Do you struggle to get rid of sentimental items like childhood toys or the toys of your children? Childhood memorabilia often reminds us of a moment in time we don’t want to forget. How do we hold on to the memories we treasure without boxes full of physical reminders? How do we let go of sentimental clutter when our heart begs us to hold on tight?
Letting Go of Toys
We haven’t picked out a new house, but we started cleaning, packing, and decluttering as though we’ve already found one to love. This week I tackled the closets, beginning the painstaking process of boxing up our belongings in preparation for our move.
I spent two days transporting our possessions out of the darkness and into the light. The contents are now visible in a wall of clear, rectangular boxes that stretch across our living room. Each acts like a window into our lives—a glimpse into all that we own.
A tent with matching sleeping bags sits in one container. A small forest of fake Christmas trees stands in another. Snow pants, Halloween decorations, and a box of long-forgotten dishes take up space, along with too many formerly-loved baby toys.
Should I Keep Baby Toys?
While I’ve purged plenty of possessions over the years, those baby toys are by far the hardest to remove. I whittled down the pile to include sturdy, wooden toys that could stand the test of time and a set of small plastic animals with legs and heads that twist and move.
Every ounce of logic tells me not to move this stuff to our new home. Keeping this container full of old toys isn’t in line with my minimalist ideals. It doesn’t stack up against my desire to be clutter-free either.
My husband and I are past the age of having more children. It should be easy to give these pint-sized playthings a new home, but psychologically it’s more complicated than I ever imagined.
The Memories Attached to Our Possessions
When I was a child, my most coveted possession was a Tiny Tears doll that once belonged to my mom. I received plenty of toys as a child, but I clung to that baby more than any other.
I enjoyed the weight of her body and the way she closed her eyes when I laid her down to sleep. She was far more delicate and fragile than any of my other toys. Two of her fingers dry rotted and fell off, and others began to crumble. She wasn’t the prettiest or the easiest to love, but I relished her because she belonged to my mother.
I thought of my dolls like real babies and cried when I outgrew them. When I stopped playing with my childhood treasures, I placed them gently in a box w/ small pillows behind their heads and blankets tucked just below their chins.
Then I slid that box into a corner of my closet and vowed, with tears streaming down my face, never to get rid of them.
Your Children Won’t Feel the Same Attachments You Do
Decades later, I dragged that container out of my childhood closet and plopped it in front of my kids. My youngest dumped out everything inside with utter glee. He carried my old dolls around the house, feeding them, rocking them, and putting them to sleep just like I did as a child.
But his interest was short-lived. Unlike that Tiny Tears doll, the lure of my former treasures wore off after a few days. Shortly after finding that box, he moved back to his other games. The train tracks and marble runs were much more appealing.
My children didn’t share in my childhood experience. They didn’t covet my toys the way I coveted my mother’s. I wasn’t disappointed or upset. I may have strong emotional attachments to these objects, but, understandably, my kids won’t form the same connections to them.
Hours after my little one stopped playing with those old dolls, I packed them into storage. Thirty years after boxing them up, I still didn’t have the heart to let them go.
When to Get Rid of Kid’s Toys
While preparing for our upcoming move, I came across my old dolls again and vowed to get rid of them. I picked out one or two that I truly loved and sent the rest to donation. It was so much easier this time around. I patted myself on the back and moved on to clear out other bins.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the psychological struggle to purge started all over again. As I stared at my children’s baby toys, I felt the familiar sentimental dread take hold of me.
In general, I enjoy decluttering our house. Once a month, I get the kids involved in cleaning out their toy shelves and donating the excess. But every so often, I find myself deeply attached to an object and hesitant to send it away.
Why is it so hard to get rid of a box that sits untouched in my closet? I don’t want to display these toys, and my kids don’t want to play with them. Passing them on to another child makes perfect sense. Yet my mind is unwilling to pack them up for donation.
When I see those old toys, I picture my boys’ chubby little hands playing with the pieces. I imagine their smiling faces looking up at me with utter delight. I remember the moments of their first few years and relish in the memories of that time in my life. While I consider myself a minimalist, I struggle to let go of them.
My six-year-old says he wants a time machine so he can jump ahead to age ninety-nine. My adult brain can’t comprehend this idea. Why on earth would he want to skip his life away? He can’t explain it to me yet, but as he wants to leap forward, I desperately want the ability to go back.
The Memories of Our Stuff
It’s easy to get rid of most of my kids’ toys, but a few conjure up strong memories that I can’t get past.
When I was pregnant with my second child, my oldest son and I would sit on the floor and play quiet games together so I could rest. For weeks, perhaps months, we played with a set of brightly colored animals that rode on a plastic train.
We gave the animals names and voices. We spent hours telling stories of their journeys through jungles and forests as we snuggled in the basement—just the two of us. Those silly plastic animals represent the end of that time.
My oldest was incredibly attached to me, and for the first three and a half years of life, we rarely spent a minute apart. That all changed when my second child was born. My oldest began to gravitate to my husband as I spent time caring for our newborn.
Those tiny toy animals represent the love we shared before our family of three became four. Logically, I know the memories won’t disappear if I send them out the door, but for some strange reason, I feel like they will.
Keeping Toys for Future Grandchildren
But does it make sense to keep old toys that my children have outgrown? I dream of becoming a grandmother, but my nine-year-old has told me on more than one occasion that he “won’t be having children.”
Do I want to hold on to a box of toys that might move sixty miles, only never to see the light of day again? Deep inside, I know it makes zero sense, but when I think back on my mom’s Tiny Tears doll, my heart urges me to hold on.
That’s when I recognize the harsh truth. I’m not holding on to these toys for my kids or my future grandchildren. I’m holding on to them for myself. Clinging on to these baby toys allows me to grasp on to a time I can never get back.
These toys remind me of motherhood, of becoming a new mom after years of infertility struggles. They remind me of the time that my son and I sat alone in a quiet house, trying to figure out how to get through sleep-deprived days.
I can picture those moments so perfectly right now, and the truth is, I don’t need a toy in my hands to remind me of that time in my life.
The Burden of Our Memorabilia
Many years ago, just before my first child was born, my mother-in-law brought me into her house and presented me with four large boxes.
Inside I found baby clothing that once belonged to my husband. I sorted through the boxes because I could tell she was excited to show me what was inside. I oohed and aahed over each little pair of pants and shirts, but I didn’t want to put my future child in any of them.
The lightly colored fabrics had yellowed, and the material was itchy and scratchy. Many of the items were no longer safe for children. I can’t tell you how many infant-sized sweatshirts had unsafe drawstrings inside of them.
I felt burdened by the weight of those boxes. What was I going to do with them? I didn’t want to store them or use anything inside, so I took one or two outfits and asked my mother-in-law to hold on to the rest of them. I planned to dress my newborn in one or two for photo ops, then quietly discard them.
Did my mother-in-law notice the stains on those baby clothes, or did each shirt and pair of pants bring back happy memories? I’m sure she was disappointed that I didn’t covet those old items the same way she did.
When my children grow up, I don’t want them to feel the same burden I felt as I opened those old boxes of baby clothes. I don’t want them to feel trapped by the items I treasure.
Objects Can Taint Our Memories Too
Whether we like it or not, physical objects don’t always stand the test of time. I know this from looking inside that old box of baby clothes. I also know this from my own experiences.
When I was a child, I would visit my grandparent’s house once a week. Whenever I went, my grandmother would call me to the kitchen for cookies and milk. My grandfather sat on one side of a bright green, circular kitchen table, and I sat at the other.
She served milk in a brightly colored mug with a picture of Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, and Tigger on it. She continued to serve drinks out of the cup long after I grew up. Years later, she brought it out for my children.
After my grandmother died, we spent days cleaning out her house. Looking through rooms full of possessions, I took only two things. One was that old Winnie the Pooh mug.
I wanted to drink from it and share it with my children. I tried to hold on to my grandmother after she passed, and this mug would be the perfect daily reminder of her presence in my life. But when I brought it home, I realized the cup had a strange and off-putting odor.
Of course, my connection to my grandmother doesn’t have anything to do with that silly old mug. I know deep inside I don’t need that cup to remember her.
Bring Childhood Memorabilia Out of Hiding
What good does it do to keep sentimental possessions stowed away in dark closets only to find they aren’t usable when we bring them back into the light?
My grandfather was a photographer, and my grandmother kept boxes upon boxes of his photographic slides in the corner of her apartment. They sat there for decades after his death until I took the time to look through them.
I scanned hundreds of slides and created a digital picture frame for my grandmother. She spent hours watching those photographs fade slowly in and out on the screen.
In the middle of the night, when she had trouble sleeping, my grandmother would sit in the living room and watch the old images flip before her eyes. She’d often call me the next day to tell me she saw a photo she’d never seen before. I could hear the giddiness in her voice as she described the photograph in vivid detail.
That digital photo album is by far the best gift I’ve ever given in my life. I took the photographs and memories out of the box, so my grandmother could enjoy them.
What to Do With Old Childhood Toys and Memorabilia
Do you have stuff hiding in boxes? If so, wouldn’t you prefer to give them new life? Wouldn’t it be better to see them than allow them to grow dusty in a long-forgotten corner of your home?
If you have old baby clothes or t-shirts you can’t part with, consider turning them into something new. You can turn them into a quilt, pillow, stuffed animal, or even frame scraps of clothing as a piece of art.
Frame your children’s artwork or place it into a scrapbook that can be placed on a shelf and thumbed through. Ask your children to curate this binder each year, removing older pieces in favor of new ones.
Bring out your photographs, scan them, and place them into digital picture frames. Allow yourself to see the people, places, and events that impacted your life.
Getting Rid of Childhood Toys and Memorabilia
If you don’t want to use the items, think about passing them on to someone who can love them right now. We tend to focus our attention on the past and the future, but what about the present?
Can someone use the stuff we are keeping in storage? Imagine how many children could have worn the clothes my mother-in-law boxed up for future grandchildren. Imagine how incredible it felt for my grandmother to see the photographs her husband captured decades earlier?
Think about the joy you feel when looking at your toys or your children’s toys. Reflect on the deep emotions that run through you as you pick up soft baby clothes and run your fingers through them.
Now imagine another parent feeling that same joy. Imagine a child playing with the item you covet. Picture their chubby hands reaching out to grab for it as they look up at their parents and smile.
Why let that stuff sit in a box where it can decay, fall apart or discolor? Why not let a new family enjoy it while it is still in good condition?
Keeping Baby Toys
I remind myself of all of these things as I whittle down the stack of baby toys sitting before me. My connection to the physical objects lessens over time, and each time I return to the stash, it’s easier to donate them. I can’t part with everything just yet, but I have a feeling I will soon enough.
In the meantime, I am writing a note about the baby toys I treasure. As I write, I realize my connection is not to the items inside that box but rather to my children whose little hands used to hold them.