Sunday, August 14, 2016

Why Are We Such Meanies? {In Defense of Toy Minimalism}

Delaney is holding a tiny stuffed animal in her hands with a plaintive look on her face. "It's only $5. Pleeaase, I'll pay you back." Those big brown eyes pull on anyone's heartstrings. She is still so simple in her likes, just a little child at nine years of age. She has so many stuffed animals, but this one is special. And it's only $5, so what's the big deal? It's so easy to say yes to these kinds of things and so hard to say no, even though our attempts to teach her to prioritize her wants through a weekly allowance have thus far resulted in scenarios like these. What's wrong with letting her have all the things? All the cute, cuddly little things she wants? Better that than the iPad she always talks about saving up for (with the money she can't wait to spend on stuffed animals).

Where do I start with all the reasons I should be a monster and tell her no? This is something that's been on my mind lately and thought I would try to organize my thoughts and share them here. This goes to the heart of what kind of people we are attempting to bring them up to be.

We want them to be grateful. When it comes to the kids, I use the expression "Easy come, easy go" a lot. It is well known that whenever things are easy to come by, you take them for granted. That's why if you give one of our kids a dollar for performing a small chore, we're likely to find it in the couch cushions later. It's the reason why game pieces are scattered to the four corners of the house and not picked up and put away. Gratitude is one of the hardest things to instill in our kids. When you expect things, when they know there will always be more, there's no need to keep track of them or put them in a safe place. They are fortunate enough that they have never had to do without anything, which is great. But somehow we have to try to raise them to be grateful and appreciative.

What are some ways we try to do this? Making sure they say "Thank you." Not giving them the thing they happen to want at the moment. By telling them no, or telling them maybe for Christmas or a birthday; or maybe they can save their allowance and buy it themselves. Delayed gratification. I struggle with this myself on a daily basis. My favorite blogs are always telling me about what clothing item or accessory will complete my wardrobe. There's a skin cream that's going to lift years off my haggard, sleep-deprived face. Anytime I walk through Target or TJ Maxx, I see the displays and think, 'I need that. OK, maybe I don't need it but I could really use it..' It is so hard to not be greedy. I have to walk on by, and I have to let them see me doing that. Even if it's on clearance! Is it a great deal if you have no business buying it in the first place? No, it's not.

We want them to be generous. It is more blessed to give than to receive. This concept comes more readily to some of us than to others. If Annie has a few dollars to spend, she looks for something she can share with Delaney and Timmy. It makes us so proud and we are always sure to tell her so. We want to raise generous kids who will become generous adults. Again it's up to us as parents to set the example. A portion of every paycheck is allotted to the church and to whatever other charities we feel moved to give to. We can always work on being more generous. As Mom always says, "God will never be outdone in generosity." In order to teach our kids generosity, they put some of their allowance into the "giving jar", some in the "saving jar", and the rest is theirs to do with whatever they want. We would love to see our kids who are not as naturally inclined toward generosity to learn the joy that comes from choosing to give.

Saying no to Delaney when she asks to borrow $5 to buy a stuffed animal is not going to help her learn generosity; but saying yes will probably feed into the selfishness that we're trying to discourage.

We want them to learn that having too many things is excessive and wasteful.

That's the best way I know how to put it. Things have gotten a little out of control, and not just in the stuffed animal category. Tim and I are always asking each other, as children of the '70s and '80s, did WE ever have this much stuff? It seems that everywhere we turn, crap is being thrust at our kids. We can't leave a birthday party without a swag bag full of dollar store toys. It might only be a dollar, but it's such a waste of a dollar. It will end up in my trash can or under their beds within hours. After a dental checkup the kids pick little plastic lizards or little guys on motorcycles, to go put in the little bag with their toothbrush, toothpaste and floss. Why? Even their teachers are in on the conspiracy. My kids in primary grades are rewarded for their behavior with a trip to the treasure box at the end of the day/week. Some will say, "That's better than candy that will rot their teeth." But why does the treasure box need to exist? Can't a verbal "Great job!" and note to your mom about what a good student you are be its own reward? What's the point of all this garbage? Why is it necessary to say "Good job!" or "Thanks for coming!" or "Way to sit in a chair while we look at your teeth!" with MORE STUFF?

My kids love it. The girls, especially, like to keep everything they get from everywhere. Their room, without our constant vigilance, quickly becomes full of what can only be characterized as debris. Tim likens them to little birds who are trying to build a nest. We find little bits of stuffing from inside things. Little scraps of paper. Stickers. Strings. Feathers. Fabric. Broken toys. Almost all of it is too big to be sucked up by a vacuum and they don't play with any of it. We don't even know where most of it comes from. When told to clean up, they might pick it up and put it in a basket, but it wouldn't occur to them to just throw it away. They seem to enjoy wallowing in it.

Some would argue that as long as it's in their own space, I should just close the door and not worry about it. But these are not the standards we want to raise them to have. Even nesting birds have a specific place and a purpose for all their little scraps, and that brings me to my next point:

We need order in our lives (and hope they will want it for themselves one day).

We have a bigger than normal family. More of us means more stuff, but it doesn't need to mean too much, and not all over. Everything has a place and everything needs to be in its place. If we have a container for widgets that's full, that means we don't need any more widgets. (And we don't need a bigger container either!)  If I give the girls a cute bin for the corner of the room for the purpose of holding stuffed animals, what does that mean? If it's full, they get no more unless they want to get rid of one or two. It does not mean the overflow goes on their beds and under their beds. If I designate a hanging shoe organizer for all her itty-bitty stuffies, what does that mean? Once all the little compartments are full she doesn't get any more unless she wants to throw away or donate one or two. There IS a such thing as enough. We require our kids to make their beds and keep their rooms picked up and things put away. If you have to clear a path from the door to your bed or to your closet, that is no way to live. While they are under our roof, they will not live that way. I hope they never do. Over the years we've learned that it's more manageable getting them to clean up when they have a minimum of toys and knicknacks.

Again, Tim and I lead by example. A big black trash bag sits outside the door to the garage, and as I'm going about my day, if I see something that we no longer need, that someone else can benefit from, it goes in the bag. I have no qualms about throwing things away if I determine that no one can benefit from them. Once in awhile, Tim has trouble closing his t-shirt drawer and realizes maybe he doesn't need 55 shirts and he can part with a few. I might decide a cute pair of sandals I wore in 2005 is probably not coming back, but if it does, I still don't need it. Maybe I'll scrutinize a piece of decor that I've been saving for the right house, and realize that I really don't like it anymore. We fill up one bag a month, I'd estimate.

Tim and I come under fire from time to time for the infamous appliance box full of toys and stuffed animals that got "lost in the move." Here's what happened: Once we'd unpacked most of the house and saw how much we already had, and how much the kids already had, we did not want to open this box. This box contained almost all the stuff that was in the kids' playroom in NC. We have no dedicated playroom here. We let it sit in the garage for a couple weeks while we deliberated. Finally, before either of us could open the box and change our minds, Tim put it in the back of his truck and took it to the Salvation Army. The kids asked about that box for awhile and I admit to feeling a little guilty. But do I regret that these things are not filling up every corner of the kids' rooms when it's already so hard to get them to clean up? Nope.

We want them to be responsible with money. 

As I already mentioned, they divide their allowance into savings, giving and spending. They earn their allowance by performing a few specific chores a week and just being helpful in general. When Tim sits them down to give them their allowance he asks them how much of the determined amount THEY think they've earned, and lots of hemming and hawing follows. Sometimes their allowance is docked, or maybe some of what would have been allocated for spending is put into giving based on the conclusion they come to about their performance in a given week. (This is all Tim by the way; I have no energy for this.)

Tim is a financial expert. Unlike me he is a born saver. Pre-Tim I was never in debt, but I was never goal-oriented in my saving and investing the way he is and pretty much always was. It took me a little while to come around to his way of doing things (i.e., recording our spending by category into Quicken and not spending in a way that hurts our longterm goals.) Before we merged our finances, I was lazy and shortsighted when it came to money. I wasn't bouncing any checks or carrying any credit card debt, and I figured that was good enough. But now I get it. We have to be managing his income, we have to know where it all goes, and we have to save for our future and our kids'.

Tim is trying to pass his ways onto them, but not with a whole lot of success. In a moment of weakness recently, I gave in to Delaney's request to borrow, but we've since decided her borrowing days are over. I hope that if we keep modeling responsibility with money, and keep enforcing our rules, eventually they will learn.

In conclusion..

I hope it's clear by now to my handful of dear readers that our intent is not to be mean parents or to turn our house into a boot camp. To be honest, I don't always know if we're doing the right thing. I'm nagged by guilt and worry sometimes. If Delaney winds up on an episode of Hoarders, it's going to be because of us. I hesitate to use the term "minimalist" because a quick Google of minimalism will tell you we're nowhere near that extreme; but I've heard people describe us using that term. Honestly, I can proudly own whatever degree of minimalism we embrace. But our ways have drawn criticism from family members, and some of it is probably deserved. Here we are trying to teach our children gratitude, but we must seem very ungrateful ourselves at times as we continuously purge our home of things, many of which were gifts from loved ones at one time or another. I have made, and will continue to make every effort to ensure our kids have space to keep the things they use, enjoy and cherish no matter how much we need to downsize at our next duty station (more on that later). And I never want to be a grinch when it comes to birthdays or Christmas.* I love watching them open presents, and am not just scheming about how quickly I can make them disappear.

How well do we uphold our lofty standards? Not always well. I fail time and time again. I've said yes to Delaney more times than I want to admit, and maybe told her no when I shouldn't have. Maybe I've gotten rid of some things that I shouldn't have, in moments of frustration (but nobody misses them). If you were to walk into my house right now, you would not see only clear, shiny surfaces and everything put away. Far from it. We're not perfect in this or in any area of life. We just do the best we can, and praise God these are the kind of problems we have and not how are we going to pay the bills or put food on the table.

It feels good to get that off my chest! Happy Sunday and New School Year Eve.

* I brought up the idea to Tim that maybe the next time we do a big birthday party for any of the kids, we can do a book swap like one of my friends in North Carolina did; or perhaps pick a charity for guests to donate to in lieu of gifts. But I would want the kids on board with that idea, and not force them to.


  1. This is fascinating to me because I often wonder where we stand on giving things to our kids. Our kids are definitely growing up in an age where materialism is a huge huge thing- things are bought at the click of a button and even teaching patience is different- my kids actually watched 'real' tv a few months ago and we had to explain why they had to watch commercials! In our family we try to reserve gifts for holidays. I am definitely guilty of going overboard at Christmas and birthdays but other than that we try not to buy much during the year. Of course there are times when we do but my favorite saying when the kids ask for something is to tell them to put it on their birthday/Christmas list. Maybe that's not teaching them everything bc they probably do still expect to receive it then but at least I am teaching them to wait and also that they have to prioritize when it comes to the holidays.

    The dentist comment was hilarious to me because while I feel the same way about my own kids- heck, you can't even go to the bank or hardware store around here without getting a sucker or popcorn or a sticker or something else, yet I'm guilty of it at my own practice. To be honest, we are actually taught to reward kids in dental school- and that no matter what they accomplish during the visit, they get a prize. I've actually even had parents suggest their kid get two prizes if they're 'really good' which always bugs me because it's putting me in an odd position- I will say that I HATE when they try to bribe them to be good because 1. It never works and 2. Isn't the expectation that they do try their best? Sorry, no kid is going to instantly 'behave' just because you promised them a trip to target.... Probably because the parents that do that so it way too often and the kids are accustomed to that saying 'easy come, easy go.' But- I'm not sure why we are taught to give them something- maybe just what our society has come to because of course why couldn't we just do a high five or say good job or something?!

    In terms of what my kids get from others, I try not to worry too much. My dad is a classic example of trying to reward the kids with money or treats and while it bugs me, I learned long ago I can't control what he does. The kids seem to know that's a 'grandpa thing' and if they do ask us to replicate what grandpa does, we tell them their reward is a job well done. I do try to give ideas to relatives for the holidays so that my kids are at least getting things they will play with. I struggle with that a little because I don't want to seem demanding or ungrateful but I also don't want a house full of things the kids won't use. We do a fair share of returning at Christmas and really don't ever replace with other things although as the kids get older I do wonder what they'll think about that- maybe donating would be the way to go. We also haven't done much donating yet because we're still passing down to my younger ones or my sisters kids but I do suspect a big toy donation in the next year or so as the kids do finally move away from certain toys so it will be interesting how they part with things. We do have a designated playroom and the kids know they can't have much outside that except for a few things in their rooms so I feel that helps corral the 'stuff' a little and they are really good at picking up and putting away and making sure we don't lose pieces to anything so I feel like at least they respect the toys they have.

    So, I would guess we're not quite minimal but we still try to be mindful and teach generosity and patience. It was music to my ears a while back when my oldest told my son that we weren't rich because people with kids can't be rich because kids take so much money with activities and food and clothes and then some fun things... I felt like I was doing a little bit okay knowing she didn't expect to get everything handed to her, lol! Sorry for the long response!

  2. Thank you, Jodi, for the nice, long response. It makes my day!

    I kind of put my foot in my mouth with the thing about the dentist office, and um, with a couple other things too, I'm sure.:) But I guess the dentist office goodies make them are really nice for those kids who dread the visit and hate sitting in that chair. My kids have never been afraid of the dentist, but I might be happy for them to have that little incentive if they were.

    If your kids are good at picking up and putting away, that is so much of the battle right there. I am always trying to make them understand, I wouldn't always be getting rid of things if they were putting them away neatly on their own. Our kids are naturally slobs, so it's an uphill battle for the two of us who want neatness and order.

    Thanks again for the comment. I always wonder how other people do it.

  3. I feel the same way. My kids don't even have a toy box! They have a bucket to keep outside toys (football, soccer ball, helmets for bikes etc) but they have one stand with little compartments to put coloring books and legos. I don't want to raise entitled children so teaching them to earn things is the best!

  4. I feel the same way. My kids don't even have a toy box! They have a bucket to keep outside toys (football, soccer ball, helmets for bikes etc) but they have one stand with little compartments to put coloring books and legos. I don't want to raise entitled children so teaching them to earn things is the best!

    1. Glad there's someone out there more extreme than me.;) Then you're keeping them outside too, for the most part.

  5. Great post, Rachael! You should check out the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. It's a very easy read and it's primarily about reducing your belongings to only those that are practical and useful, and those that you truly cherish (it isn't really about "tidying" as in cleaning). I shared the book with my girls and try to teach them that if they choose to keep something, they have to "respect" the item by "taking care of it" (the definition of "taking care of it" varies). If they don't take care of it, it must not be that important to them and it should be donated (it's a very different philosophy than making them clean up after themselves). We've also had long conversations about birthday and Christmas gifts (based on ideas from the book) - they don't have to feel obligated to keep something just because it was a gift. They can express their gratitude to the person who gave it to them, then in private they acknowledge the sentiment behind the gift and "thank" the item for serving its purpose and then choose to pass it along. I know it sounds a little wacky, and the book is a little "out there" (the author suggests that you should empty your purse very night so it can "rest"), but the message is very clear. Every time we purge, we ask "does this item bring me joy?" :) And as you know, my home is hardly ever tidy or orderly, but we've never lost a game or puzzle piece, or shoes, or anything for that matter! Obviously, my kids are older, but I think it's a conversation you could start having even when they're young, and then it's less a "mandate" and more a philosophy.

    Oh, and I also wanted to share what we do with our charitable giving. A few years ago, the girls chose a few causes they were interested in (an animal shelter, the food pantry, and a children's hospital). They put money in the "jars" whenever they receive cash (they don't get an allowance), and every few months or so, we count it up, I match whatever they've contributed, and we donate it (sometimes we go shopping for certain items and deliver them, which they love). They're very invested in it and it's a lot of fun - they always want to beat how much we donated last time.

    Sorry for the long comment! Your posts always remind me what life was like when the girls were younger (which seems like a total blur these days)! Enjoy! <3

    (Don't ask about my comment ID - I have no idea how to change it!)

    1. LOL - you probably had no idea that this is Sam! :)

    2. Hi Sam! Thanks for the comment!

      I have heard of that book, but I haven't gotten my hands on it yet. Now I am intrigued, and I want to share it with the girls like you did. Having it be "less of a mandate and more of a philosophy" with them.. That would change things, for sure. Then they wouldn't be packrats as a reaction to us and our ways. I'm going to have to check out that book.

      I like your method for charitable giving too. On a sidenote, I have to say I am so impressed by your girls. They are so sweet and helpful and just nice to be around. You must be so proud.