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Shopping for Your Kids – A Minimalist Christmas Shopping Guide

Christmas Shopping for a Large Family

FROM WENDY:

This post should actually probably be called NOT shopping for a large family…

We are pretty minimalist when it comes to Christmas, or even when it comes to toys in general. We have several bodies in our not-super-large home, and there is not a lot of room for stuff! At some point pretty early on, I made the “we will only have as many toys as will fit in these cubbies” rule, and established regular toy-purging times in our year to ensure that things stay pared down to non-crazy levels.

A few years ago, we came home from Christmas with an overwhelming van-full of gifts from generous friends and family. A friend gave us this great idea to only let the kids unpackage one new item a day so that they would actually spend time playing with and getting to appreciate each one. This was an awesome solution to  the kids having so many toys that they didn’t actually have any idea what all they got. The kids each opened one new thing each day…for nearly a full month! That’s a lot of stuff! And while it was fun and exciting for that month, after the newness faded, it was just that…stuff. Filling up every corner of our house. And eventually making it’s way to a donation bag.
Since then, we’ve made an express effort to approach Christmas with a much more minimalist mindset, and have sought to make Christmas in our home more about the experiences we can share and the memories we can make.

We don’t buy our kids gifts

One of our very favorite traditions is our homemade gift exchange. We don’t purchase toys for our kids, but instead the kids make gifts for each other. We do it Secret Santa style, drawing names usually a day or two after Thanksgiving. I sit down with each of the kiddos and brainstorm some ideas of gifts that 1) they think their sibling would enjoy, and 2) they would be able to make or help make. At this point, our kids are still pretty young, so we keep the projects relatively simple, such as adding stickers to decorate a bin for special Legos, or painting modpodge over cutout paper to turn a pie plate into a Captain America shield. They get an immense amount of joy out of the process of choosing and creating a gift, and keeping it a surprise until Christmas. And as parent, I love so much that the anticipation of the season is revolving around what they are giving rather than what they are hoping to get.

Here are some more of the homemade gifts we’ve done in the past:
1.  Paint Your Own Ceramic Tea Set – brother painted the teapot for sister and gave her paints so she could decorate the cups and plates

2. Baby Doll Moby Wrap – big sister sewed a straight line attaching two pieces of fabric  to make a long wrap for little sister to carry her baby dolls

3. Homemade Playdough with Toys – big sister helped me make batches of different colored playdough to give with a new set of playdough toys

4. Earring Holder – brother helped me remove the glass from a 5×7 picture frame and replace it with burlap, then decorate with gems and ribbon to make an earring holder for big sister

Focus on Experiences

With our friends and family, we endeavor to focus on experiences together for the holidays rather than gifts. We would so much rather fill our lives with great memories of times that we’ve spent with people we love than fill our house! Wherever possible, we look for ways to invite others along with us on an adventure as a substitution for a gift exchange. We’ve done big adventures, like Disneyland and snow trips. We’ve also done small adventures, like planning games and projects for the kids to do together during the time they would otherwise have been opening presents. These have been some of our favorite Christmases, and at the end of the day, not one of the kids seemed to notice that there wasn’t a huge pile of toys coming home with us.

We recognize that our approach to gift-giving with our kids is unique, and not everyone feels the need to treat Christmas the same way we do. Some people really enjoy choosing the perfect gift, and seeing the kids light up when they open a favorite item. We are not trying to steal that joy from anyone, or force other families into our crazy-minimalist-large-family (is that a thing?) way of doing things. When everyone else in the family/play-group/etc. is really wanting to do gifts, it helps to meet in the middle. Suggest a more minimal gift-giving strategy, such as Secret Santa or White Elephant exchange, so that each person is only buying and receiving one thing. Set low dollar amounts and establish themes for gifts (homemade items, books, games, etc.) so that the experience, not the gift, becomes the focus. Remember that the goal is not abolishing gifts, or even cutting costs, but rather creating memories and cultivating in our kids a different mentality about Christmas.

When you need a list

As I said before, sometimes you do need a list for that grandparent person who really enjoys shopping for the kids. (In all fairness, I most certainly will be that grandparent some day!) When that is the case, there are definitely some toys that will make the list, and others that I know would not be a good fit in the minimal storage space we have. While I know my son would love one of those glorious three-foot-tall Paw Patrol lookout playsets with all the vehicles and characters, I also know that finding a place for that in our playroom would cause me a ridiculous amount of grief.

So here are some things that make the cut when the kids ask to put them on their Christmas list: 

  1. Building sets such as Legos, duplo, foam blocks, magnatiles, etc. These kinds of toys get played with more than anything else in our house. And not just by the boys. The reason is  that they are multi-functional…a set of foam blocks just as easily can become a castle for some princess figures as it can become a garage for the matchbox cars. Toys that provide for open-ended, creative play are always a win.
  2. Pretend play items such as play food, dishes, and a cash register. Along the same lines as the building sets…these toys stick around because of the type of elaborate creative play they inspire. Maybe it’s because we have a lot of girls, but our kids will spend hours playing bake shop, restaurant, grocery store…the cash register has even become a library kiosk. Throw in some play dough, and my kiddos are happily baking and selling cakes all day.
  3. Dolls or action figures (Paw Patrols and princesses are our current favorites). More creative or dramatic play. But be careful with this one…getting the figures is not the same as getting the gigantic playsets.
  4. Hobby-related items, such as sports equipment or musical instruments, or educational items like books, puzzles, and board games.

JAMIN RESPONDS: You cheated by writing this after we recorded the podcast and YouTube episodes.  Still, those homemade gifts the kids give each other are so fantastic, and to watch them get excited about what they’re going to give is the most wholesome sight in the world!

FROM JAMIN:

tldr: Shop for events, not stuff. One toy comes in, one toy goes out.

I’ve already expressed my views on gifts and traditions, so I won’t belabor that here. This is a different rant. We don’t have a lot of money, so by having six kids we made a conscious choice with real-world consequences. Each additional child we have takes something away from the older siblings, and from the two of us, not just in time and effort, but in money: even with good money management, We’re not going to Hawaii any time soon. We aren’t taking the family out to eat at a real restaurant. We aren’t able to save or donate as much as we would like, and we won’t be paying for our kids’ college tuition (hopefully that idiotic institution will have finally died by then anyway!).

I could have a lot more great stuff in my life if I didn’t have so many kids! But there is nothing that I could buy with my money that would bring me greater fulfillment and joy than the measly little 1/4 million dollars each of them will drain from my accounts before they move out. And there is no institution I can start or cause I can support that will be more likely to bring good into the world than shepherding six new healthy families. These are real people that I can really affect; 100% of my donation goes directly to the families with no overhead or administrative costs.

So we’ve definitely chosen more family over more stuff. “Minimalist” might be an overstatement (understatement? …we have lots of stuff by any world standard), but I would gladly trade more stuff for more time or more family, when given the clear choice. Christmas brings that into sharp focus: I don’t want more stuff. Additionally, I’m starved for time. Today is the youngest my kids will ever be. And I’m dying any day now. I need time.

If I’ve got $50 to spend on fun for the kids, I’d rather use it to hire someone to clean the house or mow the lawn so I can spend that time playing checkers with the kids. Or jumping on the trampoline. Or baking cookies. Experiences are valuable. Stuff is crap, and we have too much of it already. We need to send one toy out of the house for each one that comes in – if the new toy isn’t better than the worst toy we already have, why is it coming into the house?

That’s the reason I hate toys for the kids. Unless the gift is an experience, it’s going to take away from the humanity of the family instead of adding to it. If it will create a memory or bond us together, great! If it will help us mentally rank ourselves higher than someone else, giving us a new echelon of peers to try to compete with, it’s making us worse people. And it’s likely going to end up at Goodwill anyway, but only after it’s brought us some joy, followed by enough frustration that we’re willing to give it away for free to get the nuisance out of our lives.

So what should we invest in for the kids? Memberships, shows, gas money/trips, time off work, outsourcing work, games, experiences. Or the same for others: If we pay for a babysitter for some of the kids, could we do something special with the others? If we buy a ticket for a friend, could they join us at a place we already have memberships? How can we increase the amount or degree of relationship and human connectivity in our lives? That’s where I want to spend my money.

Don’t get me wrong…I still hate strangers and I don’t want to be in any social situation that has prescribed rituals or ceremony for the sake of tradition, but being real with other humans is all we have for this wisp of a breath on the planet. Everything else is just costumes and make-believe.

WENDY RESPONDS: I thought the reason we didn’t go to restaurants was that toddlers in restaurants are terrifying and stressful.
Your opinions are pretty clear here, and I agree with them…but I don’t feel like you’re offering much practical help. Wasn’t this supposed to be a shopping guide? However, I do really love the idea of hiring someone else to clean the house while I go jump on the trampoline with the kids…I’ll be using that one.


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