Parents Urge Grandparents to Avoid Holiday Toy Overload

Vintage photo of family around Christmas tree

Baby boomers recall the holidays of the 1950s and 1960s with great nostalgia. They remember the Hanukkah gifts they received, or waking up and rushing to the Christmas tree to see what Santa brought. But things were a bit more modest in those days. Each child might receive one special gift — a dollhouse, a bike or a toy train — and perhaps a few smaller toys, maybe even the dreaded socks and underwear!

When boomers became parents, they upped the game a bit. Their kids tended to rake in bigger hauls during the holidays if the folks could afford it. So now, many boomer grandparents are surprised that their own adult children are trying to control the overflow of toys. "Things have gotten out of hand," says one mom. "It took so long for Oliver to open his presents last year that he got stressed out."

According to Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, "Toy overload is real, and something we see every holiday season."

What's behind the toy overload trend?

For one thing, there are too many Santas these days! Children today are likely to have a whole family tree of elders who are eager to shower them with gifts: four grandparents, a few great-grandparents, and perhaps some generous step-grandparents in the mix. Maybe there are aunts, uncles and cousins with no children, eager for a shopping spree at the toy store. You can hardly see the Christmas tree behind the avalanche of presents.

So don't feel offended if you spent the year buying and wrapping presents for the grandkids, only to have the parents seem less than thrilled. One reason could be that many young families today have smaller living spaces than the big suburban houses where they grew up. The trend is toward a simpler, less cluttered environment — and that probably doesn't include a huge box of random game pieces intermingled with action figures separated from their accessories.

Many parents also are more environmentally and socially conscious. "Eli's room is full of all this plastic junk he doesn't even play with," said one mom. "It seems like such a waste." They would rather get their kids' toys at a resale shop or through the local Facebook group toy exchange. Many also are concerned about the conditions under which toys are manufactured abroad, and about the safety of materials. And they don't love it when kids succumb to the temptations of toy commercials on TV.

In fact, many parents today reject the concept of "toys," feeling that TV character figurines or battery-operated gadgets dampen a child's creativity. They follow the advice of child development experts who say that art supplies, blocks and kitchen utensils are more likely to foster a child's imagination.

So be sure to talk to the parents before making any big Black Friday purchases. Are there particular playthings the child really wants, things that will not be glanced at and discarded? Money is tight for many young parents. They might wince that you splurged on the latest superhero castle, rather than something useful like a tablet computer or sports equipment.

The gift of experiences

Grandfather and grandchild visiting the aquarium

Many parents today have a strong preference for the gift of experiences rather than tangible items. Klapow suggests giving experiences "that engage, inspire and create lasting memories." This might include a zoo or aquarium membership, tickets for a favorite sports event or concert, or tuition for ballet class or music lessons. Giving a gift of a shared experience, such as a trip or concert you can attend together, can create a memory that lasts longer than a toy.

However, grandparents say that they miss that magic moment when the child unwraps their gift! "Many children have a hard time with the abstract nature of a destination gift," says Klapow. "They can’t see it, touch it, understand it. If you can include pictures, videos or some approximation of what they are going to experience, it will help drive the meaningfulness home."

Klapow also notes that an experience scheduled for far in the future isn't the best choice. "Younger children have a hard time with delayed gratification. The closer in time they can actually experience the gift, the more likely they are to enjoy it," he reports.

Including a few small gifts to open along with destination gifts that will happen later can be a good mix. "A few smaller gifts (immediate reinforcement) and maybe one or two destination gifts that occur later will allow children to satisfy their developmentally appropriate desire for immediate gratification while still preventing toy overload," says Klapow.

The meaning of the season

Grandparents traditionally pass on a legacy of giving to their grandchildren and help them build a sense of self-esteem and character. Helping grandkids give to others can be a very special type of experience. Volunteering, selecting gifts for families in need, and visiting older loved ones are all great ways to learn the true joy of giving. 


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