Friday, October 7, 2011

On being picky about stuff

I don't think it's any secret that I love getting rid of stuff. If it's not useful or beautiful, it goes. I've mentioned that telling people we're becoming foster parents somehow causes them to give us lots of stuff. This has created some conflict for me.

Yesterday I went through six boxes of stuff that people have given us. Most of the stuff inside was toys, for infants all the way up through five or six. I just got back from dropping off easily 80% of the stuff at Salvation Army.

Something I learned while working at the shelter was that people will donate all sorts of damaged, broken, dirty, stained garbage, because "the poor" can use it! As if "the poor" have more time, ability, and energy to mend the broken zipper on a pair of jeans, or should somehow be grateful for a puzzle missing a sixth of its pieces. People feel guilty about throwing things away, so they donate them instead. The problem is, a lot of the stuff that's donated is only fit for the trash, so shelters (and thrift stores) have to spend time and money on sorting through and disposing of this stuff. Seriously, I once spent an entire eight-hour shift sorting through Christmas donations, moving stuff from a general "incoming" heap into trash piles or bins sorted by age. People donated things like ripped bedsheets and stained stuffed animals, and about a third of the stuff I sorted went into the trash. Fortunately, people have been much better to us, probably because we're friends with good people and because we aren't faceless "people in need."

In fact, almost all of the stuff I donated today was in perfect condition. The problem was, most of it made noise. The very vast majority of the toys required batteries and had some sort of electronic component. Several of the things I donated today were Leapster or other pseudo-educational things that yelled out colors or letters or whatever when you pushed the buttons. Andy was especially surprised that I wanted to ditch those. However:
  • I learned in my eight years working with kids that my tolerance for noisy toys is very low. 
  • If I cannot make the sound stop by pushing the button a second time, I will very quickly learn to despise the toy.
  • I have seen many toys end up with faulty wiring and start making startling noises in otherwise quiet rooms without having any buttons pushed. I do not want that to happen in my living room, or in a bedroom where a foster child has just fallen asleep.
  • The batteries and mechanisms add some considerable weight to otherwise basic toys. I have seen heavier toys do real damage when used as weapons. If I'm going to get hit in the face with a toy (which, considering the age range we're looking at, is a likely event), I want that toy to be as light as possible.
  • In my experience, toys that make noise do the imagining for the kids. A basic wooden wand can be a magic wand or a spoon or a light saber or a pony, but an electronic light-up light saber can only ever be a light saber. I'd rather have fewer toys and more imagining.
So all of this means that I've been quite up front with people about what we want and need, and have happily volunteered to take whatever they're offering, and if it isn't right for us, I'll find it somewhere else to go. Sometimes that's to other friends and family, and sometimes it's to a thrift store. If the person offering it to us would rather hang on to it than see it donated, that's great and no hard feelings.

I feel like this is a good habit to be in, letting our friends know what we'll keep what works for us and find better homes for things that aren't. That way I don't have to feel guilty for donating a gift that is really not a good fit for our household. Now I just need to work on developing the same habit for weird Christmas gifts I'm given.

How do you handle being given things that you don't want or need? Any advice?


  1. We did a great job making our only noise-making toys actual musical instruments for a year, but then our latest placement brought toys with them, all of which seem to be plastic, brand-name, noisy. They know that music toys have to stay in the attic and that they're not allowed to keep toys that make noise in their beds, but other than that there's not much I can do to change things since these are toys that come from their family.

    (Thanks for finding my blog. I have lots of relatives in upstate New York and I'm excited about reading about where things go for you.)

  2. What a great rule, to keep the noisy toys out of sight. I think I could be more okay with actual musical instruments - I think it wouldn't be worth fighting it, as I'm married to a drummer - but those hideous plastic noisemakers are THE WORST.

    I am so glad you commented! This is totally fangirl of me, but I really love how honest your blog is.