The idea for a post on how to be a minimalist (with a “generous” extended family) has sat in my ideas folder for quite some time, but as Christmas approaches, as well as a move, it seems an especially fitting time to reflect upon all the stuff that has accumulated in our lives, and all of the stuff that is yet to come. Note: if you know me and you think this post is written about you specifically, you’re wrong. This post is written about a lot of people just like you.
First, the title ‘minimalist’ varies from person to person, so for the sake of this post, I’m going with the definition given at The Minimalists:
Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.
Life’s excess most often takes the form as STUFF. In an effort to not be STUFF focused, I try to only buy what we need or what I or my family can truly enjoy. Because there are seven members of this family all with different needs and wants, likes and dislikes, we still have quite a bit of stuff lying around. And while I’m known to cast away items with nary a second thought, there are the sentimentalists and hoarders hiding in the ranks of my home who carefully hide their treasures and keepsakes. I don’t impose minimalism on my family like a dictator, but try to model it the best I can. I also think the term minimalism is just the latest in a string of ways to make simple, intentional living trendy. So in a nutshell, I consider us minimalists (you might not) but we’re striving to live a life not focused on STUFF, but our faith, our family, and fun experiences we can share together. If you want to know how to be a minimalist, my perspective is one in many you should consider.
No one would joyfully admit to being a materialist; to loving things over their family or their faith. But just try to tell them they don’t need to buy gifts for you or your children this Christmas, and watch the horror slowly creep over their faces. As much as people say “Christmas isn’t about presents!!!!” Kids know, it really is all about the gifts under the tree.
Through the years I’ve tried setting gift limits (please only buy the kids three presents each), dollar limits (please only spend $40 on each child), requesting experience gifts or museum admissions, or only putting a small amount of gifts on a wish list, all to varying levels of failure. Sometimes, people don’t care how you as the parent feel about gifts, or the meaning of Christmas. All they know is they want to buy your children presents and to hell with you. I’ve been told “Just accept the gift; why can’t you let someone do something nice?” I’ve been direct, straight forward and down right mean about our desire to reduce STUFF and keep the focus of the season on Christ, and all it does it create hard feelings and while perhaps less stuff on Christmas, there’s more gifts for Epiphany, Valentine’s Day, and huge baskets for Easter.
I’ve read books on minimalism that insist as parents we control the flow of toys and STUFF into our children’s lives, and that if we just have calm, rational discussions with family and friends, they will stop buying us tons of cheap toys from China and instead buy us (in moderation!) tickets to the symphony, hand crafted jam from the local farmer’s market, and organic wooden Montessori toys.
I’m here to say sixteen years after becoming a mom, the flow of stuff hasn’t stopped. The lesson I had to learn the hard way, which has actually softened my hardened heart, is that to most of these people giving gifts is how they show love. The bigger, the pricier, the deeper they go into debt buying these gifts, the more their love is expressed. If no gift is given, it’s like with-holding love. To tell such people not to buy gifts is tantamount to telling them to stop loving your child. To walk into a child’s room and see it packed to the gills with toys, books and knick knacks is a visual representation of how much that child is loved, and is viewed by such gift givers with a sense of pride. These gift givers eagerly watch children opening gifts and should the child wish to stop and take a break to play with a toy, they push it aside and instead shove another package in the child’s hand. There’s no such thing as too many gifts. They may also feel the need to make up for you and your spouse’s lack of gift giving; that somehow your children are suffering and that by practicing minimalism, you’re not showing your kids enough love. Learning how to be a minimalist is not achieved by changing other people’s long held beliefs.
I know that excessive STUFF cannot represent love, or happiness or security, but I also know that after many years of fruitless efforts, I cannot change how people are, and I am not willing to cut people out of my life simply because they prefer to express their love with STUFF, no matter how much it clashes with our parenting values. No amount of discussions, or other expressions of love, can convince these people that physical presents are not necessary when showing their devotion to your children.
So, how do Tony and I raise children who are not spoiled or materialistic, when the gift giving of others puts practically anything and everything they want constantly within their reach? How do I raise grateful kids who are happy with what they have and not focused on getting the next big thing? Learning how to be happy with what you have, and finding out the satisfaction that comes from working hard and waiting patiently to earn something you want are valuable lessons in short supply in todays society. I’m not perfect, and I constantly second guess myself, but here’s a few things I’ve settled on on my journey of how to be a minimalist.
We pick our gift giving battles and set limits on items the children are not alllowed to recieve as presents and state them way in advance of birthdays and Christmas.
The kids know that no one, not even Santa, is bringing that gift. Friends and family know if those items show up, they will get returned- period. We try to choose a substitute item if possible, and provide plenty of other suggestions. We typically accept all the presents given (with the above caveat), but I will weed out unused items quickly no matter how new they are. (I’ve gotten rid of Christmas gifts still in the packaging in late January and no one was ever the wiser.)
Tony and I don’t focus on physical gifts for the kids.
We typically do trips or shows for birthdays, and feast days revolve around special meals, traditions, and maybe one on one time with Papa at Mass. We give one family gift, like a board or outdoor game, for Epiphany. When we take trips we try to spend money on a nice meal out, or day trips, rather than souvenirs.
Regardless of our financial ups and downs, the kids always get only three presents on Christmas from Tony and I, plus stocking stuffers.
Sometimes we’ve done big gifts like Kindle Fires, or a trampoline, but there have a been a couple tight years when I purchsed gifts at Goodwill or made them myself. Thank goodness we always kept it to three gifts! We never needed to take on immense debt to keep up appearences at Christmas.
The kids use their own money to buy presents for one another, friends, and family.
If they are low on cash, I provide them with chores to do to earn the extra spending money. They’ve learned how to give meaningful gifts that don’t cost much, or any, money,
We show love in other ways; time together, praise, helping them out- there’s five different love languages.
Even if yours is gift giving, a handwritten note, a special drawing, sharing a favorite book; there are lots of things you can give without spending a bunch of money.
Money is not a taboo topic in our house and the kids are always welcome to ask us about the hows and whys of how Tony and I spend money.
We explain the realty of what it would take to have a larger house, newer cars, a large flat screen, etc. We talk honestly about the money we make, where it goes and what we’re saving it for. Sometimes, we could have more and we choose not to, othertimes, that item is way out of our price range. Tony and I try to model how to be a minimalist and how to be intentional with shopping. Most importantly, we talk about being thankful for what we have, rather than always desiring something new or “better”.
My older kids know that while lots of gifts are nice, they can only really enjoy a few well thought out items. They know that they can be honest with us and say when they didn’t like a gift, and return it without guilt. Returning or disliking our gift is not a rebuke of our love. They can part with items when they can no longer use them or want them. They are happy to donate them, or pass them along to the younger siblings of their friends. I think in a few years when they’re living on their own, each will purchase some of the items we don’t have in the house, and maybe keep them long term, but it’s not a constant battle between Tony and I and the teens over why we don’t have a TV or XBox. I think they’ve accepted we’re not like other parents and while they don’t always agree, it’s not so miserable an existence that they complain about it. I also like to think they realize that even they live a pretty privileged existence over much of the world, even if they don’t have iPhones.
I realize this post might be for a very narrow sliver of my readers, but, I also realize some of you are struggling to raise your kids in ways that differ from those around you and it can feel like, even when you and everyone in your family is happy, you’re still the crazy ones doing the wrong thing. You probably can’t change the people who disagree with you (unless they sincerely ask you about your lifestyle choices and how to be a minimalist) and it’s not always practical to cut otherwise loving folks out of your life. Stick to your guns and find work arounds that keep the peace when possible.