredible preschool that had at least one parent meeting a year devoted discussing quality toys, and that’s where I first heard about them. It’s just a bunch of expensive plastic squares and triangles that have magnetic sides that click together, but I cannot live without them because the little ones spend so much time quietly designing, problem-solving, visualizing, and thinking creatively with them. Without my help. I bought a set of 32 last Christmas online for about $50-60. It was a little risky to spend that much on a gift I’d never seen them play with or talk about wanting. And by the way, I’ll save you some time: They Do Not Go on Sale. Ever. And eBay retailers know their worth. Accept it. They are so freaking cool, they are worth every penny. No dollhouse? No animal barn? No parking garage, castle, doghouse, bridge, or miniature playground? No problem—Magnatiles can become all of those things. So what I would change there is that I would have bought a bigger set to start with. I’m considering springing for another set this holiday, but then I  might have to build a wood box to go with them and nail them to the wall, as I really can’t let them sit out on the sofa much longer without my husband losing his you-know-what.

So, yes, back to the gift season Joy! We don’t live near family, so we’re kind of safe from gifts from too many distant relatives, but you cannot stop grandparents who know where the post office is. Seriously, I try all the time, but it’s no use. The best you can do is gently suggest what their grandchildren’s dream gifts might be. Sounds hideous, but our parents always ask anyway, so I don’t feel too greedy responding. They want to be a winner, so they’ll take your advice if they want to be remembered as the grandparent who gave The Most Awesome Gift Ever. Gentle reader, I know you want to be that person too, but it’s not about ego, it’s about keeping crap out of your home that you don’t want there. Don’t think I haven’t tried the One Toy Only rule with grandparents. It ends up being one for each kid…plus the accessories, plus the group gift, plus the group kid-only gift, plus the 200 things from the dollar store just to make me scream bloody murder. I am grateful they care, but it’s overwhelming and somewhat counter to the non materialistic lifestyle I am trying to engender. I am pro-gift, pro-giving, and pro-receiving. But it can be stressful!

One Christmas a few years back, I had a lot more space and my whole family around me, but I still felt weird about collecting a bunch of stuff we didn’t need but people felt obliged to give. One of my sisters, whose kids are 5-7 years older than ours, actually took my advice to heart when she asked me what our girls would like for Christmas gifts. I calmly, directly replied, “Please do not buy anything. If there is a book or a toy your kids no longer feel attached to, please just wrap that up. No worries if there isn’t anything they can part with. My kids will not know or care.” And as it turned out, all the kids did care. Her kids had no problem sharing something special of their own, something treasured from their younger childhood they hoped would be enjoyed and become an influence on the taste of their little cousins. Their generosity was touching! And my kids did know that the gifts were not new, but were so honored to receive something that had belonged to their cool, older cousins. Three years later, those toys (stuffed birds from the Audubon Society) are currently on each of my kids’ beds as they dream of the upcoming holiday joys.


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