After a childhood of hoarding every possible toy, gadget, music box, doll, hairbrush, puzzle, clothing item, and book that I could until things started to fall on me when I opened the doors to my very large closet, I came to the realization that I no longer owned these items. Rather, they owned me and I didn’t like it. The summer after college, I found myself staring with dread all of the things that I had held onto. I felt emotionally drained by having to go over the hundreds, possibly thousands, of individual items that had collected over nearly two decades in that bedroom. I worked on a little bit each day, dreading the task of looking at these items that I had deemed so important at one point. After a few weeks of attempting to de-clutter, I started to fantasize about someone breaking into my parents house and robbing us of everything in my closet that I no longer wanted while considerately leaving behind the items I still wanted. Sadly, that dream never came true and I had to face the mess I had created for myself over the course of that summer.
As a young adult, I showed a bit more restraint in what I acquired and held onto, discarding things every few years as I moved apartments. Yet in 2017 when my husband and I moved out of our last apartment into a storage unit to go travel the world, I realized that I had actually repeated at a smaller scale the mistakes of my childhood. Instead of toys, I had superfluous kitchen gadgets that had been gathering dust for years; my sticker collection no longer had metallic stars but breweries and outdoor gear brands on them that I was never going to do anything with in reality (but liked to think I might one day find that perfect water bottle to stick them onto). These things did not truly bring me joy; they added clutter and frustration to my life, as I had found myself constantly re-arranging things to tidy them or try to make them fit in our limited drawer space. Lesson learned: the moment you find yourself tidying your house all day and it still does not feel any cleaner, you probably have too much stuff. Some people react to this problem statement by saying “I need a larger house;” my reaction now is to say “I have too much stuff and I need to downsize.”
So, my husband and I got rid of over half of our things two years ago and it felt amazing. Then, we proceeded to live out of a backpack for nearly five months, and I realized how little that I need to be happy. Prior to leaving on my travels, I had started to become interested in minimalism, the act of living only with the bare minimum what you need and use, and began to read popular minimalist blogs like The Minimalists, Be More with Less, Becoming Minimalist, and Zen Habits. I also became interested in the financial freedom/early retirement movement and living life more frugally to reduce my day-to-day living costs and empower me to get to a place where I could do any job I wanted to, not just the job that could pay my bills. Mr. Money Mustache and The Frugalwoods also made a big impact on me, and I realized how closely these two movements dovetail. If you only buy the minimum of what you need, you spend less money buying things, maintaining things and storing things. The beauty of this is that it frees up that money to go towards other things, like financial freedom or experiences with your family that will bring me far more joy than any item ever could.
Then, my husband and I started thinking about starting a family, and panic struck because I saw no examples around me of people raising a child in a minimalist fashion. Every child that I know has a bedroom that looked like mine as a child; stuffed to the gills with cheap plastic toys and synthetic stuffed animals made in Asia, all of which are doomed to eventually end their lives in the landfill. This makes me cringe for two reasons; first off, I am worried about the impact of our overconsumption on global warming and I am terrified of bringing a child into a world whose future feels so uncertain. Second, I have struggled so much personally with having too much stuff and I do not want my child to struggle with the same battles from which I have spent most of my life trying to escape from the moment they are born. I do not want my child to have a dozen cheap, polyester filled stuffed animals, of which one will inevitably be the favorite and the one they play with most while the others gather dust on a shelf and then eventually end up in a landfill, because most non-profits will not accept used stuffed animals. Rather, I want them to have a single, high-quality stuffed animal made from natural fibers that they will love with all of their heart.
Some people are of the opinion: “If one is good, then two is better.” Here, I disagree; I personally find joy in simplicity and making fewer decisions each day. If I have only one of something, then I spend less time in making unimportant decisions, saving my cognitive thinking for things that truly do matter. Research shows that more choice makes us less happy; having two choices might make us happier than a single choice, but any more than two options, and our happiness with the decision we make goes down. If you aren’t familiar with this concept, check out the book The Paradox of Choice. Plus, I fundamentally do not believe that children need lots of toys to be happy. I have watched children at play and they are extremely creative; they do not need a bunch of purpose-built toy to have fun. They will take anything around them and turn it into a game; cardboard boxes are a favorite of cats and children alike, because a box can become anything in a child’s mind: a car, a space ship, a cave. Scarcity breeds creativity.
When I started looking for people blogging about how people tackled raising kids with less stuff, I initially struggled to find much content. In googling “minimalist parenting,” I found a lot of people talking about how to be more relaxed with rules, moving away from the hover parent movement, but little about how to raise a kid with a minimal amount of stuff in our consumer-driven culture. Then, my best friend pointed me towards a blog that Mr. Money Mustache wrote that really resonated with me:
“Kids need to really know their parents, and live in a warm and loving environment. And not just furnace-warm, I’m talking about skin, soil, and sunshine-warm. Kids will thrive when they live in a forest of the arms and legs of their parents and siblings, and when their most prized playthings include dirt, water, rocks, and plants. They grow when they learn by observing the laughs and singing and patiently resolved disputes of the family and friends around them.” – Mr. Money Mustache
His overall message in the blog is that kids don’t need expensive things to be happy; rather, they need you, and if by spending less money on things, you can work less and spent more time with them, your children will be far better off for it. Another thing I would add to that is the less things that you and your child own, the less time you each will spend tidying and maintaining those items, freeing you up to do more enjoyable things together. I don’t think any one looks back at their childhood and fondly remembers cleaning up messes with their parent. I remember my mom coming in to help me clean my room after I melted down at the enormity of the task in front of me and while I appreciated her help, it was not fun and I got infinitely more pleasure out of helping her in the kitchen, doing art projects or playing outside with her. Life does not have to be all fun and games, but it also does not have to be all chores either if you structure your life right.
So, the challenge that lays before me is how do I navigate our consumerist culture to raise a child that aligns with my values and the life I want to create for my family, when that desired lifestyle it so at odds with mainstream culture? How do you explain to friends and family at birthdays and holidays that the gift they want to give your child is not desired or goes against the lifestyle that we are trying to create for our family? For years, this question has plagued me and I almost opted out of having children because there seemed to be no clear answer on how to do this without hurting feelings. It seemed easier to not have a child than to have one and try to raise it in alignment with my values when those clash so much with the consumerist culture we live in. After years, I realized that the only way to change the world is to live in it and if I was going to help our world shift from a culture focused on things to one focused on people and experiences, that I had to figure out how to break with tradition and to be an example for others of an alternative way of raising children. While we may have the money to buy a big house and fill it with stuff, we will chose not to. While we could buy our kids every toy they covet, we will emphatically chose not to, because we believe that our family and the world we live in will be better off for it.
I plan to try to share our lessons learned and the things we try to do in order bring minimalism into our child’s life. We’re due in September and I look forward to sharing our journey, and lessons learned along the way!