Most of the parents I know with young children are finding themselves sinking in a slowly rising tide of toys. Orphaned wheels from forgotten erector sets and dolls whose clothes were mangled beyond repair and were ditched a long time ago. Playsets that have lost all their pieces to the endless abyss of the toybox. Toys making noises that only amuse the children, because the children know the noises are driving you nuts. And they just keep coming too. The grandparents bringing presents, friends and extended relatives dropping off hand-me-downs and the special little presents you buy them for behaving in the grocery store all add to the pile.

For the parent, there seems to be an ever present inner-conflict surrounding all these toys. While only a fraction of the toys are ever being played with, the rest of them are clutter making clean up times even harder, draining limited energy you know you could use better someplace else. But on the other hand, you love your kids and you don’t want to deprive them of anything if you don’t have to. You start to sort through the toys to get rid of the old stuff, but start remembering a time when your child was playing with it and suddenly you’re feeling attached and think maybe you should keep it.

Around the holidays, this problem sometimes really bubbles up to the surface. You know that the children’s aunts, uncles and grandparents will bring truckloads of toys to add to the pile you already have. You don’t want to add even more neglected toys when the money could be spent better on something else, but you also feel guilty not buying a lot of presents yourself.

So, you have too many toys. You have relatives who will buy more nice toys. And you have a feeling of obligation to buy even more nice toys yourself. Isn’t this starting to sound a little like nonsense? Who’s really winning here? Almost no one thinks stuff is a reliable route to happiness, except maybe a three year old–but as a former three year old whose family didn’t go nuts with toys every year, I can tell you it almost never crossed my mind. And almost no one, without a tinge of sarcasm, would list all the neat stuff they own when asked why they love their parents or relatives.

This is consumerism, and it conflicts with so many of our widely espoused values, yet it’s difficult to break free from it, or even see when we’ve fallen into it. While we know that the true value of the holidays is our time spent together and the experiences we have amongst family and traditions, it still feels like you’re short changing the kids if you don’t buy impressive enough stuff. It’s terrible that parents should have to feel guilt of that kind. Somewhere along the way, someone clever managed to tie how much we love someone to an indefinitely specific amount of money. But that feeling is an emotion being felt as guilt, rather than fully felt as the intense love it actually is.

Gift giving is not, itself, a kind of consumerism. Gift giving is part of human culture. But because it is a part of human culture doesn’t mean you must follow it to whatever extremes. What ultimately matters to growing children is that their parents love them, provide lots of attention, and just generally put their needs before their own. Sounds kind of like how you’d describe any good parent.

So as the holidays come around this year, if you’re experiencing a deluge of toys already, realize that you’re desire to give them more bigger and better toys is an expression of love. But to express that love differently wont mean you don’t love them. It will mean that you’re being mindful of the way you love them. You can let go of the guilt. You can allow friends and relatives to add to the kid’s stores of toys, and you can spend more of the family’s money on valuable experiences together, such as season passes to the National Aquarium, Baltimore Zoo, or some family portraits to put over the fireplace.

If you feel strongly that gift-giving to your children around the holidays is a really particularly important expression of love for you, then consider this idea:

Around the holidays a few years ago, a friend explained how his family keeps the house from being overrun by toys, and helps keep his kids from developing the consumeristic mentality of “more is better”. He taught his daughters that they had to donate some of their toys to charity in order to make room for new toys. Every year, a few months before the holidays, the girls would make piles of the toys they wanted to give to people in need. However much they gave away was around as much as they’d find under the tree.

For my friend, this idea worked wonderfully. The kids curated their own toys, and thanks to their father, were also getting some good early experiences with charitable giving.

However you decide to handle the influx of toys the holidays inevitably brings to families with small children, we hope that your focus will be on appreciating your time with one another. That’s what will stand out in their memory as adults–not the toys.