Could kids be developing an addiction to “stuff” in early childhood?
Parenting expert Maggie Dent believes taking toys away can be a healthy exercise.
She said 20 years ago researchers in Germany tested this theory by taking away every toy in a kindergarten for three months.
“The actual reason for the study was to look at how we develop addictions to things,” Ms Dent told ABC Radio Perth.
The day after the toys were packed up the children appeared bored and confused.
But then they began to exercise their imaginations.
Kids will circumvent boredom by finding alternative ways to play, Maggie Dent says. (1233 ABC Newcastle: Robert Virtue)
“The very next day the children had rugs out and were looping them over chairs so the furniture became the play,” Ms Dent said.
“Boredom is something that is really uncomfortable for children, so if we don’t put something in their hands or immediately create something for them they are absolutely motivated to fix the boredom by creating something for themselves.”
So should we go cold turkey?
Ms Dent said she regularly heard from frustrated parents whose children had piles of toys they rarely played with.
She did not advocate total removal but suggested removing two-thirds of toys and rotating the pile on a regular basis.
“Stick the rest in the garage, give it a three-month rotation; you won’t need to buy anymore because they will have forgotten they had them and they will feel all new again.”
Ms Dent also suggested that parents have children pick out some toys to donate, teaching them to share and appreciate what they have.
Choosing the right type of toys
Parents who try to limit toys report that they often experience a backlash from friends and family.
Ms Dent said she also heard from grandparents who were hurt when their gifts were not well received by parents.
She said it was about putting thought into choosing the right kind of gift.
Many parents report their children have many toys but hardly play with them. (ABC Radio Darwin: Mark Rigby)
“There have been some studies that show we buy toys that only work one way, that don’t have an open-ended quality to the them; it weakens the tendency in children to be curious and problem solve,” she said.
“Next time you buy something, have a conversation — does this allow children to be creative and be a bit more interesting?”
A grandparent herself, Ms Dent said she tried to give presents that could be used by all the children in the family.
Or she would often give experiences, like passes to the zoo, rather than material goods.
“You can still give, but you need to have a chat about the quality of that gift and the benefit it is going to give them,” she said.
Teaching appreciation and gratitude
Children also needed to learn that parents had finite resources, Ms Dent said.
For older children, chipping in could help them appreciate new things more, she said.
“If they want something that is significant and that costs money, I love it if they have to contribute to that.
“My children thought I was mean when if they wanted a new surfboard or a new skateboard they had to make an effort to contribute towards half of it.
“But they do value things a bit more.”