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It starts before your child is born, this love affair with stuff. Baby showers are designed to heap stuff in the new baby’s direction. Once the baby is born, more stuff joins the rest. At baby’s first holiday and first birthday, gifts of stuff pile up, all expressions of the giver’s love. And as the years go by, more stuff accumulates. All of it nice. All of it useful. All of it seeming to come with responsibility for its care.

How can you manage the things your child accumulates without hurting the feelings of those who gifted her and also without taking on the role of curator at some personal toy museum? Here are some ideas. These thoughts are about “gifts” but they apply as well to things your children buy for themselves.

A gift comes without strings. This means that once a gift is given, the giver has no longer any claim on it. You are free to keep it, give it away, or turn it into something else as it pleases you and your child. It might seem like there are strings but they evaporate pretty quickly if you understand that they can. The only string is the necessity for thanks. Say “thank you” and move on.

A gift is a message. It tells you something about the giver and something about the giver’s perception of your child. So something your child receives might be not on-target for your child, although the giver thought it might be. The gift might not really be for your child so much as it’s something for the giver, who loves it and wishes someone had given something like it to him when he was young. Gifts require you to read between the lines and understand the message that’s being conveyed. Include this in your “thank you” and move on.

“Oh, Auntie! What lovely colors! How did you think of this for little Sammie?”

Every gift is outgrown. Some gifts never come into their own. They were off-target at the start and they never quite clicked. Other gifts are a hit for a few weeks or months but then fade in importance. Outgrown gifts become clutter. If they can be put away for use by a younger sibling, then there’s value maybe in storing them in the basement. Otherwise, it’s time to move them on.

Outgrown gifts need to move on. Some gifts have a short shelf-life and are not intended to last. These – lucky finds from the Dollar Store and feathers from the side of the road (gifts of birds) – can go straight to the recycle bin or trash bag without anyone shedding a tear. Other gifts, clean and in good shape, can be sold at a yard sale, given to charity, or given to a friend. Somewhere there’s a good home for these toys but your child’s toy box no longer is it.

And then there are gifts that came with Big Messages: the hand-knit sweaters long outgrown, the fancy mobile from the Museum of Modern Art, that expensive German tricycle. Before you give these away or sell them, ask the giver if she’d like to have a Big Message gift back. Remember, these gifts might mean more to the giver than you imagine and she might ask about them even years down the road. The wise parent will be up-front about the need for the gift to go (and maybe exaggerate just a bit the original love for the item):

“Auntie, Sammie loved the mobile you gave him but he’s outgrown it, of course. Would you like it back?”

Make your child part of the process. If your child is old enough to look back on the time an item was fun with the realization that that fun is now outgrown, then your child is old enough to help with the sorting. Clearing out the clutter, and moving usable toys on to others who might like them, is a good lesson in the ephemeral value of stuff and the enduring value of people and relationships. Involve your child if you can. But you may run into some opposition.

A child may cling to an item because of what it meant to her, long after the item has lost its usefulness and long after you think it should go. I have still a red plaid Pendleton skirt I got for Christmas one year because it signified my parents’ love at a time I really needed some validation. Your child might cling to an item too. If so, you can encourage your child to give this item a place of honor or to repurpose it in some way – my old skirt each year encircles the base of my Christmas tree!

The key is to not permit every bygone toy achieve significant status. One or two items, yes. More than that indicates some issue. The issue may be simply a mismatch between your perception of the toys and your child’s. In that case, just wait a bit. But a need to keep everything, even scraps and broken bits, might signal an underlying insecurity, the overvaluing of things over people that can be an indicator of autism, or even an inherited tendency to compulsive hoarding. Keep an eye on your child’s relationship to his stuff and get help if help seems needed.

Things are lovely and getting gifts is a wonderful experience. There’s no need to limit our love of things. But there is a need to not be enslaved by our stuff. It’s good to be able to give it away.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.