How Mommy Grinch Stole All the Toys

Yesterday, I did something completely unexpected. Something I had never planned to do, never even really considered doing, until I stumbled across this post earlier this week.

Just 2 days earlier I had spent half the day cleaning their room & re-organizing their toys and closet, which is something I do fairly regularly.   I wasn’t asking them to clean some giant out-of-control mess, just to pick up a few items off the floor and put them away in the very clearly labeled baskets.  Every time I came back to check on them, they had not only NOT picked up, they had made an even bigger mess.

I finally gave up and took it all away.  I wasn’t angry, just fed up.  I calmly began packing up not just a toy or two, but every single thing. All their dress-up clothes, baby dolls, Polly Pockets, & stuffed animals, all their Barbies, building blocks, and toy trains, right down to the the furniture from their dollhouse and play food from their kitchen.  I even took the pretty Pottery Barn Kids comforter from their bed.  The girls watched me in stunned silence for a few minutes and then, when the shock wore off, they  helped.  And just like that, their room was clear.

(Read the rest here)

When I initially read the post I thought it was kind of a dramatic overreaction, even though I spent more than a few minutes wistfully fantasizing about how clean the house would be if there simply were no toys. But that afternoon, Sienna came home from school and immediately launched into being Sienna. This entails endless requests for things. Either new toys, new books, looking something up online, getting her Easy Bake Oven out, playing outside…something, something, something, all the time. One thing, or even several things in a row, never satisfy her. It’s always more, more, more, and she’s never content to wait, rest, or just be still. She’s been like that since she was little, but in the last few months I’ve noticed an almost frantic intensity to it…like she just desperately needs something, anything. To make her happy? To fill a void? To occupy her mind? I don’t know.

I do know, however, where I’ve seen that kind of behavior before. In the mirror.

That’s a classic addictive personality. There is some great absence, some negative, that drives her. She is striving to answer some unidentified, nameless, formless question, a question that consumes her and yet terrifies her. Or, you know, she’s seven, so it’s probably not that hyperbolic yet. That’s probably me and not so much my daughter. But the building blocks are there.

What I’ve noticed is that when she gets more attention, more gifts, more stuff, more freedom, or when she’s surrounded by the possibility of endless excess (think commercials) the intensity of her desire for even more rockets up to a fever pitch. It frightens me. Mostly because I don’t know what she is lacking so profoundly. Oh, I have many guesses that begin with my own feeble non-attempts at mothering in her early years, but even so. How do I correct it?

It seems to me that the best way to help her is the way you help any addict. You don’t treat the great underlying misery or depression or despair first — you’ll never get there that way. First you remove the object of addiction. Only then will you (the person treating/loving) and the addict be able to see clearly enough to start identifying and addressing the underlying issues.

It kind of sounds crazy, maybe, to treat my 7 year-old’s love of things and entertainment as an addiction, but I’d rather her learn from an early age to be satisfied within herself than to be always searching for some outside fulfillment. So the concept of toy purging took root in my mind.

Yesterday morning, I started actually watching Charlotte and Liam play with toys, to gauge how drastic the purging could be without causing the end of the world. And what I discovered is that Charlotte does not play with toys at all, and Liam only plays with his cars. What they really do is get up in the morning, dump every single toy bin out on the floor, and then find something (usually a kitchen utensil or a shoe or another non-toy) to fight over for a solid hour. When Charlotte goes to school, Liam quietly plays with his cars…but only IF all the toys have been picked up. If they haven’t been, he wanders around the house like a ping-pong ball, peppering me with requests, yanking things out of Lincoln’s hands, and trying to scale the counters to reach the sugar bowl.

So last night, I asked them to pick up the toys, and when they didn’t do it I took the toys away.

All of them. Even the cars and the stuffed animals. Everything except Lincoln’s wooden rollercoaster toy, which he plays with for minutes on end.

Is there any better toy?

Just like in the blog post I read, no one cared. Charlotte only cried when I took her dress-up clothes, and Liam only got upset when he had to go to bed without his car pillow. Other than that, nada.

Last night was so peaceful. No one fought over anything. Charlotte sat quietly and looked at books for a solid half-hour. Liam actually played with Lincoln instead of ripping things out of his hands. Sienna happily helped me clean and sweep the kitchen.

And today. Oh, seriously, bliss. There are no toys on my floor. No toys to step over. No toys to step on. No toys being thrown at anyone’s head or in the stockpot. Nothing. Some clothes I folded are on the couch, and there are a few shoes on the floor, and that’s. it.

I gave Liam back a small selection of cars to take to the doctors’ office, which I’ll let him keep. The dress-up clothes and wooden blocks will be put up in a closet and brought out periodically, along with the tangrams, and I’ll let the girls earn back one or two stuffed animals or dolls. Aside from that, though, this shit (because that is literally what it is) is going far away from our house, forever.

These are the toys

And this will be me


  • Maia

    It works. It really, really works. And imaginations take over. I am always finding that I can get rid of more toys and that we are (ALL) happier.

    • Michelle

      I SO need to do this. REally.

  • Bonnie Engstrom

    The problem I have is that every time I purge toys more toys take their place. For holidays, birthdays, and sometimes for “just because” people want to buy toys for my kids. And this includes myself! But it’s true, I’ve gotten rid of all kinds of toys and the kids. don’t. care.

    • collinsfamilyjmj

      I instituted a rule with all our family – for birthdays and holidays, they are allowed to purchase one material gift per child. If they want to give more, then we love things like museum memberships, art classes, a week at summer day camp, etc. We also ask friends to bring canned good food donations for the poor instead of presents at birthday parties.

  • collinsfamilyjmj

    Thank you for the suggestion. I’ve taken away the Wii, iPod, DS, computer – all the screens to detox my kids. It had literally gotten to the point where ALL they talked about was video games. They were most certainly addicted. And they showed actual withdrawal symptoms for the first 24 hours or so. Now, they haven’t even mentioned them. It’s been 5 days and its glorious! Next, toys!

  • Claire Frank

    Wow. This blew my mind. Not because I think it is crazy. Because it is something I have contemplated so many times in the last several months. We just moved, and having not moved since before we had kids (well, we had a baby when we moved, but he was tiny and we didn’t have much stuff for him), I was not prepared for the enormous amount of crap we own. I thought we’d done a brilliant job of downsizing, taking a literal truckload of toys to be donated. But that didn’t really put much of a dent in the overflowing mess that is my house. We’re in a smaller house now, and struggling to squeeze ourselves in – and the toys are a huge problem. There’s no room for them, and no room to play with them, and it is driving me crazy.

    The thing I realized though, is that I have as much of an attachment to them as my kids do – probably more. I could easily look at every toy they have and find a reason to keep it, even though the only things my boys play with are Legos and my daughter would be completely content with just a few things (and the Legos – those are a universal here). I literally did that when we were packing – I thought, as I packed each item, that it was something they needed. My boys literally never, ever, ever play with toy cars. Ever. They did when they were younger, but it has probably been several years since they did with any regularity at all. I doubt they’d notice if they were gone. But I look at that huge bin of cars and think, “But boys need cars, right?”
    Clearly this is my problem, not theirs. I’m working on it. I’m not sure if I’m quite brave enough to ditch it all entirely, but you certainly have me thinking. Maybe that’s not so crazy after all.

    • Melanie B

      Claire, About having perhaps more of an attachment than the kids. Me too. I think it’s easy to tie up memories and dreams in the things. I need to learn to let go. I’m not sure how, exactly. Perhaps first by putting everything out of sight and only bringing back what we really do need?

  • jen

    When I saw the notification for this post on Facebook, my reaction was “What?!?!?!?” After reading it, I understand why and I think it was a good move.

  • HeathersHodgepodge

    Kuddos to you! Some things that I have found helpful with my own are to keep 1/2 of the toys boxed up someplace, and every few months, swap out the boxed toys with the toys that were currently out. Also, before Christmas and birthdays, we choose toys to give away. I don’t have a set limit for them, we usually settle for one toy per person that we know will buy presents, i.e., one for Grandma and Grandpa, etc. For my husband’s and my part, we don’t buy our kids fun presents, unless it’s a big item that they will both share. Instead, we buy them things such as new color pencils and drawing pads, or special light-up tennis shoes. So far, we haven’t had any complaints from them, although our oldest is only 7…

  • ARM

    Interesting – I just came across that post recently, too. To some extent it inspired me to get rid of a whole bunch of toys my son doesn’t need. But on the other hand, I thought it was a little. . . scary. Like she was kind of a scary mom, and not in a good way. Yes, our kids all have too many toys, but. . . something was just off about it. It seemed to me to give off a pretty heavy vibe of that fundamentalist protestant idea that you’re supposed to teach your kids by being God to them (and an arbitrary, voluntarist God at that).

    That she went to the extent of taking away the kids’ comforter seemed to me to make it clear that the whole thing was vindictive more than principled. Also her framing it as a punishment for not cleaning up. Seriously, if you decide as a mom that your kid would be better off with less (or no) toys, shouldn’t you shoulder the responsibility for that yourself, and not unleash it on them as a vengeance for their little omissions? I don’t think that’s what I want to teach my son about God and the universe.

    Also, is it really fair that she’s still reading and writing her blogs and pins and what-alls on her nice little laptop, but then telling her kids their Polly Pockets are just too big a distraction and addiction? Shouldn’t we get rid of the grown-ups toys too if we’re trashing all the kids’ toys?

  • SMS

    I think you’d really like the book “simplicity parenting”. I keep most toys in a box in the garage and occasionally swap a few out. Toys with lots of parts (blocks, MagnaTiles) are in a cupboard and only brought out to play with and put back, not dump all over the floor and leave there (in theory, anyway ;D)

  • TheReluctantWidow

    I, too, have contemplated this. I go through periods where I take things away that go to the garage, but they inevitably come back to our living space. Right now, all four, are REALLY into Legos and they have a lot. Because there are four kids and a million pieces. They have other things but they don’t really play with them. It’s time to simplify and reduce. One “Grinch-mom” thing I did do lately was to take away electronics. They didn’t have anything for a week. They were playing nicely together. I noticed that there was not as much yelling at each other, and while not total kindness, less mean-ness. Then today I gave them the opportunity to earn 10 minutes each on electronics, which they indeed earned. By the time everyone had their chance, kids were yelling at me to help them with homework, there was a lot of fussing and disrespect toward me and each other. Yeah, those electronics? They might just be taking a permanent vacation. Even one of my 9 yr old sons observed, “You know Mommy, we were doing pretty good without electronics, and we weren’t even bugging you for them. Tonight was not a good night for us.” Too true. Please post a follow-up to this post to let us know how it goes with fewer (no?) toys in the house. If it works for you with small children, I might be brave enough to do it with my slightly larger children.

    • Melanie B

      Yes, please do write a follow up in a few weeks or whatever to let us know how it’s going in the longer term.

  • Melanie B

    I read that blog post a while ago. And it’s been sitting in the back of my mind ever since. Our situation is a bit different from yours. There are actually quite a few toys my kids play with regularly every day or almost every day: the animals and people, the blocks, the cars and trucks, the dress up clothes. If I tried to take them I know there would be a huge, huge, huge fit.

    On the other hand, I know they, we are all overwhelmed by too much stuff in too small a space. The girls can’t keep their room clean. So i need to do something. I’m thinking perhaps taking everything, letting them choose a small number of things to get back each day and then getting rid of the things they don’t seem to miss.

    Part of the problem, though, is that Bella is the kind of child who sees almost everything as a raw material for an imaginary game. Which seems like it would make it easier as she could make just about anything work in a pinch. But she thinks she needs particular things and so she’s terrible at trying to decide what she can do without.

    Sophie, on the other hand, does have a real problem with acquisitiveness. Birthdays are especially hard. She wants everything she sees anyone else getting. She imagines she needs to have the exact same things Bella has. As you describe, the more she gets, the more she seems to need. Now that we are past birthday season, her need seems to have settled down. She has forgotten that drive to acquire.

    Also, I totally agree with Claire Frank about some of the problem being mine. The toys they aren’t particularly attached to are the ones I am. The things I bought because I thought they were the kind of things kids should have. The dreams I haven’t quite let go of, the kind of life I wish we were living.
    I’m still pondering what I want our house to look like. What compromise I might be able to reach between ditching everything and keeping everything.