How to Raise a Min­i­mal­ist

Real Simple - - Contents - By Lisa Arm­strong

Strate­gies to help your kids look be­yond stuff

YOU LOVE YOUR CHIL­DREN. THE AVALANCHE OF STUFF THAT SEEMS TO COME WITH THEM? NOT SO MUCH.

HELP THEM FEEL MORE JOY WITH FEWER THINGS.

IF YOU’RE LIKE MANY Amer­i­cans, chances are your fam­ily is swim­ming in stuff: toys, clothes, tro­phies, elec­tron­ics, cheap plas­tic fig­urines. To af­ford this abun­dance is a priv­i­lege, of course, but when it comes to our kids, we’re a na­tion of over­con­sumers. The U.S. is home to just 3.1 per­cent of the world’s chil­dren but con­sumes 40 per­cent of the world’s toys. Re­searchers in Los An­ge­les went into 32 homes to cat­a­log the over­con­sump­tion epi­demic: In one child’s room alone, they counted 165 Beanie Ba­bies, 36 fig­urines, 22 Bar­bie dolls, three porce­lain dolls, 20 other dolls, one troll, and a minia­ture cas­tle. (“Where was every­thing else hid­ing?” you might ask.)

Much of this stuff is around for an osten­si­bly sweet rea­son: We buy lots of toys, clothes, and other items for chil­dren to make them happy. Un­for­tu­nately, this can back­fire. All the clut­ter can ac­tu­ally over­whelm chil­dren and add to stress, says Kim John Payne, a fam­ily coun­selor and the au­thor of Sim­plic­ity Par­ent­ing: Us­ing the Ex­tra­or­di­nary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Hap­pier, and More Se­cure Kids. What’s best for kids, says Payne, might be teach­ing them to have only what they need and to keep those few be­long­ings or­ga­nized. It’s not just about be­ing neat: “Keep­ing a room or house or­derly can make your life feel more or­derly,” he says. In other words, calm and fo­cused sur­round­ings can help your child stay calm and fo­cused too.

The perks of min­i­mal­ism could even reach into your child’s fu­ture. “The prac­ti­cal ben­e­fits of own­ing less are more money, more time, more calm, more free­dom,” says blog­ger Joshua Becker, a fa­ther of two and the au­thor of The Min­i­mal­ist Home (out next month).

Plus, learn­ing to con­sume less is a way to prac­tice dis­ci­pline, a skill that makes it a lot eas­ier to be­come a re­spon­si­ble adult. “Kids who don’t learn to ex­ist within bound­aries may be­come adults who don’t set them,” says Becker.

But in a cul­ture of con­sumerism, how do you raise a min­i­mal­ist? How do you teach chil­dren, who are bom­barded with mes­sages from me­dia and peers that they need the lat­est toy or pair of sneak­ers, to be con­tent with fewer things? Some ideas ahead.

Why Do Kids Want So Much?

At­tach­ment to toys, blan­kets, and other ob­jects is a nat­u­ral stage of child de­vel­op­ment. Be­tween 6 and 12 months, ba­bies of­ten form emo­tional at­tach­ments to what psy­chol­o­gists call “tran­si­tional ob­jects”—items that help com­fort them as they tran­si­tion from be­ing emo­tion­ally de­pen­dent on par­ents and care­givers to hav­ing a bit more in­de­pen­dence. Kids de­velop a sense of own­er­ship by age 2 (the “mine!” stage), and by age 6 they learn to place spe­cial value on the things they own.

While at­tach­ment to one or two spe­cial toys is a healthy part of be­ing a kid, the mes­sage that it’s best to have a lot of pos­ses­sions is learned. “Kids of­ten learn about ‘stuff’ from us,” says Jes­sica Mayo, PhD, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of clin­i­cal child psy­chol­ogy at the Child Study Cen­ter at the Yale School of Medicine. “If one of the main ways we show our kids that we love them, or that we think they are good or spe­cial, is to buy them things, kids will cer­tainly be pay­ing at­ten­tion to how of­ten they get some­thing new.”

Don’t worry: It’s not just you—it’s also the me­dia. “No child is born want­ing an Xbox or Bar­bie,” says Tim Kasser, PhD, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Knox Col­lege in Gale­burg, Illi­nois, and the au­thor of The High Price of Ma­te­ri­al­ism. “What hap­pens is that via ex­po­sure to other kids and the me­dia, they come to be­lieve that cer­tain prod­ucts will make them hap­pier or more pop­u­lar or help them fit in.

That’s what ads are de­signed to do— cre­ate de­sire for cer­tain prod­ucts.” Of course, most of us watched TV grow­ing up too, with plenty of ads for the lat­est baby doll run­ning dur­ing Sat­ur­day morn­ing car­toons. But kids to­day spend an un­prece­dented amount of time in­ter­act­ing with me­dia. A re­cent study from Com­mon Sense Me­dia found that the av­er­age tween spends six hours per day look­ing at a screen.

Lay­ing the Foun­da­tion

The best way to have chil­dren adopt a lifestyle is to live that way your­self. “Pro­mot­ing a lifestyle of min­i­mal­ism is no dif­fer­ent from pass­ing along any value to our chil­dren,” says Becker.

“We want them to be hard­work­ing, self­less, car­ing, jus­tice-minded in­di­vid­u­als. Pro­mot­ing these val­ues al­ways oc­curs the same way: We model it, we teach it, we cor­rect when nec­es­sary, and we re­ward pos­i­tive be­hav­ior.”

The ideal win­dow: be­fore age 6. Dur­ing those early years, kids are like sponges, soak­ing up skills and habits by im­i­tat­ing what they see oth­ers do, says Payne. But even if your child is older, it’s im­por­tant to lead by ex­am­ple.

The first step is to de­clut­ter your own

Start with the eas­i­est and most lived-in rooms so you’ll quickly see re­sults and feel mo­ti­vated, says Becker.

Are you and yours strug­gling to part with things? Try the self-anal­y­sis rec­om­mended by or­ga­niz­ing ex­pert June Saruwatari, au­thor of Be­hind the Clut­ter: Truth. Love. Mean­ing. Pur­pose. (Hint: The sys­tem is the sub­ti­tle of her book.) Start with the truth; the truth of the space—a closet, for in­stance—is that it can only hold so much. Then de­ter­mine if you re­ally love the item (or ask fam­ily mem­bers to). Fi­nally, de­cide what the item means and fig­ure out what pur­pose it serves.

“Things are sym­bols. They rep­re­sent dreams and goals, like ‘I’m hold­ing on to these pants be­cause I want to lose weight,’ ” says Saruwatari. “If you get to the root cause of just one thing you’ve been hold­ing on to, you’ll of­ten fig­ure out the rea­son you’re hold­ing on to all of it. It’ll re­lease the emo­tional dam, the block­ages as­so­ci­ated with stuff.”

If your chil­dren feel you’re un­fairly mak­ing them ditch every­thing they love, give them to­tal do­min­ion over a clearly de­fined space: say, a closet or con­tainer where they can keep any­thing they want—as long as it all fits within that phys­i­cal bound­ary. Every­thing else goes. “When my son was 5 and we first be­gan pur­su­ing a min­is­paces.

mal­ist lifestyle, we told him he could keep what­ever toys he wanted as long as they fit against one wall,” says Becker.

But also? Don’t for­get that it’s your right and re­spon­si­bil­ity as a par­ent to push back some­times. “I have never feared say­ing no to my kids. It’s healthy for them for me to say, ‘No, you can’t have that. We don’t have space for that,’ ” says Becker.

Why Lim­it­ing Me­dia Is Cru­cial

The ex­perts agree that one of the most im­por­tant ways to help kids have a health­ier re­la­tion­ship with stuff is to limit screen time: Lim­ited ex­po­sure to me­dia means lim­ited ex­po­sure to ad­ver­tis­ing. It’s a ne­go­ti­a­tion all par­ents of screen-lov­ing kids have to man­age them­selves, but the Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atrics says that screen time should be avoided for chil­dren younger than 18 months and lim­ited for older chil­dren.

“Re­search shows that, on av­er­age, chil­dren younger than 12 do not un­der­stand per­sua­sive in­tent,” says Kasser. “They don’t un­der­stand that the per­son in the ad is be­ing paid to sell things.” When they were 2, Kasser started ex­plain­ing to his chil­dren that the peo­ple in ads were just act­ing, and that the prod­ucts they were sell­ing would not make them any hap­pier.

Restrict­ing me­dia has worked for Lizzi Sofge and her hus­band, Alan, of New York City. They have al­ways reg­u­lated screen time for their chil­dren, Am­ber, 18, Camila, 10, and Lucas, 6, and they limit TV to week­ends and movie nights. “They don’t see a lot of com­mer­cials—they don’t want what they don’t know ex­ists,” says Lizzi.

While it might be tough to re­duce screen time for kids who are al­ready

“No child is born want­ing an Xbox or Bar­bie. They come to be­lieve that cer­tain

prod­ucts will make them hap­pier.”

ac­cus­tomed to a cer­tain num­ber of hours per day, ex­perts say it’s like any­thing else with par­ent­ing: Some­times you just have to set a limit and stick with it. Find other ac­tiv­i­ties—board games, crafts, read­ing—to en­gage in as a fam­ily: Your kids might roll their eyes at first, but you’ll even­tu­ally find some­thing you all have fun do­ing to­gether.

Lizzi Sofge grew up in the Do­mini­can Repub­lic, where as a child she en­ter­tained her­self by play­ing out­doors. She wanted her chil­dren to have a sim­i­lar child­hood, to value ex­pe­ri­ences more than toys, so the fam­ily spends money on go­ing to the theater, for ex­am­ple, rather than things.

There’s also a prac­ti­cal rea­son for their min­i­mal­ism: “We live in a twobed­room apart­ment and need to be very con­scious of what comes in,” says Sofge. “It has to be some­thing they re­ally want and re­ally need.” The kids know to re­spect their par­ents’ lim­its.

The Gift Co­nun­drum

To avoid get­ting a del­uge of toys, clothes, and other stuff for hol­i­days or birth­days, ex­perts say to ask rel­a­tives and fam­ily friends for ex­pe­ri­ences in­stead of things. The key is to be spe­cific. Cas­san­dra Lar­son, a mother of three in Fort Atkin­son, Wis­con­sin, states ex­act­ly­what her chil­dren would like to do: “Gifts are not nec­es­sary, but if you would like to give one, [child] would be so happy if you gave money to­ward [such-and-such ex­pe­ri­ence].” Sofge has asked fam­ily and friends not to give her chil­dren gifts, pe­riod. They get three gifts each from Santa at Christ­mas, as well as cash to do­nate to some­one in need. Sofge says that the first year the fam­ily did this, her chil­dren weren’t quite on board, and the youngest wanted to knowwhy he couldn’t spend the money on toys for him­self. Last year, they felt great about giv­ing the money to an im­mi­grant in need who works near their school.

Is It Ever Too Late?

Truth time: If chil­dren haven’t been raised from the get-go to be min­i­mal­ists, it can be dif­fi­cult to teach them to adopt that lifestyle as tweens and teens. Lisa Ge­orge of Cobb County, Ge­or­gia, said her 16-year-old son, Dez, was the first grand­child in her fam­ily and was show­ered with toys and clothes. He learned to as­so­ciate things with love and of­ten didn’t value the toys and clothes he had, she says.

Around the time Dez was 8, Ge­orge re­al­ized the amount of stuff was get­ting out of hand and it was time to make a change. She started by go­ing through Dev’s closet with him and dis­cussing whether he truly needed each item, ex­plain­ing that things he rarely used could go to peo­ple who needed them. “If you have 20 pairs of shoes and are only wear­ing five, you could be help­ing 15 other peo­ple,” she told him.

In­ter­est­ingly, Kasser’s re­search re­veals that peo­ple who care about im­age and pop­u­lar­ity are more likely to be ma­te­ri­al­is­tic, while those who fo­cus more on per­sonal growth and com­mu­nity don’t worry as much about hav­ing things. Help­ing your child fo­cus on those pos­i­tive val­ues can also help her deal with jeal­ousy she might feel when kids show up at school with the lat­est cool gad­get: “En­cour­age her to feel grat­i­tude for what your fam­ily al­ready has and learn you don’t have to be like ev­ery­one else,” he says.

Ge­orge en­cour­aged Dez to get an af­ter-school job last year to earn spend­ing money. He says that it’s helped him con­sider whether he re­ally wants some­thing be­fore pur­chas­ing it, and that he cares for the items he buys be­cause he un­der­stands that hours of work made it pos­si­ble for him to have them. The jour­ney to min­i­mal­ism has been a grad­ual one, but the fam­ily has started spend­ing money on hob­bies and trips rather than stuff. The re­sult: hap­pier par­ents and a hap­pier kid.

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