The Law of Familiarity

You have probably observed this Law a hundred times.  You get a child a neat toy,  you put it out where they can see it, and after a day or two of using it non-stop, they leave it alone.  They never seem to notice it in the middle of the room anymore.

This is what I call the Law of Familiarity.

We observed this law when my kids’ granddaddy bought them a little rocking horse for Christmas.  It was so cute.  It was one of these updated vintage-style horses with a red rocker part and even a saddle.  It was smiles and cheers when Granddaddy brought it over, and my four-, three-, and two-year old battled it out constantly to try it.  And yet, after about a week in the bedroom, the poor little horse was abandoned, never to be rode again.

(I have seen the same thing happen in our church nursery with toddler pianos, learning stations, etc.)

So this was really sad, but then I stumbled on something interesting.  When I put it away in the basement because I was tired of tripping on it (unused) in my boys’ room, they made a beeline for it when I took them down there to do the laundry one day.  Sure enough, each time we visited the basement, it renewed its source of contention.  I realized that the removing of it, and subsequent reappearance, renewed their interest… and why not?  It was cute, but the cuteness wasn’t relevant for a toddler.  The inspiration of it–only triggered by seeing it afresh–was what they needed.

Adults experience this Law as well.  How many times do you go out shopping because you’ve seen the same clothes in  your closet for years on end?  Or you look at your house decorations and you’re tired of the way things look.  Or maybe it’s your bookshelf–a dozen books on there you’ve never read but have looked at for so many years that you can’t muster the desire to pick it up?  Well, little children experience the same thing, but more drastically.

Therefore, there are ways to making this work to your advantage.  One of my friends long ago suggested to me the method of boxing up several groups of toys and putting them on rotation.  And this has worked for us, largely.  (If you re-issue some toys that haven’t been seen in awhile and your kids still won’t play with them, they’ve probably outgrown them.)  This was the case with the rocking horse, and it works particularly well with very large toys or very messy ones with lots of pieces that will get scattered around if they are bored with them.

But we’ve also found other ways to make this work.  For example,

  • We don’t give them lots of presents at one time at Christmas or their birthday.  One or two at one time, and then another one or two later, works much better.  Give them a chance to experience (and “outgrow”) one before you flood them with more.
  • Sometimes we give them a miniature or harmless version of something real that they’re not supposed to touch.  This works really well for young toddlers.  Give them your old cell phone so they don’t want your real one (as much).  Or a toy toilet, vacuum, blender, or whatever it is that really attracts them.  For our older toddlers, we got them a play-doh set with some harmless scissors so they could practice.  Or give them their own books when they reach for yours.  The more they are familiar with what they like, and get a taste of it on their own level, the more they will leave your stuff alone.  (At least, enough for you to not be driven crazy–of COURSE every child will learn the difference between their toy phone and your real one =)
  • We try to teach our babies to leave stuff alone by leaving it out, rather than by taking it away.  This can be annoying at first, but it works better, ultimately.  Of course we don’t leave anything that would be truly harmful to the child in their way.  Or things they aren’t old enough to understand.
  • During the day, we don’t put all their toys out at once, but we store them in buckets in a closet which they are required to ask for, when they want to switch.  Just the simple act of asking makes them more desirable than if they were all reachable at any time.  How many people realize that a toychest or storage drawer is simply ignored as the kids wander around all bored and getting in your way?  You feel like they are unthankful for what they have, but really they just don’t appreciate it because they aren’t seeing them afresh.  Make it less familiar and they will want them again.  (And clean them up, if possible.  I find that the kids really do respond with more interest to a clean room or clean closet better than a jumbled mess.)

There is one exception to the Law of Familiarity, and that is a toy that is very noisy, or one with many moving parts.  If a toy is annoyingly noisy or moveable, they will almost always gravitate towards that first, even if you leave it out.  For example, it was inevitable that my older toddlers would go right for the baby’s Exersaucer every morning… because it had this rolly thing with plastic beads in it that would make this awful rattling sound when you spun it.  They’d roll and roll it until I was at my limit, and then they’d leave it alone for awhile.  Then they’d come back and do it again.  We also had a bead-racer and one of those hand mazes on the wall where you move the parts up and around (like in the doctor’s office), and they always ran for that too.

I believe this was because they provided easy stimulation, visually and/or auditorally.  It was easy to make a lot of noise or push things up and down, and those toddlers were seeking stimulation.  When they’d get bored, they’d go do it again, for a stimulus reboost.  This is totally normal, but probably a sign that what they really need is something to do and are just thinking/transitioning.  I didn’t want to move the Exersaucer or correct the kids for touching it, but it was awfully loud and annoying, so I usually redirected them.   But suffice it to say, keep this in mind because it is hard to get a child to become familiar enough with something that is noisy to leave it alone.  It works almost all the time, however, with regular objects.

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