Living Simply with Kids: Knowing When to Say When

Toy Room

This weekend, our family watched the movie Babies together.

In the opening scene, two toddlers sit playing, focussed and quiet. In front of each is a large stone onto which each boy bangs and grinds a smaller stone.

Seeing these two boys playing in such a focussed manner with a couple of rocks, a question came to mind: How much stuff do my kids really need?

I asked my husband, who didn’t have a specific answer but was convinced our children have too much stuff. He and I went into the toy room that night and took away a shape sorter and two games to make room for the wooden train set our son is getting for Christmas. The rest of it stayed. It all seemed to have a use.

I asked my daughter about the boys and the rocks and if she thought she and her brother had more toys than they needed. She looked at me suspiciously.

“You could give your extra toys to those boys in the movie,” my husband suggested. My daughter shook her head.

“No. They’re too far away. And they get to play with rocks and bones and things, so they don’t need other toys.”

“What if I got some rocks and bones for you guys to play with? Would you need fewer toys then?” I asked.

“No.”

And that’s all I got out of her.

We have more than we need, toy-wise, but we’re not inundated (for now). We have guidelines about electronic toys and noisemaking toys and character toys (except for a few small Elmos and Winnie-the-Poohs), and that keeps a lot of stuff out of the house in the first place. Every few months the kids and I go through and set aside a box or two full of toys that they’d like to pass on to other kids. I’ll make suggestions to get things going, but I do my best to let them drive the purge. And so far, it’s worked well. My kids actually seem pretty excited about picking out toys for hypothetical toyless children.

But it’s not just the toys. As homeschoolers, we have the time and opportunity to engage in a huge number of enriching activities.  Even with just a few activities, we’ve got too much going on, but I feel nervous when I turn down any opportunity. Material possessions I don’t feel too bad parting with. Experiences are tougher for me.

There’s a chapter about families in Janet Luhrs’ The Simple Living Guide. In this chapter, Luhrs describes a situation in her own life that was quite similar to my kids-and-rocks moment (and that, oddly, also involved rocks) and that led her to feel similarly torn between scheduling enriching activities and scheduling enriching unstructured time.

“After much soul searching,” Luhrs writes, “I opted for conscious balance. Conscious balance means that I am fully aware of my motivations for making choices. If the choice is based on insecurity, I look hard at the insecurity.”

She already had my attention, but my ears really pricked up at her mention of insecurity.

Insecure is exactly what I feel when I think of my kids missing out on any of the dozens of wonderful but time-consuming activities. I know we need unstructured play time and recharge time from all of the interaction and stimulus of being out and about. But what if I throw in my lot with the homeschool co-op and my daughter ends up not making any close friends there? Would she have been better off at Girl Scouts? Is that where her future best friend is, just waiting for my daughter to find her? If we choose the wrong activity, how will we ever find her? As though there’s just one best friend out there for my daughter and it’s my responsibility to seek her out and bring us to her. That’s a remarkable amount of pressure.

I have to realize that my kids don’t have these worries. They’re in it for the fun. And I’d be willing to bet we’d all be happier and less stressed if I were in it for the fun, too. One of my college religion profs used to say, “You can’t dance at every wedding.” Right now, I’m not dancing at any of them. While everyone else dances around me, I’m sitting in the corner, tired and overwhelmed and worried that the wedding I chose not to attend is where I really ought to be.

The truth, if I choose to accept it, is this: If things are in balance and we’ve followed our values, my kids and I are where we’re supposed to be, no matter what we choose to do.

And the toys? Well, that’s a work in progress.

3 comments

  1. Melanie Meadors · December 12, 2011

    It took me a long time to let things go. Of course, I have the added “benefit” of having a son who is developmentally delayed, so there was an impetus there. He had stronger needs for me to let go of the things I thought he “should be doing.” I do have angst over friends and stuff, but as time goes by, I can see that I have underestimated him. When he is ready for that lasting friendship, he will just do it. I used to feel like it was a race, that friendships were a limited resource, that once all the friends were taken, there would be no more. But if that were true, well, I probably wouldn’t have any friends. I make new friends, old friends fall away as they go through different journeys in their lives. I think back on my best friend when I was six, the one I had for two years, until I met a new one, and really, I have absolutely nothing in common with him anymore. My next best friend was longer lasting, but we had a falling out around jr. high, and that was when I met my friend who still is my friend. I guess she is my best friend because she is always there, and even after I moved away for several years, when I came back, she was STILL there. Friendship just happens. You’ll kill yourself if you try to engineer things, it never works.

    As far as the toy thing goes, After reading Simplicity Parenting, we went through and took a whole ton of Elijah’s toys, and put them in the attic. We didn’t ask him, we just did it as an experiment. He hasn’t missed a single one! Hasn’t even asked for them. Now as some time went by, I see that there is still more room for culling. I think it makes a big difference for him (and I’m not saying this is the case for everyone), he has way less stress and anxiety the less cluttered his surroundings are. Even shelves that look full seem to be too much for him, and I didn’t notice this until after we emptied things and saw the difference. I really like that book and I’m trying to implement a lot of things from it.

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    • CJ · December 12, 2011

      I really like your comment about thinking of friendship as a limited resource. I definitely have a sense of scarcity around friendship. But when I think about it, that’s not really something that can be limited, can it? It’s in the same realm as love, I think, which just grows and grows.

      I have Simplicity Parenting on hold at the library! I’m even more excited to get it now that you’ve endorsed it! Even the little bit of culling we’ve done seems to have made a difference in how the kids play, and I look forward to trying some new things, too. It was so much easier when we were in our little apartment. We simply didn’t have room for so much stuff. Of course, the cats were also extra neurotic because of the close quarters and I had the pricey hourly fee for the cat behaviorist (which is another story entirely), but at least we had less space to fill with toys than we have now.

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      • Melanie Meadors · December 12, 2011

        I think it was just kind of amazing how Elijah’s play changed when we put away the toys that had….I’m not sure what to call it. You know, like Batman, or things that already have a story or plan to them? Lego City, rather than plain Legos to build however you want, see what I mean? He sudden became amazingly creative (even more so than he was). Over the next few weeks I’m planning on doing even more, and seeing how things turn out. I am even going to cull some books (gulp). Elijah loves reading, but I notice that if there are too many books on the shelf he feels overwhelmed and doesn’t know what to pick. I hope you enjoy reading it. I have Kim’s mp3s, too, but haven’t listened to them all yet.

        OK, have to stop sitting and go upstairs. Back is cramping….(too much bending over making gifts today!)

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