Dec 13, 2011

Saying No to Plastic Toys

Welcome to the December Mindful Mama Carnival: Staying Mindful During the Holiday Season

This post was written for inclusion in the Mindful Mama Carnival hosted by Becoming Crunchy and TouchstoneZ. This month our participants have shared how they stay mindful during the holiday season. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


Vintage children's blocks

Photo Credit: Adelle & Justin

The holidays are coming, and with it, of course, comes the stress and strain of holiday shopping.  We work hard to maintain a simple Christmas, by only purchasing limited gifts with specific purposes, and keeping our holiday traditions more about Christ than the gifts themselves.  Gifts however, are a somewhat touchy subject in our home, and I thought I’d share our view on gifts for this month’s Mindful Mothering Carnival.

Naomi was the first grandchild on both mine and my husband’s sides of the family.  She was also my grandmother’s first great-grandchild.  So we knew that when present time came, we were looking to be completely overwhelmed with our family’s generosity.  Everyone would want to be giving us pretty dresses, frilly things, girly plastic toys, and other things that are just irresistable to the grandparents of a little girl.

Michael and I strive to live a simple, frugal, minimalist life to the best of our abilities.  We don’t buy a lot of material possessions, and the ones we do have, we work hard to make last as long as possible, and then replace them with as best quality as we can afford.  We enjoy spending time at home with friends and family, we buy organic, whole foods as much as possible, and we make it a priority to surround Naomi with good, high quality, positive toys.  We want her to grow in imagination and spirit, and learn and develop.

So right from the start, we gently — but firmly — voiced our opinions to our parents.  No plastic toys.  No frilly pink dresses.  No junky gifts.  No noise makers.  Nothing requiring batteries. No flashing lights.  We asked for wooden toys, soft cloth toys, handmade toys, or practical gifts like cloth diapers and grocery cards.

Our approach seemed to suit our needs well.  Here’s how we went about it:

1.  Decide why you want your child to have certain gifts.  Michael and I are trying to instill in Naomi, and subsequent children, a different set of values from the ones we were seeing advertised to children on television and in day-to-day living.   We want her to understand that quantity is not better than quality.  We want her imagination to flourish, to grow and mature.  We wanted her to see the joy in a simple piece of play silk, or a bottle of soapy bubbles.  We wanted her to learn as she played, such as how to zipper up her sweater and match her socks.  We wanted her to have long conversations and cuddle with a sweet stuffed bear, and fall asleep with a soft cloth doll.

2.  Say no.  Be gentle, but firm.  At first, it was a bit of a struggle.  My mother would drop by with a new outfit or some plastic noise maker that “just happened to fall in my cart” when she was shopping.  But after I would send her back with the item, again calmly but firmly explaining what we had decided and that we were indeed sticking to our guns, our parents started to understand that we were serious and began listening to our beliefs.

3.  Just because it comes into your house doesn’t mean it has to stay there.  Another well-meaning relative gifted us a brightly lit battery-powered toy.  This relative was one we do not see on a regular basis and we felt it would be impolite to refuse.  As such we graciously accepted the gift and then passed it on to another child whose parents didn’t share our values.

4.  Your home is not their home.  With something like this, remember that the rules apply at your home, but not necessarily elsewhere.  My mother has taken to collecting cute toys that she keeps at her home.  This way she can choose what she wants to have for Naomi to play with, but I don’t really have much say in the matter.  But the rule was set:  If they buy a plastic, battery-powered, light up, noisy toy for Naomi, let them keep it that their house!  It doesn’t come home with us!  This is also a great way to pass on toys that you receive but aren’t something you want to keep.

5.  Let your child decide.  As it turned out, the things Naomi enjoyed playing with most were not necessarily the few plastic things that did make it into our home. It is great fun to stack a tall column of wooden blocks, but it is even more fun to run through them and laugh with glee.  Sitting on the floor reading board books to yourself is an excellent way to pass the time.  A quiet cuddle with a doll infused with lavender and vanilla makes for a great way to get ready for bed.  Crayons and paper can keep her busy for a long period of time.  Our brief stint with an Exersaucer didn’t last very long, as she got bored and wanted to be with me after a very short period.  It went on Freecycle and was quickly taken away.  Our jolly jumper was hung in the bathroom doorway and she sat in that early in the mornings when I showered (and could see her the whole time) or when I went to the bathroom.  This again only lasted until one day she ended up flipping herself upside down and it was banished to the closet.  The only real plastic toys we’ve ever gotten her were some bath toys to play with in the tub.  And that will only last until I can come up with some more natural alternatives!

6.  Good quality toys don’t have to be expensive.  I kept my eye out and was able to come up with some great additions to her toy shelf: a hammer and peg set, a box of building blocks, a wooden car, a wooden train, a wooden puzzle set.  Michael’s favorite stuffed dog was a cuddly friend for long conversations, as well as a soft cloth doll that has been christened “Ba-Ba”.  Wooden spoons, mixing bowls, board books… they are all excellent options that can often be found second-hand or at yard sales.  Just be thoughtful and careful with what you find.

7.  Have examples of alternatives ready.  When my mother asked, “Well, what can I get her?”  I was ready with a list of toys that we felt were acceptable.  A sweet stuffed bear, a set of wooden dishes, a list of board books, a pretty blanket, a favorite maker of cloth diapers, a sweet sling, an amber necklace, wooden teething rings.  I encouraged my mother to visit Etsy, Heartsy, Babyette, Melissa & Doug, and a favorite local store that carried beautiful baby products.

So how did it all work out?  Well, not long after she was born, my father-in-law made a trip to Pennsylvania.  When he got home, he told us he had a doll house for Naomi.  I was in dread.  After driving all the way to Pennsylvania and back, and having purchased this doll house, I felt for sure it was going to be some plastic monstrosity.

To my absolute delight, it was a simple pine doll house, coated in a clear varnish, with simple wooden furniture inside.  There were no lights.  No bells.  No batteries included.  It was a perfect place for little girls to dream and play with little wooden toys and make-believe.  Michael and I were so charmed.  And thankful.

Disclaimer: Yes, I am compensated for some (but not all) of the purchases made via the referral links in this post. You can read my entire disclosure policy here.


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  • So great that you have been able to be firm with your parents. We too have had to set gifting ground rules with my in-laws- particularly with birthdays. Thankfully, although we do get grief about it, they do concede to our wishes.

    • Glad your parents are willing to work with you as well, Adrienne. It can be difficult. I find it also helps if you can come up with alternatives to the things they want to purchase for your kids. :)

  • When we receive toys that don’t suit us (as decided by my children, ages 7, 6, 4 and 1), we simply pass them on to community drop-in centres or Goodwill. My children value quality over quantity, like you do.

  • I enjoyed reading your post and I agree with you in all ways! I also have difficulty facing my otherwise eco-conscious mother in law. She buys locally-made clothing and eco-friendly products for herself but can’t resist big chunky plastic toys for her grandkids. I don’t get it but I haven’t stood up to her yet. And I can’t write a blog post about it without her reading it :). All of my kids’ birthdays are days apart and so we have one big party, and we insist on no gifts, just donating to buy goats or chickens for families in africa through world vision. They love it, and we usually have over $200 a year to donate in birthday money. They still get gifts from family.

    Thanks again for sharing!

    • That’s a great way to celebrate your family’s special occasions! How wonderful it must be to know that your birthdays mean someone else has such heart-felt gifts, especially people you might never meet. As for your mother-in-law, maybe before the kids’ birthday, you start sending her links to things your kids want for their gift instead of just letting her pick up whatever catches her eye. There’s lots of sustainable handmade gifts on Etsy and around your home town. Start a few months before saying “My daughter would love to have this wooden dishes set!” or “My son could really use a new set of non-toxic crayon rocks!” She might get the hint and feel relieved that she is getting them something she knows they will enjoy!

  • What a beautiful and timely post. We do not yet have children, and dread this conversation with my family-in-law. The brighter, more plastic, cheap product the better. Ugh.

    Do you, or any of your followers have ideas how to stop presents being brought for us? Essp my husband?

    Every year he gets a car boot full (this is no exaggeration) of stuff. Some is cheap clothes (which usually fall apart) but otherwise it is novelty toys etc for children (he is 22).

    We have spoken and we have so much stuff it is affecting my health, so we continue to purge, but he does not want to upset the apple cart so to speak.

    Are the any ideas how to get this situation dealt with? I have no ideas.

    • That is an excellent question, Karyn. I have a post in mind to answer just that, and I will get back to you soon.

  • I really love this post. Like you, I make a concerted effort to keep plastic, commercialized, single-purpose toys out of my house and this time of year can be a challenge. Let’s just say we do a lot of donating! I also like your acknowledgement that our house rules can’t always carry over elsewhere, and if Disney princess plates show up at Auntie’s house, so be it!

    -Kerry @ City Kids Homeschooling

    • I figured it was a good compromise to tell my parents they could purchase those toys if they wanted to keep them at their place instead of sending them home with us. That way Naomi always has “new toys” to play with at Nannie and Grampie’s house, so she never gets bored with them.

  • Oh yes – this post is spot on! My toddler is the only grandchild (and will be the only grandchild) on both side of the family and until this past summer was also a great-grand daughter. I completely relate to the overzelous consumer grandparent. I know that they cannot help themselves however, respecting our parenting choices is important. Both or families have come a long way in respecting our choices and purchasing items we really truly need for our daughter. I refuse to allow plastic any entry into our home and finally, after almost three years, both sides of the family understand why!

    Brilliant, well thought out post. Thank you for the insight!

    • That’s wonderful Jennifer, I’m so glad your family is finally willing to listen to you and accept your choices. It doesn’t always mean they have to understand. As long as they respect your decisions, that’s what is important.

  • Thank you for participating in the Mindful Mama Carnival.

    I agree that a large part of staying mindful in our lives is carefully choosing what we bring into our homes. We do a lot of inner work as mindful parents and it causes us to examine our choices as we look outward from a new viewpoint. It causes you to simplify and look for ways to bring more freedom in. I think many people look at limiting choices as limiting freedom, but as you point out, it really is the opposite. Once you’ve figured out your central goals, there is more freedom and ease in making choices. There’s more ability to extend that freedom of choice to those around you.

    And there’s greater chance for true connection between those who give and those who receive.

    • That’s a great way of summing it up, Zoie! Thanks for the insight! :)

  • Thank you for outlining how you stick to your values. It can be all too easy to simply give in to the generosity of loved ones while we really do have an opportunity to share who we are, why we do what we do or believe what we believe, along with some alternatives. It sounds like you’ve been able to do this with integrity and love so the family doesn’t feel put off, too. Nice. :)

    • Thanks Amy! They say “It’s the thought that counts”, right? So I just try to say thank you kindly, but that the item is not something we are comfortable with and will pass it on to someone who can enjoy it moreso.

  • I really enjoyed this post! I am also really opposed to plastic and battery-powered toys, although we still have both – way too much for my taste. My son is also the first grandchild on both sides. I’ve been working on educating the grandparents about our choices since I was pregnant. This year I sent both the grandmothers a detailed “wish list”, including links to specific products we would like our son to receive. My MIL seems to be getting it, but my own mother….a work in progress, let’s say. I’m trying to be patient, yet firm. Thanks for some great ideas and a little push to be more assertive with my wishes.

    • Sending out a wish list is a great idea. Hopefully one day your mom will get the hint. They take time to catch on. Keep at it and good luck, Sylvia!

  • High Five! What pain it was to go through the process of finding something my inlaws kids would like (what, no plastic?!) that I could live with buying and educating them on things they could purchase that I could live with. These are great tips and the peace that will come from this preparation is going to be so worth the effort.

    • Indeed! I hope you and your in-laws can come to an agreement. It can be tough to tread on their toes, especially when you know they’re trying to be so generous. But it will be worth it in the end!

  • I would love to make the transition to no plastic toys at our place. I’ll never be able to convince my husband, but at least I can use some of your tips to minimise the plastic. In particular, I like #3 – I’m not sure why this hasn’t crossed my mind before.

    Do you do birthday parties and how do you go about letting your guests know about the ‘no plastic’ rule? I really struggle with what to put on the birthday invitations. I just hate the thought of tons of plastic junk arriving into my house.

    • Hi Tat,

      With birthday parties, I just start early. A few months before, start sending a wish list to your parents and your in-laws, giving them a list of things that their little one needs. Send examples of what it is you’re looking to have them purchase.

      It’s also not impolite to post a simple explanation on your invitations as well. Something like, “Our family strives to be as plastic-free as possible. With that in mind, we don’t require you to purchase any specific gift or present for {insert child’s name}. Your company and friendship on this day of celebration is all we ask for!” Leave it at that. That way, if the child doesn’t receive a gift, that’s fine, and if they do, well, so be it! You’ve made your point simply and politely. You have also taken the pressure off the guests and if they don’t want to bring a gift, that’s fine. You can always supply it yourselves. Chances are, people will likely just give your child money in this case anyway.

  • I LOVE all of these fabulous tips for saying no to plastic toys! We also strive to provide our children with natural, open-ended play things, and holidays and birthdays have been quite the challenge. I’m not sure how old your daughter is, but I will say it gets even harder to stick to your guns as children get older, and really *want* to keep the plastic barbie doll or action figure they received as a gift. There are also some toys like water guns and legos which are nearly impossible to replace with non-plastic alternatives. With a 12 year old, 9 year old and 5 year old, I have decided to make some exceptions when it comes to plastic toys, but am still very selective. We are still very much against any form of plastic toys for our one year old (with the exception of Green Toys). I would love to hear your thoughts on plastic toys, and older children. Thank you for sharing!

    Terri Babin

    • Hi Terri,

      I started writing a reply and got so into it that I ended up writing a post! So please be patient and I’ll get back to you in the next week or two!

  • I really enjoyed this post! I stumbled across your blog and I’m glad I’m not alone in my preferences for simple, open-ended toys. I’m not totally anti-plastic, but a couple of the toys my one year old received for Christmas were these obnoxious, noisy, junky things I wouldn’t have considered purchasing. I cringed a little when she opened them, then felt guilty and ungrateful for thinking that way! Also, one of the toys has this big, happy smiley face, and every time I look at it I feel bad for “judging” it…

    Luckily the givers (my in-laws) don’t live nearby, and won’t notice if the toys go bye-bye after a while!

  • This post is fabulous! I agree with you 100%. I’ve already told my parents we don’t want plastic junky toys for our 5 month old (not a ton of any toys in general). My mom did a great job and only got us a few neat and creative toys and books for the baby. My close friend and baby’s godmother didn’t get the memo and bought her a plastic-y baby doll and Barbie (for a 5 month old!? Really?!). I don’t really know how to talk to her about it without making her feel bad though :( I better bring out up sooner or later so we don’t have more Barbies coming home in the future!

    • Oh Barbie — I have had a love/hate relationship with that little self-esteem wrecker for years. I really think your best bet is to just have a sit down with your relatives and explain that her gifts were inappropriate and you are more than willing to help her shop for things that are acceptable. Or you can just casually ask “Oh, where did you get that?” when she gives inappropriate gifts and then try to return them without the receipt for store credit. This will work now, but when your little one is older, though, it’ll be tougher to get the shiny plastic toys away from them without looking like the bad guy, so better to bite the bullet now and put a stop to them before they get to be worse. Talk to your baby’s godmother and your friend upfront. Speak gently and lovingly and try not to take their disappointment personally. It’s your child and your home.