“If you want to see what children can do, you must stop giving them things.”
–Norman Douglas, British writer in the 1900’s
I think we have an epidemic. An epidemic of too much. Especially when it comes to our children, our homes and their play spaces. Too much noise, too many toys, too much clutter, too many options for our children, too much stress.
I love my kids, and I love buying them things that make their faces light up, and I love Christmas, but the one time excitement and joy of Christmas morning can quickly turn into a year’s worth of annoyingly tripping over toys, losing pieces to games, trying to find room for the many new things, fighting with your kids to “clean up their mess!” or dealing with the ever increasing noise and light displays from a dozen different battery operated toys.
With all our good intentions and our sincere love for our children, joy can easily turn into chaos.
I can’t help but notice this epidemic everywhere I go. It’s like a common thread in moms and houses everywhere. We hate the clutter, the noise, the chaos. We hate the boredom that easily overcomes our children, despite the abundance of activities we provide. We hate always having to find something even more exciting to capture their attention. And we hate that it never changes. The toys keep coming, and the children never seem more satisfied. In fact, they seem less satisfied the more we give them.
What can we do? What is the solution?
I truly believe that one of the best gifts we can give our children is the gift of simplicity. Since my first pregnancy I have been eagerly discovering ways to keep my home, and especially my child’s play spaces free from clutter, distraction, noise, and the epidemic of too much. I want to help you do the same.
Here are my top 5 steps to transform your home and give your children the gift of simplicity.
*Reflect. The very first step to create simplicity in your home is to reflect on what you want your home and your child’s play space to feel like and invoke. Reflect on your values and where you are currently with those values. Get a bulletin board and pin up words, pictures and colors that inspire you and help you define what you want your home to feel like. Some of my favorite words are: natural, warm, inviting, calm, peaceful and imaginative. Think about those words and pictures that are meaningful to you. Does your home feel like that now? Why or why not? What is keeping you from experiencing them?
Make a statement that guides your decisions with your children and home. For example, “I want my home to invite my children to dream, imagine and create. I want their play space to be peaceful and calm and that values the wonders of the natural world. I want simple toys within their reach, classic books, and drawing supplies that will inspire.” Whenever you need to make decisions for birthday or Christmas presents, or things to keep in your home you can remember your statement and it will guide you in making the very best decision.
*Let Go. Once you have defined what your values are and where you are with those values you can begin to see what you need to let go of in order to create those values in your home. I think the most helpful thing is to let go of the toys. I think children can have too many. We have children’s bedrooms full of toys, living rooms full of toys and play rooms full of toys. Trust me, I’ve been there myself from time to time, but because of experiencing that, I’ve learned to value the peace and calm that comes from letting go of the toy clutter and actually enjoying my children and their play.
“When a child is totally concentrated on doing or creating something, joyful in the process with no thought of outcome, she is calmly happy or “in the flow.” It is a state of joy from which contentment, calmness, integrity, and compassion arise. In comparison, the overexcited agitation of a child who has too many social interactions or too many toys or too much sugar looks not so much like happiness as like one extreme of a swinging pendulum of emotions.”
Calm and Compassionate Children: A Handbook by Susan Usha Dermond
So how to let go of the clutter, noise and toys? When my children were very young (less than 3) I would declutter their room and toys without them knowing what I was doing. It’s difficult to explain what you are doing with toddlers who don’t converse very much.
I would remove all the toys that didn’t align with my values. Are the toys broken or missing pieces? Toss them. Are the toys hardly ever touched? Donate them. Are the toys loud, messy and are generally more irritating than inspiring? Donate those too. If your children are over 3 and old enough to have a conversation with you about what you are doing, then its best to involve them. Don’t demand or coerce, but talk with them and help them understand that you are making more room for new kinds of play. If there is something they insist they want to keep, allow them to and you can always revisit it later. One day they may cherish it, but later they may have no problem giving it to another girl or boy who would like to play with it.
My husband also told me his desire was “no toys in the living room.” Meaning, no toys were going to be stored there, although they could bring them in from time to time and play with them. He really wanted a space that was just for adults, and it has been good for us in managing the girl’s toys. As I write this, there are two small rocking horses beside the couch, a basket of books and a few toys on the coffee table they got out earlier. It’s simple and can be easily put away.
One thing I think we forget as parents is that toys can be enjoyed and loved for a season. We’ve had lots of toys for our kids over the past five years, but we don’t keep them all. There is nothing wrong with having loud, messy or large toys occupy some space in your home for a time, but then recognize when it’s time to let another child enjoy it and move on. I think this can teach kids how to be grateful, knowing that toys like seasons in life, will come and go, and each has its own beauty.
One tip for parents reluctant to let go is to bag up everything you want to get rid of, then hang on to it for two weeks, preferably in another room, like a closet or high shelf where you or the kids cannot readily see it. If your children ask you where a particular toy is because they want to play with it, you can easily help them “find” it and give it back. If after two weeks you decide there is one item you really want to hang onto, you can incorporate it back into the space. Don’t use this tip as an excuse to put everything back where it was, but it can be helpful for those finding it very difficult to give away things suddenly. After two weeks, if neither you or your children think about what you put in those bags, then happily donate them!
*Maintain. The real work in this gift of simplicity is maintaining it. It takes conscience effort and awareness about what you are bringing into your home to do this. Let’s face it, clutter is easy. Peacefulness is more difficult to come by, but that is why it is so precious! Maintaining means continuing to reflect and let go throughout the year. A simple peaceful home for your children is less a destination than it is a path you are always moving along. Repeat this entire process of naming your values, gathering inspiration and letting go of what does not speak life into your home a couple of times a year. I think it’s great to do this at the start of the new year and at the start of Fall, close to the beginning of the holiday season when you know you will be bringing in a lot more things into your home.
Other ideas include:
Say no to things people want to give you if you will not use them, if you cannot find a place for them or if it will not inspire you. Same rule applies to things for your children.
Be honest with your family members about the toys you want your kids to play with. We’ve done this over the years, and it can be done in a respectful, gracious way. Our family members usually ask what our children want for Christmas or birthdays so we give them general ideas that we know we can have peace about. For example, we’ll mention, please don’t give them anything that requires batteries or has small pieces (we don’t want the choking hazard of small parts and we know they will easily be lost). We’ll also mention that we love wooden and cloth toys if they can find them, and we’ll mention what they already have a lot of (like baby dolls) so they don’t get any more. We love that they want to buy gifts for our girls, but it can be done in a way that gives us peace of mind and reflects what we want for them.
If you have already bought something for Christmas or a birthday that you realize you don’t really want to give to your child, return it and get something else. Don’t feel locked in to any decision you’ve made for your kids so far.
*Be present. There is simplicity in knowing that what your kids really want is not another singing gadget or talking stuffed dog, but what they want is your time and your heart. This is the hardest work of all, but the very best and most rewarding. Getting rid of clutter, noise and too many toys means you are actually able to give yourself. Less time is being used to store, clean, find, put away and fix toys and more time can be spent reading, talking, taking walks, rubbing their backs or cooking together. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we want too?
The thing we want most of all is connection and love and that’s often difficult with a home of a million toys and things screaming for our attention. It might help to make a limit of television and screen time. Or to have a “no media at the table” rule. It’s easy for me to do a few chores while my girls are eating breakfast and lunch, but I have begun to swap that habit for simply sitting with them while they eat and giving them my attention and presence. It’s the simple, small things that become most meaningful, most treasured.
*Be unconventional. This year for our girl’s Christmas, my husband and I decided to simply fill their stockings and not get them any additional toys. We know they will get many fun things from grandparents, aunts and uncles so we want to uphold our own values by saying no to “too much.”
Sometimes, in order to create simplicity in this consumerist culture, we need to accept being unconventional. Maybe you want to forgo that white elephant exchange or not give in to the pressure to buy the newest hottest toy on the market. Be OK with that. I’ve noticed children are happy with the simplest of treasures. Like a small pouch of colorful rocks, or a bird feather found outside. For my oldest (almost 5) it is sparkly glitter pens because she adores drawing and coloring. We all know young children love to play with the tissue, bows and cardboard boxes their presents come in, so why not give that to them? Give them a large cardboard box, some markers, stickers and tissue paper and watch how they will be enthralled at creating their own rocket ship or train to play in!
When our children are grown, what they will remember most is rolling down green grass, hiking in the woods with friends and the books they cherished when they were young. This is what we need to give them. A simple childhood, full of memories and imagination. A peaceful home, nature, a few simple toys and parents who are present with them- this is the making of the gift of simplicity.
Other great articles to inspire:
How will you give the gift of simplicity this year?