Our house has some toys with which the child (3.5 years old) does not play. Some of them are broken, some aren't.

Is it a good idea if I make a deal with the toddler that she can get the new toys only if she donates the old ones to the poor children? Can this have any side effects?

One advantage of this may be that the house will never be cluttered because of toys!

I also want her to learn empathy. I want her to understand that many children are poor and if she has surplus toys she should donate so that others can play.

  • 1
    Hope you don't mind, I changed "toddler" to "pre-schooler", since you helpfully provided your child's age (3.5 years). Oct 26, 2016 at 13:11
  • We do this about once a year, seems healthy, but our child donates only about 20% of what we would like her to donate, and starts to take the remaining 80% out of the boxes to play again, so you need to ask: is it worth it ;-)
    – PatrickT
    Jul 1, 2017 at 17:27

7 Answers 7


It seems like you have 2 separate goals that are sort of related. The first being to teach the child empathy and the other to de-clutter the house by getting rid of extra / broken toys. While these goals can be accomplished at the same time, that may not be the best approach.

The first problem I believe you could run into here is getting your child to really understand the idea of donating the toys. She is still pretty young and may have some trouble understanding the permanence of donating toys. I'm guessing that up until this point, the closest thing to donation she has encountered would be sharing. Sharing is a great way to be kind and learn empathy, but also has pretty low anxiety about losing what you are sharing (at least in terms of toys anyway). You share a toy, you get the toy back later (or, alternatively, giving someone else a turn means you will get your turn soon). But donation isn't like that. You give away a toy and you don't get it back. Ever. And that might be hard to swallow.

She might not want to give up any toys because she loves them. She also might not understand. And then you might find yourself with a screaming toddler who desperately wants Mr. Snugglekins (who got donated two months ago) to go to bed with her. This is also the time when she will most likely decide that nothing will distract her and nothing will make it better except Mr. Snugglekins and you had better find Mr. Snugglekins if anyone wants to get any sleep tonight.

Second, as other answers have mentioned, if you make it a hard and fast rule that she has to donate a toy before she can get a new one, you are setting yourself up for pain. First, she might perceive this as unfair, that you are forcing her to give up beloved toys. The flip side of this is that it also sets up the expectation that when she donates toys, she will (in her mind) get new ones. So then donating toys may not turn out to be an act of empathy, but rather a means of getting that new shiny toy.

But now the question is how do you teach the child empathy? Well, I would say to start small. Teach her to share. Model sharing yourself. Teach her to take turns. Point out when others are feeling sad and maybe suggest something she could do to help ("See Daddy over there. He looks sad, huh? Maybe you could give Daddy a hug and that would help him feel better.") Also, do service as a family and include her, even if it is in small ways. Go spend time delivering "meals on wheels" or a local equivalent. Go help grandma rake up all the leaves in her yard. Help the neighbor kid get his ball back that got tossed in your yard. There are many ways for her to help others and learn to care for them. Donating toys is one way, but consider other ways too.

Now, how to deal with too many toys cluttering the house? @aparente001's answer is an excellent suggestion on how to do that. Moving toys out of circulation and slowly introducing the idea of giving them away could help greatly with this. Just make sure your child does this because she wants to, not because you want her to or because she feels there is some reward attached to it.


This is a long range goal -- you may need to be patient. Here are some ideas for how to work toward it.

  1. Periodically, do a triage together. Initially, there will be two piles: these toys go temporarily "out of circulation" (e.g. in the closet), these toys remain in the easy-to-grab location (e.g. shelves or bins in child's room or main play area). In the beginning be happy if one toy gets chosen for the "out of circulation" place. As your child gets the hang of this sort-and-tuck-away approach, s/he will come to trust that the set aside toys will come back, and anxiety about loss of beloved toys will start to go down.

The second stage of this is to introduce a third pile, the "give away" pile. Be patient, and don't panic if nothing gets put in this pile the first time you introduce it.

  1. Find, or establish, a neighborhood "exchange a treasure" spot. Where I live it is a hollow tree in someone's front yard, and there's another at our science museum, and there are specially designated bookshelves for this purpose in multiple locations. The way it works is you deposit something and take something. The treasure can be a beautiful feather or rock -- it doesn't have to be manufactured. Explain the concept to your child before you visit the Exchange spot.

You can also use your local second-hand store (where I live these might be called Salvation Army or Good Will or thrift shop) as an Exchange spot. Although these stores don't have explicit rules about contributing something every time you visit, YOU can create such a rule and introduce it in such a way that it seems to be the rule of the store.

  1. Catch your child displaying generosity (both tangible and in spirit), and provide positive feedback. This can be especially effective if you express it as bragging about the child to someone else, e.g. "Mari was so generous this afternoon, I gave her two cookies for snack, and she gave one to Davi next door." She'll feel good about herself, and this will encourage the desired behavior.

I would suggest her the idea, and see how she reacts to it. If she's a 100% in, Great! Otherwise, I might just suggest her to donate her toys(and not keep a condition that she gets new one only if she gives away old ones)- reason being, we never know what really goes in the little mind and it would be unfair to 'make' her give away her toys.


Do not let them know that they will get new toys or they will break the current ones on purpose. My child's kindergarten teacher teaches empathy by associating feelings with a bucket of balls. When you're sad, the bucket is losing balls. When you're happy, the bucket is full of balls. If I were in your shoes, I would teach that concept first. So when she is aware of her own emotional bucket, show her that everybody has a bucket. Once she understands that, I would show her a doll that has empty buckets and that when she gives a toy to the doll, it would fill the bucket. This would probably work better if there is another kid around. But otherwise, once the toy is given away, you can take it and donate it yourself another time. You can reward her with new toys but I would associate it with another reason. After all, generosity should be its own reward.


The idea of teaching empathy to kids by making them donating toys is really good, but point to consider is, they should donate them willingly. Donating something unwillingly or donating old things for the purpose of getting new things can influence kids in other manner. Instead I would tell her about being helpful, how can she favor poor children, the happiness of making them happy by donating toys.


You seem to be trying to deal with two separate problems. One is that you are accumulating unused toys. The other is that you'd like to teach your child empathy. These are not the same problem and you shouldn't really expect to solve them the same way.

With respect to accumulated toys, it's difficult at that age to know which unused toys are no longer interesting and have been forgotten, and which are beloved toys that just haven't been played with in forever.

In my opinion, the best way to deal with lack of space to store toys is present the real issue to the child. "We're running out of space to store toys; are there any that you don't want any more and we can throw away? We need to make space so you can have new toys." Rarely will a child volunteer a toy for discard and then turn out to really want that toy later. I would stay away from suggesting which toys to discard, though; the child may agree without really paying attention to what you are saying, then get upset later when the toy is missing.

With respect to empathy, forcing the child to part with a toy they still want in order to donate it will likely result in negative associations with donation. The bargain you propose, especially if it comes across as "no new toys until you give some of your favorite toys to someone else," might have the same effect.

It is probably better to point out or describe situations where others are worse off when such situations naturally come up. Express sympathy to provide a role model. Then, if and when your child also expresses sympathy, you can ask if they have any unwanted toys they want to donate. If you want to provide an incentive, you can make the deal in a positive manner rather than a negative one: "if you want to donate one of your unused toys, I'll buy that new toy you've been wanting, to take its place."

That way your child may learn to enjoy being generous, rather than seeing generosity as an unwelcome obligation.


We have the same situation in our house. It's the 80/20 rule. My daughter has a ton of toys and spends 80 percent of the time playing with about 20 percent of her toys. Meanwhile, many toys just collect dust.

We have spent a great deal of time talking to her about how fortunate she is. We discuss the many ways she is lucky. From being blessed with a loving mother and father, to having a nice warm home with running water. We explain to her that she has clean clothes and food any time she wants. I have even shown her the terrifying problems that plague war torn countries.

As a result, she is well aware that there are kids like her all over the world that would really like some of what we call "small things" to help keep them happy. And she knows that a small thing to her can be a great big thing to somebody else.

When we identify something that she doesn't play with much I just ask her about it. "When was the last time you played with this?" or "Did you even know this was in your room?" or "Would it be a big deal or a small deal if we were to get rid of this?"

Once she realizes that she never uses it, she often asks if we can give it to somebody that doesn't have much.

I think people are afraid to tell their children about the sadness and suffering that they will inevitably see around them. But I have found that exposing them to it early teaches them to live in the world as it is, not as I wish it was.

Good luck.

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