Before we had children, J and I spent three months living in a converted bus traveling around Europe. We had a few sets of clothes each, a couple of books and the pots and pans we needed. That was about it. To tidy up took 30 minutes tops. Having left all our belongings behind in the UK, we didn’t feel we were missing anything. It was a wonderfully liberating way to live.
Fast forward 7 years, now there are five people in our household, each with their own interests that naturally generate lots of equipment, clothes, toys and books. As much as I love my busy, noisy, chaotic family life, sometimes I feel like I am drowning in a sea of ‘stuff’. The clutter and mess that comes with daily life can be over-whelming and I find managing it rather stressful and time-consuming.
With Christmas looming I feel the need to re-access the stuff in our household to make space for the new exciting things heading our way. I try to take a bag of outgrown clothes, books we won’t read again and no-longer wanted toys to the charity shop every month or so. The kids are getting better at co-operating with this now. They began by offering up only each other’s things for the bin bag of doom. “C doesn’t like this dolly anymore” says E chucking in C’s prized playmate. So a high level of parental assistance was required! But the last time we had a clear out I was pleased to see the girls being more considerate towards each other. It could well have been the thought of Santa watching that inspired the good behaviour.
Kids have too many toys, I think this is true of most families I know. I have noticed with my children that if you give them a roomful of toys they flit from thing to thing never really settling or playing for more than a few minutes and requiring a lot of input from adults. However, if they have just a few simple things, a teddy, a pen and paper, or a small box of blocks, then their play becomes much deeper and they enjoy themselves more. My favourite thing is to let them play in the garden, hours of fun are had in the tree house or making mud pies. This is what play should be about, imaginative creative fun. So why do we feel duty-bound to keep on filling our children’s rooms with prescriptive toys that they don’t particularly want or need? I am as guilty as anyone but I want to change.
It seems almost impossible to keep the toy level down, as each time the kids go to a party, take a trip to town or visit a relative they come back with something. My pet hate is the awful plastic tat on the front of magazines. These rubbishy cheap toys are played with for a few moments then lie around neglected until I either stash them in a box or more often, sneak them into the bin.
While i am ranting on this subject, I also have to mention party bags. If you have been running around with your friends tanked up on fizzy drinks, sweets and beige food for hours, then do you really need a present to take home too? My kids generally return from parties laden with sweets and tiny toys. They have come to expect it and they don’t feel particularly grateful and I think that is wrong.
The first time we threw a party for our eldest daughter’s first birthday, a little boy (who shall remain nameless) came up to me at the end of the party and said, “I am going now so I am ready for my party bag” At that time I had not yet succumbed to the peer pressure to provide plastic tat in a plastic bag, so I just shared an embarrassed laugh with his mum. Now I feel obliged not to show up my children yet again (by being a mum who does things slightly differently to most of their friend’s mothers ) So we do give out party bags but I try my hardest to make them in keeping with my ethics without being too shameful for the kids. Paper bags containing raisins, seeds and plant pots have cut it so far but my eldest is only seven so I am not sure how many years we have left of being able to resist the slide into party excess.
A few years ago I read a book called Simplicity parenting by Kim John Payne. Among other great parenting advise was a call to dramatically reduce the amount of toys your children have. This book struck a real chord with me and is backed up by the call in Permaculture for ‘voluntary simplicity’ I would love to reduce the toys/ books/ clothes in my house even further but there seems to be a lot of things stopping me.
1. I don’t want to be a mean mum. I understand and truly believe that kids are happier with less but asking them to part with stuff is not easy.
2. That will be useful one day. Having three children of varying ages i find it hard to get rid of something that may come in useful for another child in the future.
3. I like things too! I love books, wooden and vintage children’s toys and i think i actually buy these for myself as much as for the kids.
4. Getting a bargain. It is hard to walk past a bargain, so secondhand shops and car boot sales are my downfalls.
This year I have tried to approach Christmas with the idea of voluntary simplicity in my mind. This year we will be doing a book swap with our cousins rather than buying gifts. My siblings and I are not exchanging gifts. My husband and I are buying one thing we actually want and need for each other. And the kids, well I am sure they will be spoilt rotten as always but I can always blame that on Santa Clause!