Or is your house destined to look something like this during your child-rearing years?
Since publishing my book, Minimalist Living, and a few times pre-publication, I've gotten questions about how to live a minimalist lifestyle if you have kids. I didn't get into that topic in the book because a) we don't have kids yet and b) people willing to say they are successfully living a minimalist life with kids are few and far between.
From everything I've heard, the results of procreation are unpredictable. There's no way to know if you are going to give birth to neat-freak matching-sock-wearers, or if you are going to have a bunch of aspiring splatter artists. And if it's the latter, I'd be the last to tell you to crush their artistic dreams.
So let's turn to a minimalist parent who can speak to this mystery. I'm publishing portions of an email she sent on the topic. Thanks so much to this anonymous parent who wrote the following.
Moving as a Method to Keep Clutter Minimal
Our situation over the past few years has really necessitated that we keep the clutter down, but I don't know if we would be good at it otherwise --We have dealt with three overseas moves for one-year positions, and each time we've mailed maybe one or two boxes mainly of [my husbands] books and papers, and everything else we brought had to fit into suitcases. We were always moving into furnished places, so they came stocked with just the basics-- dishes, cooking things, bedding, towels, so we were bringing clothes, things we needed to work, like laptops, and a few favorite toys for the kids. If we were in Europe coming back to the US or Canada, we also brought lots of books in German or French, as they would be hard to get here, and we want to keep up the kids' language skills.
Traveling with the Maximum
I have to admit that we never really mastered packing light after we had kids. Once or twice, when it was just the two of us, we traveled to Europe for a couple of weeks with just a regular-sized backpack each (the school kind, not the camping kind), but for our longer stays with the kids, we brought as much luggage as was allowed without being charged extra, and it was always a disaster because it was more than we could carry and especially tough to get on and off of trains when traveling from the airport to whereever we were living, especially when dealing with 3-4 small children, always a stroller, and once with both one in a stroller and one in a baby bijorn. But it always made us realize that once there, we really couldn't accumulate any more stuff since there would be no room to bring it along, but I found I have really enjoyed minimalist living, and having less toys and kid stuff does mean less trouble cleaning up.
What to Do About Toys
Now, we are still in a temporary situation, but instead of the furnished rental places that were our last three places to live, we are renting a home from a family on sabbatical, so much of their stuff is still in the house, (which they've lived in for years as the three kids have grown up), including so many toys--it's impossible to keep up with it! In contrast, from 2010-2012, my kids' main playthings were a bunch of duplo legos and some small stuffed animal toys. But it was always enough to keep them entertained-- everyone liked to build things with the legos, and there were enough of them that everyone could have a project at once if they wanted. Usually the boys would build vehicles and then play with them. My older two children (now 9 and 7, but when we first moved in 2010 would have been 4 and 6), had about 4-5 beanie-baby sized animals and liked to act out imaginative stories with them, narrating their actions. Those two activities, plus reading and coloring made up just about all of their indoor activities and was really all that was needed. Now that we have the use of the extra toys, they get strewn about, but not really played with as much.
Gift-giving times like Christmas and birthdays are hard because I really want the kids to get to open gifts they are delighted with, but I dread having the extra stuff. Foreign-language books (and movies) are always worth it, so that they could keep up with their language skills, we felt they were worth stocking up on (and probably took up most of the luggage space on this last move). I always try to think in terms of consumable gifts, like arts and crafts supplies, or things that are so inexpensive we don't mind leaving them behind. If the grandparents are visiting for Christmas or something, I also give them strict instructions about what they're allowed to bring as gifts, and I always try to send them back with as much stuff as they bring-- for example, clothes that can be handed down to another kid or books we can save for later.
Pretend to Move Once a Year
I guess this doesn't really help someone in a situation of living somewhere permanently and wanting to control clutter-- they wouldn't be forced to give it up at the end of the year. Based on my experiences, my advice would have to be, "Once a year, get as many of your possessions as you can into one suitcase and one carry-on per person, and get rid of the rest!" but that's pretty impractical, and I'm sure I wouldn't do it if I weren't forced to. But I think I have probably become a lot more thoughtful about things I acquire, thinking ahead to what are we going to be doing with this thing a year from now -- do I really need it?
A Helpful Chant
When doing big clean-ups, I have to chant, "when it doubt, throw it out!" I think I tend to want to be a pack rat and save things, so it can be liberating to know you have to throw things out. My husband really wants to save every bit of artwork the kids produce - so much for the "consumable" art supply gifts! But really, all the pieces worth saving can fit into a large envelope. We just don't buy a lot of stuff (it's not really in our budget to, anyway), and I instruct Grandma not to, though it's hard for her!
Buy Second-Hand and Then Donate Again
When we lived with no car, we could walk anywhere we needed to go most of the time because [it]was such a small town, but something like a Wal-mart was a drive away. So if I needed something that would usually call for that kind of store, I'd first check out the local Salvation Army Thrift Store, which had a decent selection and the things there were pretty nice (I checked out the one near where we presently live, and things were not so nice!)-- for instance, I picked up an iron and ironing board for probably under $10 total, so it wasn't difficult to donate it back to the thrift store when we had to move.
When Grandmothers Get in the Way
Anyway, I had the younger kids with me all the time, and the thrift store also had toys, and my daughter would always pick out some stuffed animal that she badly wanted-- a large unicorn for instance, and even though it was only $1.99 or whatever. I'd say "no, we don't need that" realizing that it would become a precious friend that couldn't be left behind but wouldn't fit in a suitcase, and I'd feel pretty relieved that I had a good excuse not to have to bring the thing home. But on two different occasions, kindly grandmotherly types overheard, felt sorry for her, and came up and gave my daughter the money so that the poor girl could buy herself the huge unicorn or horse or whatever. Noooooo!
How to Get Your Kids to Part with Toys
We solved the problem at moving time by having a little girl friend of hers adopt them and promise to take good care of them, so it all worked out-- she got to have a couple of months of playing with them, and it wasn't so traumatic to part with them.
So, to those of you with offspring in their younger years, what do you say? Is it possible to live as a minimalist? Let us know in the comments, and PLEASE share any tips that have been helpful to you in this area (even if you aren't perfect or even close ;).
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