Lessons From a Basement Battleground

Waging war on the mess in the playroom, materialism and 'gimme fever' to remind us to think of those less fortunate.


One morning last weekend, my husband and I were woken up to sounds of screams and children fighting in the playroom. Nothing says happy family like getting roused out of bed to broker the peace of World War Three in our Wilton basement.

That morning, my 9-year-old son had decided on his own to comb through our playroom toys and games and pick some things to donate. We do this as a family every six months or so, as part of what we have always taught our kids. But on that day, his charity that began at home wasn’t sitting so well with his 5-year-old sister.

Despite our need to drastically cut our spending this year, we’re steadfast about teaching the kids how fortunate we are, and that our happiness doesn’t depend on how many ‘things’ we have. We’ve made sure to continue to donate new and ‘gently used’ toys and clothes, and we all make sure to volunteer.  Each week at Hebrew school our children give Tzedakah (the Hebrew word for charity), we make donations to the food bank, they wear some hand me downs, and everyone takes part in other efforts.

My kids have grown up learning that we have so much, and there are other kids like them who don’t have as much as we have, and so we always keep that in our thoughts and actions. It’s a refrain we’ve said so many times our kids have it memorized: We have so much, we always have to remember those that don’t have as much.

But that morning, through her tears, my daughter was understandably having 5-year-old regrets at her brother’s generosity: “I don’t want to give these things away! I know we have so much, but I want much much!

It’s hard to escape completely from the materialistic “accumulation” message. ‘Tis the season, after all, with commercials and jingles and Black Friday and Santa Strolls...and gift wish lists. Even though the holiday will definitely be more restrained as we’re on a tighter budget than ever this year, we’re still making lists for Hanukkah as well as Joyeaux Noel for family in France.

Our kids certainly don’t want for much of anything—although I’m sure if you ask them, my son would give anything for an iPhone (keep dreaming, lovey) and my daughter could start a collection of whatever and then some.

I’ve tried to walk a fine line with putting together a basement playroom over the years that entertains, educates, allows creativity and doesn’t break the bank or overindulge. And sometimes it gets a little (read: a lot) out of control.

In fact, let me set the recent scene, after a November crazy with hectic work days for me and half-days (thanks to school conferences) for the kids that followed an unexpected entire week off from school, and playdates scheduled to keep Mommy’s sanity (and, oh yes, nurture friendships). Needless to say, our basement playroom was a mess. 

Not just standard issue mess that takes a 20 minute clean up, this wasn’t anything that easy.

No, this was like the glitter fairy had exploded all over everything in the basement—who knew a Darth Vader mask could look so good bedazzled like that! Let me tell you, glitter doesn’t vacuum up all that easily. This was Barbie had gone to a punk hair stylist and headless Ken was thinking he got the better end of the deal. This was someone thinking that all the board game playing pieces from each and every single board game and toy with separate parts needed to be mixed up with the matchbox car collection and tossed in random piles around the basement. This was anything that had come with an instruction book to put together had been taken apart and who-knew-how-long-ago the booklets had been thrown away. This was let’s find out if all the My Pretty Ponies might make good paint brushes.

When I had just one child, especially during the years that he was under 3, I used to be the kind of obsessive, nutty mom who knew where every single piece of every single game, puzzle and toy was in our playroom. If there was a puzzle piece that had gone wandering, I wouldn’t rest until I found it.

How I long for the good old days.

It took a good, two full days to get that playroom back in order. And we’re still tracking glitter throughout the house (thank god for hardwood floors).

Perhaps it was the sanity of order that made a subsequent play period for the kids seem much more decent and cooperative, in the spirit of what I hope they’ve been integrating to their value system.

My daughter, new to kindergarten this year, has fallen in love with going to the library at school. So she and her brother had decended to the playroom to play library—they made their own books, created construction-paper card holders on the back with cards to get date-stamped, and even had a return bin for books getting checked back in.

And what did they use to build their library reference desk? Two pizza boxes from Wilton Pizza. Their creativity, resourcefulness and cooperation was a 180-degree turn from the week before, especially given that there was nothing electronic, new or gimme-gimme about the game.

We’re certainly no home-schooling, perfect, organic-only parents, but we’ll take the good moments when we can get ‘em. What's more, we'll keep fighting the good fight to teach them what we value most, waging the real war against what I've started to call 'gimme fever.'

It’s the moments of peace, generosity and satisfaction with less that I hope we all enjoy “much much” more.

As the holidays approach, please remember those who don't "have as much," and consider donating a toy through Toys For Tots or through another charity effort. According to the Toys for Tots website, there are several Wilton spots that are accepting donations of new, unwrapped toys for needy children. They are:

, 77 Old Ridgefield Road
, 978 Danbury Road
Hoffman Landscapes, 647 Danbury Road (Route 7)
, 21 River Rd # 700

Amo Probus November 28, 2011 at 11:19 AM
HB, we do the same every so often. Our children were home for Thanksgiving and they got the clean out bug. We loaded both SUV's with bags and bags of clothing and misc bric-a-brac and headed down to Goodwill in Norwalk. They were happy to unload the boxes and bags. We then went into their store and I managed to find a new pair of jeans and a sweatshirt (both great for around the house) and my bill was 12 bucks. I was surprised to see many folks from a wide range of demographics. The best part? WE AVOIDED BLACK FRIDAY MALL FEVER!!!!
Wilton Resident November 28, 2011 at 03:12 PM
Every year around this time, I would have my kids decide which toys they would donate to children that didn't have as much as they did. My daughter was 6 and my son was 3 when we started this. To really drive the point home, I made a call to NEON in Norwalk (a community action agency that has many children's programs). I arranged for the drop off of our toy donation to be done on-site at a program that provided day care for children of single moms. I wanted my children to see the excited faces of the children who would be playing with these toys. Just driving TO the location was an eye-opener for my Wilton raised children. My 2 young children helped bring in the boxes of toys from the back of my car. They watched the children open the boxes and begin to play with their 'old' toys. The children in the program were thrilled - there were few toys in the room and any there seemed old and broken. We continued this tradition for many years. Each year, after Thanksgiving, we would do the 'major clean up/donation collection'. My kids began to look forward to it - finding just the perfect toys for the children in NEON. Giving to Goodwill or another agency is great - but if you can give the items directly to those who will use them and then witness the looks on their faces, that is priceless.
Eve Donovan November 28, 2011 at 03:54 PM
Great column Heather! Regarding donations, does NEON take "loose toys?" I tried to donate gently used toys to Goodwill over the weekend. (My kids take good care of their toys - so they are truly "gently"). However, Goodwill said that they no longer accept loose toys - that is toys such as My Little Pony and puzzles as they are concerned that kids will have put them in their mouth and it will spread germs. They no longer accept board games unless the board games are sealed. Otherwise, they cannot guarantee that all the game pieces are there. I always check that all parts are there, but it does not matter if it's not sealed. Really would hate to see toys, games and puzzles go to waste... Would appreciate suggestions of where to donate! Thanks.
Wilton Resident November 28, 2011 at 05:36 PM
Eve - I am not sure what NEON's rules are now - my children are now 19 & 22yo, so it was a long time ago. Sometimes I think the bigger the organization (Goodwill) the bigger the rules & regulations. Try a smaller more personal one - give NEON a call or perhaps the social services of Norwalk or B'port could steer you to one. Good luck - it is so worth it!


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