Monday, June 17, 2013

Toys aren't us: Dealing with special needs parent buying compulsion

I did a huge toy purge this weekend—perhaps you heard me screeching "I can't believe how much crap the kids have!!!" as I unearthed yet another game that was missing approximately 97 pieces. 

It's been years since I sorted through the kids' games and toys, and there is a mind-boggling amount of them. This is mostly because of the buying sprees I went on during Max's early years, when I figured the more toys to simulate him, the better. I looked to toys for salvation, hoping they could spark his intellect, encourage him to better use his fingers and hands and even get him to walk.

Toys have most definitely been therapeutic for Max. The Mozart Magic Cube, with its different instruments and bright lights, encouraged Max to reach at a time when it was a real strain for him (cerebral palsy messes with your muscles that way). The Fisher Price Laugh & Learn Fun With Friends Musical Table encouraged him to pull to stand. When he started taking steps but needed support, we'd load up a toy shopping cart with cans to give it weight and he'd walk around the house with it, Dave and I joking that someday Max would make a great personal shopper.

Problem was, I couldn't stop buying toys. Whenever the therapists recommended a toy, I got it, hunting it down on eBay if it was discontinued. If Max's teachers said he took a particular interest in one at school, I got it. If we were at a store and Max took a liking to one, I got it. No occasion necessary; every day was a day worthy of more toys. 

Playing with them and Max wasn't always fun; at times I'd be so anxious for Max to better engage. (Also: Floor time can get really boring. What an awful parent am I!) I'd put stuff in bins so it wouldn't distract Max, but then I'd forget about those toys, and the clutter built up, threatening to take over our kitchen—I'd already converted the dining room to a playroom. 

In recent years, I've gotten better about not over-buying. Experience has taught me that more toys does not equal better kid. And buying educational toys that Max has no interest in does him no good, and wastes money. I still ask therapists for recommendations at birthdays and holidays, and we just have a leetle Cars 2 merchandise problem, but in general we no longer OD on toys. I just never dealt with the pile-up. Now that our basement's done we've socked away a bunch of toys there but still, our house felt like toys gone wild. And so, this weekend, Dave took the kids out and I mercilessly tossed stuff into big trash bags to donate. 

I hesitated the most over Max's fleet of dump trucks and fire engines, because he still loves pushing them back and forth and back and forth, but I chose some favorites and out went the rest. I had no problem getting rid of the bazillion party-bag favors we'd accumulated; those plastic things oughta be illegal because the kids forget all about them the second they are home from the birthday party, they consume space and they are a waste of resources. If you happen to be interested in owning 42 hand-clapper things, though, contact me.

I felt good knowing the toys would go to deserving kids, yet sad because I had such a vested emotional connection to so many of them. The echoes of play and therapy sessions past filled the room as I sorted through everything. I could picture Max trying so hard to hold them and use the toys, and me, Dave, our babysitter and his therapists sitting on the rug, encouraging him. 

"Push it, Max!"
"Touch it there, Max!"
"Use two hands to hold it, Max!"

I'm about three-quarters done and I've filled five huge bags to give away. Sabrina started looking through them last night, complaining that she still needed a bunch of stuff, exactly what she did the last time we had a garage sale. I suspect she may be destined for a starring role in Hoarders (like mother, like daughter) but meanwhile, I reassured her she still had a whole lot of playthings. 

Happily, Max didn't seem to care. I carved out a cubby for him in the wood organizer completely filled with Cars 2 stuff, and he was ecstatic. Play is still plenty therapeutic for him these days; Lighting McQueen is excellent motivation to get him to talk and stretch his arms when he drives him around. Mostly, he just has fun with it—like any kid with any toy. 


  1. I think we all obsessively buy toys, books, provide therapy etc for our children mainly out of the concern that " this may b the one thing that really helps and how can I not try?"

    We too learned that more does not indicate better. The upside is that as they grow they actually decide for themselves what they want to play with and what us important to them. Unfortunately that doesn't mean things cost any less :)

  2. Oh, yes, the junk that accumulates- and that my boys don't even play with. We just moved a few weeks ago and I refused to take anything with me that wasn't actually used. It was a HUGE amount.

  3. This is me, COMPLETELY. Minus the purging. I haven't done that yet. I always think "this one will be great for cause effect", or "this one spins AND lights up, that will be the ticket". My son shows his wants so rarely, that when I do see him show interest in something, I want him to have it. He doesn't know how to ask me otherwise. But you are right-it doesn't mean I need to buy every stinkin toy.

  4. Samuel will be 20 this year and I still want to go out and buy any new toy that his therapists and teachers say that he likes and is encouraging him to practice his skills. The next thing is an I-Pad--a little more expensive than a see-n-say which was his favorite at 3. But I have watched him with an I-Pad and it is amazing. So let's just say that over the years I have become more selective in my purchasing, but I'm still a sucker for success.

    1. iPads are amazing and bring tremendous independence to many persons with disabilities who would not be able to let their needs, wants and desires known. it is also a terrific teaching tool. If you can do it, it is worth it for him in the long run. In fact there are many great blogs out there which tell which apps are the best and to what end :)

  5. Been there! Still there? Sometimes. This tendency to buy a million toys was especially hard in my son's early years when early childhood therapists would come in with their bag of toys and recommend buying them. I was also searching for that one toy that would make all the difference. Honestly though, at age 7 my son has finally found one TV show that he will sit and watch for a few minutes and this wonderful TV reprieve has led me to buy way too many episodes and toys that go along with that show hoping to spark an imaginative play button hidden somewhere deep within. I have also found that I need to re-think playing with my son and try to just enjoy it instead of thinking of the therapeutic goals we are working on all the time!

  6. Thank you, thank you! I am in the purging/recovery phase now, but in the early years shopping was definately my preferred self-therapy!
    Only I didn't stop with toys- having two special needs daughters meant having their closets bulging with so many clothes, they couldn't even wear them all! I am glad those days are behind me now, but wish my family and friends could have seen my behavior for what it was- an antidote for the deep depression I was in, rather than judging me harshly for it!

  7. I have learned a lot too and try not to buy, buy, buy for my G. It's hard for ALL of the reasons you say. And I am very emotionally attached to items that helped him!!! We are finally giving away our f-p Laugh & Learn Fun With Friends Musical Table to a friend with a new baby. It's extremely HARD!!!

  8. Every parent has had the 'I can't believe how much crap we have' moment I'm glad my brother is getting over his fascination with toys.

  9. So true! Our therapist is always suggesting toys for my son. "You should get him a _____" and I feel so obligated to purchase. A purge may be on the horizon for us too...

  10. I sooooo relate! My daughter has such poor fine motor control, I tend to hang onto anything she has had any remote success controlling. Even after she moved up mentally from the "baby toys" but that was all her hands could manipulate, we'd play that she was helping her dolls play with those toys. I suppose that was a good exercise in both motor skills and imagination? But now we're way past all of that. If anyone knows of a leisure activity for a teenager helps build infant-level motor skills, please share! We're so past toys at our house. We keep watching for single-switch computer games, but those tend to rely on timing (sorry, apraxia is as bad as the motor control...).

  11. I'm glad I'm not alone with the toy buying - it didn't help when I did foster-care and had more kids to buy for - but mostly at the same developmental stage. When searching through the ToysRUs web
    site for special needs kids before Zach's recent birthday, I found we already owned most of them. We are in the process of moving and I think we are pretty evenly divided between throw-away, give-away and keep. I gave my grandson, Zach's school and therapists first dibs on the donate pile.

  12. I'm guessing this happens to all of us. My house is also crammed with stuff, it's so frustrating. I've always wondered if there are any specialized online sites (other than Ebay) where people buy and sell used therapeutic toys. If anyone knows of such a website, please share the info, thanks!

  13. Olivia loves having the stuffed animals that go with her movies...consequently we have a ridiculous collection of them. And I can't get rid of any of them because 2 years down the road she could get obsessed with that movie again!!!

  14. Great Article. As the father of an autistic and rambunctious 9 year old - I can totally relate. After having trouble finding appropriate toys for my son, I decided to develop one. I have just launched MagneBricks on - These are better magnetic building blocks because they are plastic, safely contain strong magnets, and have interlocking features that help blocks come together correctly. Just bringing one near another makes them automatically find the correct orientation. If you care to see, please click here:
    Thanks and great blog!

  15. As a fellow parent of a child with special needs - My 9 year old Anthony is autistic (and rambunctious) - I understand how fun and difficult playtime can be sometime - especially with Toys.
    Partly because of this, I have been developing (and am know "kickstarting") a new magnetic building block system that is better than those available currently.
    Advantages are:
    1. Plastic not wood - my son loves to chew on wooden toys
    2. Strong Magnetic attraction - blocks don't have to be sooo close together to attract
    3. Best of all - Interlocking features so child can learn which sides go together as they magically re-arrange themselves to fit. This makes structures stronger and more linear too!

    Please take a look at my video and help me spread the word if you think they are cool.

  16. Thanks for sharing this..... I.... Am...... You!


Thanks for sharing!

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