The pandemic brought me closer with the kids on my block. Most of them spent a year online learning at home.
Garages have become their play areas. And these kids have toys, lots of them. Almost each month I see new additions, electric cars, balls, bikes, toy guns, little figurines, hover boards. You can always tell the person who owns the new toy. They enjoy full use to if for a day or two. Then the sharing starts. A few weeks later, you’ll see the same beloved toy, left outside for days, unused. Occasionally, the toy would make a rare appearance, occasionally.
In our society, we vilify the grinch who denies kids MORE toys during Christmas or the holiday season, regardless of how many they already have. Whether they have outgrown a toy and need one more appropriate for their age, just got bored with what they currently have, or if a they already have 200 toys, denying kids toys during the season is not something you do.
But seeing the unused toys pile up in garages and then seeing some of them in the trash and recycle bin, I had to ask: how can we, as a society, teach each other to celebrate holidays and momentous days with kids, without resorting to buying and wanting toys?
The Environment, Health, and Child Development: The Downside
There are implications to all the toys we consume, for the environment and kids’ psychical and mental health. In an article on the research on parenting and toys, we learn that giving kids fewer gifts this holiday might actually make them happier. Moreover, the plastics in kids’ toys don’t just pose a waste problem, but a health one.
The Culture: A Christmas Without Gifts Means a Sad One
The other day, I saw a video of soccer fans throw thousands of stuffed toys onto the pitch as an annual Christmas tradition, to give to kids. The video was meant to make me feel good about the world. It had the opposite effect. My thoughts: these toys are probably made of synthetic fiber. How long will these stuffed toys give kids joy? Are we missing the big picture in choosing to generate more synthetic waste, instead of investing in a greener future for kids?
The Social Pressure
I understand the social pressure of kids wanting more and parents and family members giving in. When my nieces were young, I bought them toys for birthdays or holidays for about 5 years. But I saw how during Christmas, Hanukah, or their birthday, they would sit there with more than 10 toys each. Some they would leave behind or forget before the end of day. After that, I started donating to environmental causes on their behalf or gift cards to let them choose what they want.
Putting Things in Perspective
In Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, a classic on the sociology of consumption and childhood, the author recounts a conversation with her husband, who is from India.
I’ll never forget our first weekend trip after Krishna was born. As we gathered our gear to pack up the car, my husband, who is from India stared in disbelief. “There’s more stuff in this pile than the average Indian family owns in a lifetime,” he observed. What’s more, by today’s standards, that pile would be consider meager. In the past decade, product innovation and expansion of “must-have” goods in the infant and toddler category has been nothing short of extraordinary. But as I learned, an excess of baby gear is the last intrusive of the challenges of commercialized childhood. Controlling consumption becomes far more difficult as children reach the preschool years and turn into consumers in their own right.Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture | Juliet B. Schor
With 1.38 billion people in India (2020), space is a luxury. Families have to make do with much with less. According to the The Times of India, on average, the size of a rural house averages 494 square feet and in urban areas, 504 square feet. This comes up to 103 and 117 square feet per person respectively for the rural and urban areas. For context, in the US, the average house size measure 2,400 sq. ft.
In an interview with The New York Times, Google CEO Sundar Pichai talks about growing up in Chennai, India:
There was a simplicity to my life, which was very nice compared with today’s world. We lived in a kind of modest house, shared with tenants. We would sleep on the living room floor. There was a drought when I was growing up, and we had anxiety. Even now, I can never sleep without a bottle of water beside my bed. Other houses had refrigerators, and then we finally got one. It was a big deal.The New York Times
His experience reminds us that toys and knickknacks might give momentary joy, but disasters and the stress that goes along with it, have detrimental effects on kids.
Part of my heartbreak comes from the position our society takes when it comes to toy gifts. We treat not getting stuff during the holidays as a misfortune and something to be sad about for kids. It perpetuates the idea that the holiday spirit and the joy we experience, happens as a result of material things. We learn this early on in life.
The growing environmental movements spearheaded by kids show that they understand the implications of our consumption on overdrive. They demand from us, gifts that actually require more effort such as clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, and a world that has less waste.
Wanting more stuff during the season comes from social pressure. For this reason, it takes all levels of society to address it. From individual family members, communities, and those that can influence larger social norms.
Looking Forward: Gifts that Connect
For my nieces and nephew, now teenagers and in their 20s now, I still donate on their behalf. With the kids in my neighborhood, I talk to them. I know they love hanging out with my dogs, so we walk the dogs together and we chat, holiday season or not. I learn about their interests, school, people they look up to, and they tell me about their day. They’re good kids. A few times they mention candies they want to try or new toys they want to get for Christmas, and I’m tempted to get them. But I resist. I hope the time I spend listening to them and getting to know them will have a longer-lasting impact.
Thinking about the consequences of plastic toys and consumerism doesn’t mean you have to stop gifting all together. We can start with sustainably-made toys. But also we can give gifts that develop skills, resilience, and allow us to connect. This can mean gifting a musical instrument with online lessons, or sports gear with lessons included, if they have expressed interest. And most importantly, maybe follow up on their progress, talk to them, and ask. This allows the gift to forge a longer-lasting relationship.