My wife and guest-blogger, Julie starts off the Dad Dude blog in 2019 with some potent ideas about the gift of less. Before I hand over, if you’re wondering about this pic, that’s one of our twins, Charlie, asleep amidst the chaos a year ago. Enter Julie…
THE GIFT OF LESS
I remember when I was pregnant with our first child, I was determined to not give in to a home over-run with a mountain of plastic toys. My child was going to grow up in a Made-in-China-free universe of hand-carved abacuses, wooden puzzles and Pinterest-worthy felt mobiles. One of the first toys I bought my unborn son was a handmade wooden car. I painted his room white and all of the furniture too — all in my attempt to keep my home calm and free from the neon colours you find in a McDonald’s Play Area.
Fast forward ten years and five little kids later, and I feel like I’ve been in one of those McDonald tube slides that end in those nefarious ball pools. I am immersed in all things garishly bright, plastic and toxic.
Now, it’s one thing to have a home full of life and people — I love that. But I have experienced the dark side of a home full of (excuse my American) crap.
Largely brought in because of these little people, I know all too well the insidious, slow creep of despair and out of control-ness I feel as I try to ignore the mounting corners of chaos, the drawers overflowing with random toys and disjointed pieces that belong somewhere, anywhere but here.
To say that my husband and I are super-neat perfectionist people would mean that one had never, ever met us or entered our home. We are super-laidback but still, we both long for some kind of semblance of order in the chaos.
Here are some lessons I’m learning along the way as I fight back to reclaim a little simplicity in our home, to teach my kids that less is more, to consume less, to better look after what we do have, and to only keep what we truly cherish.
Chuck out the cheap plastic
After a strong start, I quickly began to accumulate cheap toys for my kids. Slowly, drawers and cupboards and toy kists became full of tons of plastic stuff as I mindlessly bought more things and whole-heartedly accepted everyone else’s hand-me-downs too.
Then one day something clicked. Or rather, snapped.
I was hunched down picking up some random pieces of a toy for the hundredth time — and I began to juxtapose in my mind my hourly rate (as a freelance writer) against the worth of this cheap toy, against the HOURS AND HOURS I’d spent stressing about it littering my house and trying to keep all its pieces together, against the MINUTES my kids had actually played with it. It was the very definition of anti-ROI (Return On Investment).
Today, I don’t just dislike cheap plastic toys. I positively loathe them. I loathe how badly they are made and how easily they break, how much stress and clutter they add to my home, how they teach my kids that gifts are disposable and worthless, and how much they choke our already fragile environment. Our mindless consumption is literally killing us and our planet. Already, there are more pieces of plastic in our ocean than stars in our galaxy.
We were on holiday recently and we took only a few toys: lego blocks, colouring-in and activity books, a few board games and two puzzles. Every day, our kids spent many happy hours, totally engrossed in one of these things — and the house stayed relatively clutter-free and easy to tidy. In fact — I would go so far as to say they played MORE than ever, MORE happily than ever. I came home with a new resolve to live with less — not as a means of disenfranchising my kids, but as a way of truly empowering them to enjoy what they do have.
I have spent the better part of the last two weeks sorting through cupboards and drawers and toy kists and baskets. I have given away and thrown out mountains and I’m never, ever going back. Of course, this kind of militant clean-out can’t be a once-off. If I hope to live with less, it’s going to mean I don’t only have to clear out my current cupboards, but be far more mindful of what I bring onto our home and our lives in the future.
Which brings me to my next point…
All parents want to give their kids special gifts from time to time — to shower our loved ones with tangible expressions of our love, and to watch their faces light up as a result. But every birthday and Christmas, I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the amount of gifts we give our kids, and the type of gifts we give them. We’re on a journey still but here are some ideas…
Time together and enjoying new experiences are always the best kind of gifts — they are the ones our kids (and us) will remember long after the batteries have died and the toys have broken. There are so many things we can do with our kids that don’t cost much money — playing games together, going for walks together, ice-cream dates — whatever floats your boats. This holiday, we intentionally spent our money on special moments together rather than on getting each other big gifts. For the first time ever, we went to watch a fantastic musical all together and we went to Uncle Paul’s Christmas party — these moments were part of our Christmas ‘stocking’ in a sense.
Teach them to want what they need by giving them what they need. Don’t just think ‘toys’ when you give your kids gifts, what about stuff they really need? This not only saves money and the environment, but teaches our kids that some of the ‘necessary’ stuff is not a right — but a privilege.
This year, our kids’ Christmas stocking was filled with the following: A new toothbrush and their very own toothpaste, a miniature flower pot and some flower seeds for them to plant, and a new item of clothing that they needed. We usually also like to give our kids a book each, but they’ve had a recent influx of books so not this Christmas. They also each got a toy from us that they had wanted.
Other items we’ve given in the past (in no particular order and not all at once): school stationary, room décor elements, your time (special one-on-one vouchers for dates with you), membership to family-friendly places like Kirstenbosch or the Aquarium, extra-mural activities (like swimming or ballet lessons), safe gardening tools kids can enjoy and help to garden with, family board games, and child-friendly recipe books to get kids helping cooking. One particularly industrious Christmas, I handmade their Christmas gifts: the boys got a handmade foosball game and they each painted a little jewellery box for their little sister (she loved them and has them still). I repurposed a little wooden bedside cabinet into a really cute toy kitchen/oven for her too. It was a hit — and was happily enjoyed right up until my Great Toy Purge a few weeks ago!
The only other people who give our kids gifts are the grandparents, so we asked both sets to please not buy plastic toys. From the one set, we asked for a family board game we’d had our eye on, and from the other set, they suggested giving our kids a watch each. Sorted! BUT one gran who will remain nameless couldn’t help herself and added a cheap plastic toy to each child’s gift — each with multiple beads and separate pieces. After one of these packages was opened and spilled all over the floor, my husband and I looked at each other and acted in covert unison: sweeping up all the pieces, we gathered all FIVE sets (four unopened) and chucked them into the bin. I have no regrets — I only wish we could have stopped them being bought (and made) in the first place.
Let’s face it: if you’ve got time to sit around and read about parenting and minimalism, you’re part of the very small fraction of very privileged people in this country (and world). Of course, I’m not saying that you bathe in Champagne and have a private jet to get around — but we all need to often remind ourselves how flipping lucky we are. How grateful we should be (even though we work hard), and how many people all around us are far less lucky, appreciated and ‘seen’ by society. We should look for ways to help our kids do this too.
This festive season, to help my kids partake in the unrivaled joy of giving (not just receiving), I asked each of them to think about one person in our lives and world they would like to give a ‘love bomb’ to. This had to be someone that had helped them or us, but that often went un-thanked for their hard work. Here’s who my kids chose to love bomb this year: the police at our local police station who keep us all safe, Lovemore (a local car guard we’ve gotten to know a little), a young kids church volunteer, the nurses at the hospital our twins were born at and a wonderful immigrant builder/painter who has worked for us at our home in the past.
We put together hampers for each of these sets of people and the kids each made thank you cards (the little ones dictated their messages and I wrote them out for them). Then the real fun began: driving around town delivering our love bombs to these beautiful and unsuspecting peeps!
Upon giving Lovemore his parcel, my Sam was particularly elated and declared: “This is my best Christmas ever!” May we all notice the people around us more — especially the ‘invisibles’ — those who serve us, who work long hours, and who very often, go without the life-giving appreciation and thanks we all need to not just survive, but thrive in life.
We’ve endured, I mean, enjoyed, a lot of kid birthday parties. I mean, a lot. Circus parties, fairy parties, snail and octopus parties, mermaid parties, dog parties, pirate parties, jungle parties, soccer parties and many more I’ve forgotten in the haze of icing and cheese curls. Usually, when our kids have been small, we’ve invited their whole preschool classes to these parties, because, why not!? But one thing that’s come with lots of people celebrating our kids, is lots and lots of gifts. I’m always struck by these gifts — how many amazing things my kids get. But this year — I felt like it was just too much. Our little 3 had a joint party — a triple dog/bug/mermaid extravaganza and with close on 50 kids there — the gift table was heaving by the time we’d packed up and flopped down to begin opening them. I watched my kids tear open gift upon gift upon gift — totally not able to fully appreciate each one, nor just how unusually privileged they were. And I felt like I wanted to do things differently from next year. I’m not sure exactly what, but some ideas:
- Ask everyone to bring stationary for an underprivileged school rather than gifts, and then get your kids to go with to give it (a little boy in our twin’s class did that this year). If you’re worried your little kids might miss out on opening a few nice pressies after their party, perhaps you could ask the grandparents to give their gifts only then?
- Ask everyone to rather contribute toward one specific ‘thing’ — like a new lego set or bike, or perhaps a family membership/experience to somewhere special or for an individual extramural your child has wanted to do. A friend’s little girl got horse-riding lessons for a term in lieu of gifts.
Go over their heads
Our home is nowhere near as clutter-free and tidy as I’d like it to be, but with small kids still underfoot, I know it’s not really possible to live in a neat space just yet (maybe ever).
Still, one small tip I stumbled upon has been to reclaim some out-of-reach places. I put up two big beautiful shelves (one in our bedroom and one in our living room), and because they are high up, they are my oasis of calm when everything else is falling to pieces around me. Nobody leaves their stuff on them, nobody messes with my pot plants and ceramic little things up there. Marie Kondo would be proud. When all hell is breaking loose — my beautiful shelves look upon the chaos with unwavering minimalist style. If I could climb up on one and live up there — I would! But I fear my kids would then build a mountain out of the mess on the floor and climb up to find me. So for now, I’m just happy they exist there — in all their untouchable glory.
A space for each to own
Maybe this year we’ll really get family chores right, but in general up until now, our kids have exuded a remarkable ability to create mess and then step right over it, claiming no responsibility for cleaning it up. If I happen to ask one to clean up something they did not have the biggest hand in creating: Oh the horror! The outrage! You would swear I had asked them to donate their last kidney.
BUT one space we’ve found that they do take pride in keeping clean and tidy is their own rooms. (I’m talking about my oldest three kids aged 6, 8 and 10). They may have difficulty feeling a sense of ownership for the whole, but they certainly all own the well-being of their own spaces now.
Find out how and why in my next post on the Dad Dude.
Originally published at The Dad Dude.