A few years before we had children, we went to the lake for a swim one summer day with some friends who had two kids about the same ages our children are now: four and almost one year. We marveled at (no, actually, we judged them for) the obscene amount of bags, accessories, and water equipment that accompanied us all on what would be a short hike through the woods to a swimming spot and, conservatively, about three and a half minutes of actual water time. “This will never be us,” we swore. “Never!”
I figured that January would be the perfect time to tackle the biggest question I am grappling with right now. How, oh how, did these self-righteous, previously childless ones get from there to the overburdened present? I was going to say that the answer is simple. We had kids.
But really it wasn’t just the mere fact of their arrival that put us here all by itself – almost everyone acknowledges that babies don’t need much more than nourishment, a clean diaper, a warm place to rest, and a loving touch. It is the way everyone (albeit generously) responds to the arrival of babies.
We shower expectant parents with stuff. Well-meaning websites make lists of all of the absolute necessities of impending parenthood and we buy it, registry and all. Despite our best efforts to the contrary, which I admit were hazy through the excitement of our first newborn, we loaded up on the baby gear without much cross-examination of necessity.
This brings me to an important moment in this purging process for us. In my first column about my family’s minimalist goals, I didn’t mean to, but I kind of evaded direct responsibility for accepting and choosing all of the many, many items that now plague me. I want to state, for the record, that we are responsible for what is here because we allowed it in. I realize what an enviable problem this is to have but it doesn’t make it any less real for us in this moment.
Bea Johnson, the author of “Zero Waste Home,” one of the study guides I’m using for our minimalist shift, puts the “Three R’s” into new perspective by adding at the top of her illustration this very important word: Refuse.
Adults understand what it feels like to be overwhelmed with objects (and the stress that usually accompanies that feeling). Why do we often assume that more is more when it comes to kids and their belongings? The good news is that I can help my own kids learn earlier than I did how to live more with less.
Here’s what we are dealing with when it comes to taking stock of the children’s things.
The toys, the many toys these children are blessed to have. Puzzles, art supplies, stuffed animals, trucks, Legos, a train set. The list goes on. Everything my daughter has is suddenly mortally dangerous to her baby brother – swallowable-size miniatures for her dollhouse or the Automoblox car wheels he keeps trying to eat. And the books – so many good stories for them, teaching them numbers and animals, humor, emotional intelligence, and art.
There are piles of clothes and gear they have grown out of in what seem like milliseconds, and still more piles of hair ties, tiny socks, and mittens – these things never seem to have their mates, or they disappear altogether at incalculable rates.
As we have slowly begun to donate and sell our belongings it is clear that, especially with kids’ stuff, the the rate of influx here is not proportional to the rate of outflow. The math doesn’t add up – there is just constant inundation. My own long-held principle of “one in, one out” rule now has to be adjusted to as my friend Jennifer put it, “one in, many out.”
So, how to clean house when you’re no doubt dealing with the flammable emotional state of toddlers / tweens / teenagers and their cherished belongings? I know we cannot do this with any success without the buy-in from our smallest yet most willful family members.
I wish I had a great answer. I have been minimally successful at this so far and Christmas set us back yet again. We slipped, as we all do at the holidays. “Oops, how did I end up eating another pecan caramel roll?” (Oh, right, I needed another cup of coffee). “Barbie, how did you get here?” (Santa brought you!?! Note to self: Christmas morning is not the time to quibble over feminist issues).
Our daughter Georgia did decide to donate a large bag of toys to a little girl whose mother was unable to fund her holiday due to illness. She chose to sell a few larger items that were less often used when we promised to put the money into her school fund (our pre-kindergarten daughter is prematurely serious about becoming a doctor). I certainly had a hand in this and there were many discussions about why everything was going where it would end up. I found the pre-holidays a good time to encourage even young children to donate less-used items – they are good at empathy and are actively learning about sharing.
For weeks, though, I’ve been churning with bigger, deeper questions: How do we make it a habit for them? And how do we train ourselves to help them live with, need and use less? How do we make it part of everyone’s DNA?
Yesterday, I sat with my son, Shepherd, determined to test my own theory on this. I decided to play with him with only one toy for as long as it would keep his interest. I expected that one toy would keep his infant attention for about five minutes, ten minutes, max.
I chose a nubby textured red rubber ball – simple, universally available. We passed it, he tried to shove it in his mouth, he tried bouncing it, rolling it, sitting on it, throwing it. He laughed at this thing as much as he does when he’s being tickled. It was totally, completely enough for him. Before I knew it an hour had passed and it was time to move on to snacks and his nap.
We both became absorbed in the simplicity of playing together, out of reach of any alarm clock or my distracting smartphone. He had my full attention and I had his. I don’t have a lot of triumphant parenting moments to catalogue but this was one of them. My little experiment to find joy in a single object worked for both of us. I only hope I can maintain the enthusiasm, and patience, to keep that up.
I am also keenly aware that not only am I responsible for what comes in to our home and what we purge, but also crucial is managing how we store, use, care for, and organize what we do keep in our new minimized spaces. I’m still wrangling to find the best methods for all the kids’ toys and books and clothes we do decide to keep. The internet has many useful sources, best among them, I found were at playfullearning.net
The thoughtful group of educators who write and curate this beautiful site are led by founder Mariah Bruehl. I am impatient to read almost every blog post. (Before binge-watching became a thing, I used to binge-read – how I miss those days!) The particular article that gave me some great new insights was a great primer on toy rotation written by contributor Adrienn Csoknyay. Her linear approach leaves room for one’s own unique application while still adhering to a minimalist method. Among the benefits she lists, toy rotation allows children the time and space to be imaginative and really explore the joys of few toys at a time.
My husband raised the most important point for me in this process. It’s not just that we need the kids to understand what we’re doing and be a part of it, we really can’t accomplish anything unless we do it together. The quality of unity that is motivating this change – our desire for more relaxed time as a family at home, in nature, out in the world – is the same factor that will ensure our success.
I had a dream last night during the slender window of time in which I sleep. I dreamt it was summer and my family was hiking through the woods. There we all were, towels slung around our necks and flip flops on our feet nothing else in hand, heading for an afternoon swim at the same lake we’d gone to with our friends years before.
As I’m dragging around all the loaded bags of clothes we will donate, boxes of books for the local library and used bookstore, I’m chasing the feeling I woke up with after that dream and I feel it every time I put one more bag or box in the garage to be hauled away. It’s a feeling of lightness and joy. Slowly, slowly, we are becoming unburdened.