Friday, May 31, 2019

The No Money Weekend "Family Edition"

It's the time of year when families are anticipating the summer break with no school and long, hot hours of free time.

Photo by Myles Tan on Unsplash

We all know that a vacation can be very expensive, but perhaps you've saved and have a plan to pay for that special trip.  However, weekend activities are often not so carefully planned, even though it's possible to spend several hundred dollars in a couple of days.  Families eat out more on the weekend than during the week.  Add a visit to the movie theater, amusement park, or the mall, and weekend spending goes even higher.

So the No Money Weekend suggested by Trent Hamm at caught my eye.  The challenge is to spend no money at all... so there are no snack or coffee runs, and no driving beyond the gas in your tank.  You use food from your pantry, items you already own, free events and services, the company of other people, and your own ingenuity.

Today I'm posting 15 ideas that families might use to meet this challenge.  In the next couple of posts I'll suggest dozens more ideas that can also be used by singles and couples.  You won't find all of the suggestions appealing or available, but I hope that some of them will pique your interest or inspire your own creativity in coming up with no-cost activities.

1.  Visit your library.

Of course the library has print books, but many also have audio books, e-books, DVDs and CDs.  Many libraries have story times for young children; ours also has a play area with giant foam blocks, a play house and kitchen, and a wooden railway.  Your library may host book clubs, author appearances, and other events.

2.  Play board and card games.

Play with your family or invite some friends over.  We love Pictionary, Scattergories, Quiddler, and Ticket to Ride, but any board or card games you own can provide hours of fun.  Do you have Uno, Monopoly, or even some dominoes hanging around?

3.  Research free days at local museums and zoos.

Our county historical museum is always free, and the public-supported classical radio station recently sponsored a free Saturday at a children's science museum.  Did you know the Smithsonian in Washington DC is always free to the public?  There's probably an opportunity near you.

4.  Make a time capsule.

Find a small box, then locate items that represent your life today:  the front page of a newspaper, a magazine cover, a grocery store receipt, a letter or greeting card.  Your kids could add a drawing or school assignment.  Print out photos of your family, your house, pets, the kids' school, a gas station price sign, etc.  Fill the box, tape it securely, and write the date ten years in the future.  Put it in the closet next to your important papers file.

5.  Open a time capsule.

You probably didn't make an official time capsule years ago, but you may have old photos, a wedding album, or a yearbook.  Pull them out and enjoy your memories, and share them with your kids.

6.  Build a blanket fort.

Your kids will love using chairs, tables, blankets, and bedspreads to build a giant fort.  Use flashlights (or string some Christmas lights) to read books, play games, or have a picnic in the fort.

7.  Start a nature notebook.

Grab notebooks and pens or pencils, go to the park or a wild place, and look for interesting rocks, sketch a squirrel, or spot some birds.  Gather wildflowers in a basket and press them for homemade greeting cards or botanical art.  Make leaf or bark rubbings and identify the trees they come from.  Clouds, spiders' webs, an earthworm -- pay attention to whatever interests you and record it.  Borrow field guides from the library for more information.

8.  Have a yard sale.

Remove clutter and turn your No Money Weekend into a money-maker.  Get the kids involved by letting them sell their own unwanted or outgrown toys.  Donate items that don't sell by the end of the day.

9.  Make greeting cards.

If you have cheap blank cards from the dollar store, or any kind of cardstock, you and your kids can add your own beautiful photos, pressed flowers and leaves, or a mini collage made with colored paper, stickers, and letters and pictures cut from magazines.  Bundle groups of cards together for gift-giving, or save them to use individually for birthdays, thank yous, or holidays.

10.  Blow bubbles.

The bubble solution:  Gently mix 1 cup dish soap with 6 cups water (try not to let it foam), then stir in 1/2 cup light corn syrup.  Cover and let sit overnight.  The wands:  Twist a pipe cleaner into a loop (leave a bit for a handle); reshape a wire hanger; use a plastic funnel (dip the big end into the solution and blow through the small end); or cut off the bottom of a plastic drink bottle (works just like the funnel).

11.  Run through a sprinkler.

Just attach a sprinkler to the end of your garden hose and turn it on, letting the water shoot into the air.  My siblings, cousins, and I loved playing tag under the sprinkler.  Sometimes my dad joined us, which was even better!

12.  Hop on a bike.

If you have bikes and helmets, you're ready for exercise and fun.  Research local bike trails, grab some water and a lunch, and start pedaling.

13.  Play in the park.

Your child will love it when you go down the slide, swing on the swings, and traverse the monkey bars with her, and you'll get quite a good workout too.

14.  Build a cardboard castle.

Visit an appliance store and ask for their boxes.  Use them to create a giant castle in your back yard.  Cut doors and windows, duct tape boxes together, use paint or markers to decorate.  This may provide more than one afternoon of fun and imagination.

15.  Stargaze.

Go outside on a clear evening, preferably away from city lights, and look up.  Use an app such as SkyView Free if you don't know what you're looking at.  Spread some blankets, lay on your back, and be amazed by the universe.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Second Generation Minimalism

An anonymous reader had several questions after reading an earlier post about toys:

… I have two rather small children myself and my story resembles yours in so many ways....  How [do] your kids feel about this change today?  Do they remember?  Do they hold any grudge against you for introducing them to minimalism or are they thankful?  Are they minimalist themselves today?
I left a quick reply to this reader from Norway:

My kids are not minimalists themselves, but their homes are clean and tidy (though I find them crowded).  They do remember, and they've never expressed any grudges about having fewer toys.  I think I became better at choosing toys they really wanted, rather than buying stuff that caught my eye that they didn't really care about.  They had fewer things, but more cherished things....
Since then, I've continued to think about these questions.  Thank you, friend, for your thoughtful inquiries!

I needed to remind myself that minimalism is not a one-size-fits all concept.  It looks different for everyone.

Minimalism is not about owning a certain number of things, or about living in a big empty space with one chair, one lamp, and a piece of modern art.  Minimalism is a lifestyle that enables you to discern what really matters to you.  It's a way of choosing what is essential to your happiness so that you're not weighed down by things that keep you too busy, too distracted, or too in debt to pursue your most valued goals.  Minimalism brings freedom to appreciate and savor the people, activities, and things that bring joy to your life, while removing everything else.

So I shouldn't have said that my grown children are not minimalists, just because their minimalism looks different from mine.

My daughter is married and has two sons, ages 3.5 years and 5 months.  Her family lives in a small two-bedroom apartment.  Even though there's a lot of children's stuff, I can see that she works hard to keep only the toys and clothes the boys use.  My older grandson has a lot of toys, but they all have a home in storage cubes and bins.

My daughter and son-in-law both love to cook and bake, so they have a lot of kitchen equipment beyond the basics.  Their kitchen is small, so drawers, cupboards, and counters are quite crowded, but the items are used regularly.  Unlike many young families, they cook most of the time and rarely eat out.  They also like to have people over for dinner and board games.

They have no debt, and are industriously saving to buy a house.  My daughter has put her teaching career on hold during her sons' preschool years, so her fiscal contribution takes the form of sticking to a budget and practicing frugality.  All of these choices enable this young family to focus on what is important to them.

My son is currently living on a tiny budget as he has just started his own business.  He has two roommates in order to minimize housing costs, so the only room under his complete control is his bedroom.  This multi-purpose space is his office, sewing/craft room (his hobby is cosplay), as well as where he sleeps.  His closet is crowded with costumes and sewing supplies.  But I have no doubt that all of these things are valuable to him.

My son has some debt, which he regrets.  When he first started working and living on his own, he acquired a lot of things he didn't have cash for.  He now rues his impatience and the fact that his financial situation is less stable because he has bills to pay.  I believe he would agree that stuff is no substitute for freedom and security.

I asked my kids what they believe was positive or negative about their early exposure to minimalism.

My daughter said she remembers my anger and frustration before The 20 Toy Rule, and that it made her feel upset.  Since she's studied child development, she pointed out that children have strong feelings about things that belong to them.  They may feel that the toy is part of their identity, even if it's truck #35.  An autocratic decision to "just toss this garbage" is very scary to a child.

As a 6-year-old, she could understand that the mess was huge, and there were lots of toys they didn't even play with (throwing them out of the toy box to find what they really wanted).  She thinks the best lesson I taught was how to choose their favorites and let go of the rest.  It kept the process of sorting "kind of fun," and made the things they kept even more special.

My daughter is just starting to teach her older son how to give away "truck #35," and he too seems to enjoy the process when approached with the attitude of "What's special that you want to keep?" rather than "Let's just get rid of all this junk!"  She mentioned that it takes a constant effort on her part to keep clothes and toys pared down, because kids grow and their interests change so fast.  The more open-ended toys have the greatest longevity.

My son remembers feeling more of a grudge about this process when he was a teenager.  A time comes when your teen deserves some autonomy, and I probably should have acknowledged this a little sooner.  A parent can still require that a teen's belongings not be scattered all over the common areas of the home, and that basic cleanliness (floor clear so it can be vacuumed, sheets changed regularly, no food) be maintained in the bedroom.

However, my son also said that his early experiences with choosing and culling were valuable.  As an adult, he realizes that money, space, and time are finite, so knowing how to choose items (even before he buys them) that are really useful and consequential to him is an important life skill. 

I think my kids absorbed some minimalist tendencies after all!


Friday, May 24, 2019

The Family Read-Aloud

When our children were 9 and 12, we embarked on a very ambitious read-aloud project.  My husband and I had been fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings since we each read the epic in our teens.  In anticipation of the release of Peter Jackson's film, The Fellowship of the Ring, we wanted to reread the entire work, and also give our kids the chance to experience the novel as Tolkien created it, before their imaginations were influenced by the film interpretation.  Thus we committed to spend approximately one hour each evening, all through the summer and fall of 2001, reading aloud that massive and beautiful saga.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I did the bulk of the performance, since I am the more dramatic reader and can do "voices."  And it was a performance - a demanding test of my fluency, expressiveness, and stamina.  My husband kept me supplied with soothing Earl Grey tea, and our family quickly became immersed in the tale of Frodo and his companions.  The kids clamored for more every night, and this became the high point of our family life at that time.  Our kids even taught themselves the runes that Tolkien had created, and would write notes to each other in that script.  When the movie premiered in December, they were legitimate Tolkien fans.

If we had not read to them from birth onward, we could never have attempted or finished this journey together.

Even though they were both independent readers, and our older child could have probably read the books for herself, many of the themes and the vocabulary would have been difficult for them to appreciate on their own.  But because they were such experienced listeners, they had the skills to grasp the context and the depth of the characters and situations in this amazing work when it was read aloud to them.

If I had not read to them from birth onward, I might not have had the skill to do justice to this long and complex literary work.  Obviously I started reading the most simple books, and worked up to more challenging ones.  Never doubt your ability to learn and improve any skill you practice regularly!

Don't stop reading aloud just because your child has learned to read.  

By reading books that your child will enjoy, but that he might find daunting on his own, you give him something to look forward to and work toward.  Your first grader may be reading Dr. Seuss books by himself, with their severely controlled vocabulary and limited story lines.  He is a beginning reader, but if you've been reading to him since he was a baby, he is a veteran listener.  The last thing you want him to think is that the books he can read by himself are as good as books get!  Give him something meaty to listen to, like The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo.  Give him beautiful, creative language, such as Natalie Babbitt's writing in The Search for Delicious.

In creating a nightly read-aloud ritual, you are also creating a family culture of shared memories and closeness.

  • You're encouraging attention and imagination.
  • Your child's vocabulary improves because you're reading a "hard" book, and your fluency allows her to hear new words in context (you can always briefly explain something if she asks).
  • Her comprehension improves because she has to remember the story from night to night, and because she'll start to make predictions.
  • You can talk about characters, conflicts, and ethical issues, and your favorite scenes.
  • Not only is reading aloud a good substitute for TV every night, it provides a calmer transition to bedtime. 

Choose a book that is just beyond the independent ability of your oldest child.  Unless your youngest child is more than four or so years younger (or is only a toddler), he can probably enjoy the same story.  Let him draw or color quietly if it's hard to just sit.  He'll wind up listening just as his older sibling does. 

Dads need to take their turn reading aloud, or at the very least be a part of the listening group.  The greatest value is gained when the whole family shares the experience, and children need to see that Dad enjoys reading just as Mom does.

Some books may inspire a family project.  For example, you might volunteer at a soup kitchen or send a donation to a charity that feeds the hungry after reading about Charlie Bucket's poverty in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Reading Little House in the Big Woods might inspire you to bake your own bread or plant a vegetable garden.  You might schedule a visit to an art museum while reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, encourages parents to continue to read aloud into middle school and high school.  Since many adults never read a book once they leave school, it seems obvious that the school formula of dissecting and analyzing books to death is ineffective in creating readers.  A family tradition of reading aloud can help change that. 

If you have a read-aloud ritual already in place, simply continue it.  If not, start reading while your teens eat dessert after dinner.  Begin with something unexpected, like a poem from Hailstones and Halibut Bones or one of the humorously macabre Cautionary Tales by Hilaire Belloc.  Then start a plot-driven novel with a teen protagonist, such as Kenneth Oppel's Airborn.

Every time we read aloud to a child
we're giving a commercial for the pleasure of reading.

Jim Trelease

Whether laughing at the babysitting scene from In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, or talking about what you might choose to bring if you were traveling to a new world like Pattie in The Green Book, you will be creating family memories that you'll treasure for a lifetime.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Joy of Cooking?

Photo courtesy of

With childhood obesity on the rise, modern-day food gurus encourage home cooking.  Michael Pollan, author of Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, and New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman both urge parents to cook from scratch with fresh ingredients.  Magazines such as Good Housekeeping and television personalities like Rachael Ray offer practical cooking advice, publishing recipes for slow cooker meals and 30 minute meals.  Michelle Obama emphasizes the role that mothers play in helping children make healthy choices.

The message is that good parents, particularly good mothers, cook for their families.

While Pollan and others idealize a time when people grew their own food and sat around the dinner table eating it, they don't mention the effort that goes into planning, making, and coordinating family meals.  Cooking is certainly important, and can be enjoyable, but it is also filled with time pressures and budget concerns.

In many households, both parents work, sometimes with nonstandard and unpredictable hours.  And cooking isn't just about the time it takes to prepare the meal.  It also involves planning ahead and purchasing ingredients, and cleaning up afterwards.  For some parents, cooking is a chore they dread.  After a busy day at work, they don't feel like spending an hour cooking after picking kids up from school.

Contrary to the stereotype that poor families eat mainly fast food, many mothers who struggle to pay the bills cook regularly because it's more economical.  I remember my mother complaining about always having to cook, but she continued to do so to save money.  I'm sure she often felt frustrated trying to get my siblings and I to eat what she prepared and to help with mealtime chores.

Most people would agree that it's nice to slow down, eat healthfully, and enjoy a home-cooked meal with the whole family.  However, we can't ignore the effort and cost involved.  How can we make reality look a bit more like our ideals?

Joe Pinsker's recent article in The Atlantic suggests an interesting option:

Limit variety in favor of ease, economy, and health.

Pinsker writes about Vern Loomis, a retired structural draftsman from Michigan, who ate a home-made peanut butter sandwich for lunch nearly every workday for about 25 years.

Is eating the same thing every day boring or brilliant?  If you need to save money and time in the grocery store, reduce effort in the kitchen, and maintain a healthy, junk-free diet, a more limited menu might work well for your family.

According to Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, eating similar foods every day won't harm you.  "If your daily [meals contain] a variety of healthful foods," she says, "relax and enjoy [them]."  For example, put that PB&J on whole grain bread.  Good accompaniments include baby carrots, raw sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes, or some cabbage or broccoli slaw.  Switch it up to include apples, bananas, or citrus fruits.

Amanda Respers, a software developer, emphasized the stress-reducing benefits of eating the same thing each day.  She eats a home-prepared salad, creating variety by using different greens, proteins, and dressings.  She likes the simplicity of the formula, and how much time it saves.

Eating the same thing over and over can also simplify the decisions people make about what they put into their bodies, whether for weight control or other reasons.  Currie Lee, who works in retail in Los Angeles, keeps meals unchanged to help manage her food allergies.  She has oatmeal and fresh fruit for breakfast every day; her current lunch is a turkey sandwich with hummus, arugula, and cheese on gluten-free bread.

Lee's eating habits don't just control her allergies.  She says that eating the same thing makes grocery shopping simpler and brings consistency to her sometimes chaotic schedule.

Nutritionist Nathan Wiebe also urges his readers to limit food choices.  "I save my willpower for more important matters," he writes.  "Willpower is like a muscle that gets tired the more you use it....  [When] I don't have to think about my meals... [I can] turn down any junk food offers throughout the day."  He likes to eat bacon, eggs, and a variety of green vegetables for dinner.

Of course, most people around the world who eat the same thing every day aren't doing so voluntarily.  "I would say most people... have little choice in their staple," says Paul Freedman, a historian at Yale and the author of Ten Restaurants That Changed America.  "If they live in a rice culture they have rice for every meal; ditto potatoes."

Freedman says that variety comes from "relishes" such as spices, vegetables, and modest amounts of meat.  This staple-plus-relish combination "dominated eating in traditional peasant cultures."

Krishnendu Ray, a food studies scholar at NYU, says "Newness or difference from the norm is a very urban, almost postmodern, quest.  It is recent.  It is class-based."

So in the totality of human experience, it is the variety-seekers who are unusual.

Why not eat oatmeal and fruit most mornings, with French toast or pancakes on Saturdays?  Why not have peanut butter sandwiches, or salad with different proteins (tuna, curried chickpeas, chicken, hard boiled eggs, cottage cheese and nuts) for daily lunches?

Could you simplify home-cooked dinners by eating the same things regularly?  Meatloaf Monday, Taco Tuesday, Wild Wednesday (aka leftovers), Thursday Soup Day, Fun Friday (take-out pizza, plus salad and ice cream), Saturday Stir Fry, and Sunday Scramble (egg dishes) could work quite well for family dinners.

You don't have to resort to highly-processed convenience meals, even if you do take advantage of frozen vegetables, canned beans, or the occasional rotisserie chicken.  Get your children used to having fresh fruit for dessert.  Introduce variety with different "relishes," while paring down the cooking implements you need to have and the pantry items you need to stock.  Bring back the joy of home-cooked meals.

Friday, May 17, 2019

7 Secrets of a Clutter-Free Family Home

My husband and I live in an 800 square foot (about 74 square meter) apartment.  When people come over, they always remark that it is so clean.  I actually think they mean tidy and clutter-free.  But having things put away makes it seem clean.  Honestly, if you stopped by my house unannounced, most of the time I could invite you in and not be at all embarrassed.  That is liberating.

"Eli's Room" courtesy of Farmhouse 5540

When our children were young, we lived in a house that was about 1200 square feet (about 111 square meters).  Compared to the average American home, that is small, but my house was usually fairly tidy then too.  Even if the kids were in the middle of playing one of their epic pretend games, with dolls, stuffed animals, play dishes, dress-up clothes, Lego creations, and lots of homemade props, we could make the house "company ready" in a pretty short time.

Does that sound like an impossible dream?

The "secret" isn't really a secret.  Everything has a home.  Everything.  To get to that point, you have to be willing to let go of unneeded and unloved things.  Most of us live in houses that are big enough to accommodate the stuff a family needs -- or they should be big enough.  If you have three couches, 32 mugs, and 23 bath towels, that might explain the chaos.  I decided I didn't need so much.

Your kids need places to put their backpacks, jackets, and shoes when they get home from school, and there needs to be a system for dealing with school papers.  They need easy storage solutions for clothes and toys, and the number of items needs to be controlled so it's not overwhelming for them to put those things away.  They need to know where craft supplies belong, and where to put dirty laundry and dirty dishes.  And they need help to develop the habit of using those designated spots!

Even teenagers are sometimes oblivious to the messes they leave behind.  Don't let them get away with it.  Call them from their rooms, make them get up from the table or end a phone call to put their stuff away.  I know it will sometimes seem that it is just easier to do it yourself, but in the long run it won't be.  Trust me.

Here are the seven secrets to a clutter-free family home.

1.  Everything has a place.

I know, you've heard it before.  What does it really mean?  It means I can hand my child any item that belongs to her or is used by the whole family and say, "Put this where it belongs," and she knows exactly where to go.

2.  Just do it.

No one loves doing chores, but if you just do them instead of putting them off, you'll feel so much better.  Try timing the chores you dislike.  Most chores aren't really that time-consuming, and once you realize that, it might be easier to make yourself (or your child) do them.

3.  Remember clutter is a magnet.

Put your keys and sunglasses on the kitchen counter, and before you know it a backpack, today's mail, the TV remote, an e-reader, and someone's dirty snack plate have joined them.  If there's always clutter in the kitchen or in the family room, your kids will be much less likely to clean up after themselves.  It's as if the standard has been lowered.  They think, "Why should I clean up if no one else does?"  So you're going to have a mantra, "Don't just put it down, put it away!"  (This can be said cheerfully, not in anger, if you remember that everyone is learning new habits.)

4.  Keep everything off the floor.

This is an easy cleaning rule.  Nothing belongs on the floor except rugs and the furniture.  You might make this the go-to directive when you ask your kids to clean their rooms.  Don't obsess about their level of tidiness, as long as the floor is clear (including under the bed).  It's so much easier to vacuum, too.  In the living room, this means throw pillows, shoes, electronics, board games, etc. must be put away.  This rule also keeps towels and dirty laundry where they belong.

5.  Embrace the idea of clean enough.

As your kids get older and begin to do more chores around the house, remind yourself that done is better than perfect.  Your 10-year-old may not clean the bathroom as thoroughly as you would, but it's cleaner than it would be if he didn't do it at all.  Instill some "clean as you go" habits, and his competence will gradually increase.

6.  Make your bed every morning.

This changes the entire look of your bedroom.  It's like getting the room dressed and ready for the day.  For kids this can be as simple as pulling up the bedclothes neatly and putting the pillow at the head.

7.  Clean the kitchen completely after dinner.

Wash the pots and pans, wipe the counters, run the dishwasher.  As they get older, the kids can take turns doing this.  I promise you that making the effort to have the kitchen clean and tidy before you go to bed will make a huge difference in your morning mood.  Waking up to a dirty kitchen is like running a deficit.  You feel inadequate before the day has even begun.

In the end, it really comes down to habits.  It will be difficult at the beginning, but as with all things, practice eventually brings mastery.  When you're living in your clutter-free home, you won't feel heavy and defeated.  You'll be able to enjoy your home and your children, because you'll be living more lightly and peacefully.  You'll have more time to do things for yourself and together, enriching your family life instead of feeling trapped by your house.

Monday, May 13, 2019

11 Simple Needs of the Minimalist Baby

Photo courtesy of Steve H.

A young couple I know went into debt preparing a designer nursery for their first child.  At a baby shower for this young mama-to-be, gifts included dozens of cute and complicated newborn-size outfits, miniature patent leather shoes, two baby monitors, a white noise machine, a light-up musical mobile, and an elegant pram-style stroller that was very heavy to lift and probably too large to fit into the trunk of a car.

Family and friends were eager to welcome the new baby, and wanted to show their love by giving gifts.  But the cute gadgets and clothes, though fun to shop for and to give, weren't really going to meet the baby's needs.  Expensive clutter had been given in place of useful necessities, which would still need to be purchased.

Giving birth and caring for a newborn are wonderful but stressful activities.  Why add debt and clutter to sleep deprivation and first-time-parent anxiety?

Obviously, a baby needs some stuff.  But there's a lot of silly spending going on, and the idea that babies need tons of gear is a myth perpetuated by our hyper-consumerist culture.

Gain peace and freedom with minimalism.  A minimalist baby needs:

1.  A car seat.

You must have one correctly installed in order to take your baby home from the hospital.  Check the Consumer Reports buying guide for the best information, and buy new.

2.  A crib.

A crib provides a safe place for baby to sleep independently.  Look for a good used crib, but buy a new mattress.  Two sets of bedding (waterproof pad, fitted sheet, and lightweight blanket) will insure that he always has a warm, clean place to sleep.

3.  A baby wrap or stroller.

"Wearing" your baby in a sling has many benefits, but I found it difficult as I am a large woman and I have sciatica.  So I bought a good used stroller which enabled me to take longer walks and to run errands with my baby.

4.  Diapers.

If you choose cloth diapers, you'll need a diaper pail to store dirty items until wash day.  If you opt for disposables, you'll want an odor lock trash can with a step pedal for used diapers.  Either way, reusable cloth wipes are a great substitute for commercial baby wipes.

5.  Clothes.

A baby grows quickly, making a large wardrobe unnecessary.  You'll probably receive plenty of "photo op" outfits as gifts, but for normal use, 8-10 onesies or sleepers are ample.  A dozen flannel or gauze receiving blankets can function as swaddling, burp cloths, nursing covers, car window shades, towels, bibs, or a clean surface for baby to lay upon.  An infant doesn't need shoes, but use socks or booties in cold weather.  Wrap her warmly in a small blanket with a knit cap on her head.

Once the baby can roll over and sit up, he'll need a hooded jacket appropriate to the weather.  And once he's walking, shoes with Velcro closures are the most practical.  If necessary, provide insulated and/or waterproof boots.

6.  Storage.

A backpack-style diaper bag leaves hands free, and a neutral color can be toted by Mom or Dad.  It should include a changing pad.  At home, a second-hand chest of drawers can store clothes and other items.

7.  Food.

If you're working and plan to breast feed, you'll need a pump.  With half a dozen bottles, you only need to wash them once a day.  Once your child graduates to sippy cups, two should be adequate (just rinse and reuse, then wash in the evening).  The same goes for child-size dishes or eating utensils - two sets will be plenty.

Your six-month-old doesn't need commercial baby food.  Mashed sweet potato, banana, or avocado make good first foods.  So do pureed green peas or green beans.  Try mixing mashed hard-boiled egg yolks or peanut-only peanut butter with a little formula, and spoon feed.

8.  A high chair.

Once your child can sit up and eat solid food, she'll need a chair that's sturdy and easy to clean.

9.  Hygiene and health items.

Many people use a baby bathtub, but the kitchen sink works fine, and will save your back.  Most days, baby only needs a sponge bath anyway.  You'll want a baby-safe hair and body wash, diaper rash cream, baby nail clippers, a nasal aspirator, a digital thermometer, and infant Tylenol.

10.  Toys and books.

Babies don't really need toys.  My infant grandson coos and kicks when the ceiling fan is on!  Older babies are happy with cooking spoons and mixing bowls, boxes, cardboard tubes, or a silky piece of fabric.  Toddlers enjoy an old purse with snaps and zippers, a pair of sunglasses, or a fort made of chairs and blankets.

My point is not that we shouldn't buy toys, but that it's very easy for kids to have too many.  Talk to your baby, cuddle her, sing to her, tickle her, play peekaboo, hold her up so she can see herself in a mirror.  A lightweight rattle or taggie will interest her and give her something to chew on.  Once she can hold her head up, start looking at books together.

For toddlers, building blocks, toy dishes, a bouncy ball, pull-back cars, animal figures, dress-up accessories, and dolls are appropriate toys.  Keep toys minimal and non-electronic so your kids can play creatively.  Spend time on the play structures in your local park, and visit the library with its treasure-trove of books, free to browse or borrow.

11.  Room Décor.

I'm joking; babies don't need décor!  But most parents want to make the nursery cheerful and pretty.

Paint is a simple way to change a room.  Choose zero-VOC paint for all four walls or even just the ceiling.  Crib sheets, window curtains, or an area rug can contrast or coordinate.

Find a wall calendar featuring baby animals, Thomas the Tank Engine, Winnie-the-Pooh or other kid favorites, and use skirt hangers or binder clips to hang the individual pictures.

A hand-me-down rocking chair is perfect for nursing, reading, and cuddling.  Add a seat cushion and a lumbar pillow, and hang a wall lamp.

The nest is ready!


Friday, May 10, 2019

The Busy Child

Just as more and more adults today are proudly wearing the badge "BUSY," so too are more and more children.  Too busy to stop, to engage with others, to listen, to observe, to pay attention, to reflect, to imagine, to properly rest.

Photo by Wayne Lee-Sing on Unsplash

The conventional wisdom is that we must multi-task, we must be on the go, we must push to have a valuable life.  We teach our children that they must do the same: reach for the proverbial stars, or be doomed to a second-rate existence.  We use social media to advertise our successes, making sure our activities, achievements, vacations, and celebrations will be envy-worthy.  What a false and dangerous pursuit.  As a result we are all anxious, acquisitive, insecure, and unsatisfied.

Do yourself and your family a huge favor.  Resist the pressure to let your family schedule become non-stop hectic.  Let minimalism help you decide what you really value, so you can limit your commitments and your child's commitments to what is truly important.

By setting limits, you give yourself and your child the space to fully engage in the activities you choose.

The fear that you or your child will miss out on something is understandable, but ultimately damaging.  Of course you will miss out.  Your time, money, and energy are finite, and so you cannot do everything.

Letting FOMO (the Fear of Missing Out) drive your family schedule will lead to burnout.  Such a blur of activity is more tiring and stressful than most children can handle, and it certainly adds stress to parents' lives as well.  Your child will feel more secure if she is allowed a choice of one or, at most, two extra-curricular activities per season, and she'll have a chance to look forward to the days when these activities take place, rather than being on the run every day.

It's obvious that the more a person practices a skill the more proficient that person will become.  Practice is important in sports, in music, in reading, writing, baking, sewing, handling tools, learning to drive, and all other endeavors.  Only regular practice will bring about improvement.

It's hard to become really proficient at anything if your family schedule is too rushed and cluttered.  A child involved in a different after-school activity every day of the week has no time to focus on acquiring skill in any activity.  This level of busyness also means than homework and family time have to be squeezed into the evening schedule, which makes it tempting to skim over these most important components of a child's life, or to short-change sleep instead.

Even one activity might be too much if it imposes a huge commitment of time. 

Competitive teams that require a lot of travel might effectively destroy family life, or cause it to revolve too much around one child and his team.  Watching your child play soccer or volleyball is not a substitute for time spent talking, listening, playing, and building memories together.  Do you really want all family memories to center on the activities of one team, or would you rather remember good times that include sports along with inside sayings and jokes, holiday traditions, friends and relatives, camping and other trips, making things together, volunteering together, worshiping together?

It's also disturbing that repetitive stress injuries in young children are becoming more common.  I recently heard on NPR's From the Top about a 15-year-old cellist with multiple repetitive stress injuries, so even over-zealous music practice can sometimes cause problems.  It's important to take breaks from organized activities.  The athlete can still enjoy lower-impact options like biking, hiking, and swimming in a non-competitive situation; the musician can listen to recordings and attend concerts.  For the sake of continued physical health and the prevention of burnout, it's a good idea to occasionally participate in something NOT sports- or music-related.

One major contributing factor to over-training noted by Dr. Joel Brenner of the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness "may be parental pressure to compete and succeed."  When a child participates in an activity not because it pleases him but because he wants to please someone else, he will never reach his full potential.  He will always fear failure.

Real success comes from learning how to deal with failure.  Real success comes from improving your skills whether you compete or not.

Real confidence blooms when you're allowed to experiment and find what your interests and talents actually are without pressure to succeed in a certain area or to be "brilliant" at anything.

Minimalism acknowledges that childhood is short, and money and abilities are finite.  If a child doesn't enjoy one sport, she should be free to quit and try another; if she doesn't like playing one instrument she should be free to pick up a different one, or to explore dance or theater or cooking or small engine repair.  Such freedom of choice does not teach your child to be a "quitter."  It allows her to understand herself, to discern what matters to her, and to use her time, talent, and energy wisely.  Eventually she will find something to focus on with passion.  And isn't that the point?

Those afternoons which are not filled with planned activities (and there need to be some) allow more time for your child to finish his homework without rushing.  They allow time for him to ride his bicycle or play tag with neighbor children, providing some relaxed exercise and fresh air.  They allow time for games and other activities with siblings, something that can otherwise become extremely rare as each child matures, makes their own friends, and develops their own interests.  They allow time for freely chosen reading, drawing, and other creative pursuits.

An activity that inspires life-long participation will bring much more happiness and satisfaction to your child than any number of dust-catching trophies.

Monday, May 6, 2019

The Joy of Creative Deprivation

"Lazy Morning (275/366)" by Tim Sackton on Flickr

One of the big traps of lifestyle inflation is what blogger Trent Hamm calls the "repeated splurge".

Let's say there's a particular treat you enjoy.  Maybe you like buying books.  Maybe you like going to the coffee shop.  Maybe you like going to the movies, or eating out.  Whatever it is, when your income is low, you can't do it very often.  It's a splurge and so you look forward to it.  It feels special.

When your income goes up, it's very tempting to indulge in that treat more often.  The problem is that as soon as a splurge becomes a regular event, it stops being special and becomes completely ordinary.  You adapt.  Something you used to think was a great treat is now just an everyday routine… except now the everyday routine is far more expensive than it used to be.  You're not any happier, you're just spending a lot more and you no longer savor something that used to be a treat.

Keep the joy!  Don't let a special treat become unremarkable.  If there's something you really enjoy and appreciate as an occasional splurge, leave it that way.  Don't increase the frequency just because you can afford it.  Not only is that more expensive, but the treat will lose what makes it special.  You'll pay a lot more money for a lot less satisfaction.  And when you repeatedly indulge, you'll have to spend more and more to get the same level of happiness.  It sounds like drug addiction, doesn't it?

In the same way, you may be able to afford to buy all the toys or treats or clothes your child wants.

But if you want to stay on a budget and out of debt, save for her education, save for your own retirement, and be able to give generously to causes you care about, you must control this spending.  Just because you can afford something doesn't mean you should buy it.

This lesson is something more adults desperately need to learn.  According to the Federal Reserve, as of December 2018 consumer debt in America exceeded $4 trillion for the first time ever (and that's not including home mortgages).

As scary as that is, it's almost scarier to contemplate a jaded child.  A child who throws his toys and clothes around because there are always more to come.  A child who learns to overeat because treats are readily available.  A child who is never really thankful for anything.  A child who has no patience.  A child who feels entitled and sees no reason to work or save.  A real-life Veruca Salt who always wants more now.

One way to prevent this horrible outcome is to practice what Amy Dacyczyn called "creative deprivation."  The idea is that if you don't buy a bunch of stuff for your children, they will be grateful for what they have and more creative with what they find.

When you give excessively to your kids (or grandkids), the constant influx of toys, treats, trips, and hours in front of the TV or computer begin to seem normal.  Any reduction in the constant flow is seen as deprivation.

Creative deprivation places space around every event or item so it can stand out and be appreciated.  When toys come only at Christmas and birthdays, or TV viewing is kept to an hour a day, or desserts are saved for Friday night, they become something to anticipate and savor.

For adults, this might mean going out to dinner twice a month instead of three or four times a week, buying new clothes only at the change of seasons instead of every week or two, or checking books out of the library and giving yourself a $20 monthly budget for new books.

Sometimes the last thing we want to do is the right thing.  We don't want to do the dishes, limit Facebook time, exercise, or cook a healthy dinner instead of calling out for pizza.  Sometimes we have to trick ourselves into doing what we should.  We move the alarm clock across the room so it's a pain to hit the snooze button, we add spinach and kale to our peanut butter banana smoothie, and we arrange automatic deposits to our savings account.

As the grownups, we need to help our children learn that there's a difference between needs and wants, and that not all wants should be gratified.  Letting the occasional treat remain exactly that will not only help a child learn gratitude and self control, but will actually increase her enjoyment of the gifts and experiences she receives.

So keep joy in your child's life.  Provide what he needs in terms of food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, affection, time, and attention.  Make him feel secure in those things.  Then occasionally, frugally, and surprisingly splurge on something he wants.

Friday, May 3, 2019

The 20 Toy Rule

Minimalism is not just for nomadic bachelors and downsizing seniors.  It's for everyone, including families with children.  Dealing with issues of clutter, debt, competition, dissatisfaction, busyness, and stress, while discovering true value, peace, gratitude, mindfulness, community, and abundance benefits everyone.  So in honor of Mother's Day (Sunday May 12th in the U.S.), I'm going to devote several posts to issues involving minimalism and parenting.

ds302 "Trail of Tears" by Sharon Drummond on Flickr

In 1995, I was a typical American mom.  My kids got toys on their birthdays, on their half-birthdays, at Christmas, on Valentine's Day, in their Easter baskets, on the first day of summer.  I didn't think I was spoiling them, since we knew several families whose kids got a toy every time they went to McDonald's or Target.  The fact that my kids' toys covered the floors of their bedrooms and half the living room as well seemed a normal part of family life.  And me yelling at them to put their toys away?  That was a normal part of life too.

It wasn't a pleasant part of life, and of course my kids didn't like it either.  One day I had really had it.  I was threatening to throw toys away, and picked up the four-year-old's favorite stuffed animal.  I knew it was his favorite.  It went everywhere he did.  But I was mad enough to threaten the loss of that beloved toy.  With tears in his eyes, he promised to put everything away.  But once he and his six-year-old sister started trying to meet my demands, we all realized the impossibility of the task.  They had too much stuff to put it all away.

I knew I felt stressed when I was surrounded by piles of stuff, or when I had a long to-do list.  Why didn't I know that my kids would be affected by stress too?  Part of the problem was that they felt defeated, overwhelmed by the sheer number of their possessions.

That was the day we agreed on a new rule, a rule that would eventually affect everything: less stuff, more peace.  The less stuff we have, the less overwhelmed we feel, and the happier we are.

With that in mind, I said, "Honeys, we are going to get rid of some things today.  We might throw some things away, or give them away, or put them in a box for our next garage sale, but at the end of it all, you are each going to have only 20 toys left."

We called it The 20 Toy Rule.

Maybe that sounds like a lot, or maybe it doesn't.  But I had to face the fact that I had bought too much, and said yes too often.

At first, both kids looked really worried.  But once we got started talking about their favorite toys, they really got into it.  They were sorting and keeping their most valued toys, getting excited about giving things away "to kids who don't have any toys," and hoping to make a little money in a future yard sale.  They were, believe it or not, actually having fun with the challenge.

I wanted my children to learn contentment with what they had.  I wanted them to be creative rather than acquisitive.  I didn't want them to fall into the trap of always needing more and better things.  But I had to help them learn how to do that, and that meant I had to learn how to do it too.

Once the toys were pared down to the dearest stuffed animals and dolls, the play kitchen (with cookware, food, and dishes), the wooden train set, a bucket of Legos, and some drawing and craft supplies, the task of finding a place for each item was extremely simple.  Most of the discards were battery-operated toys that did only one thing (boring, not imaginative), toys they had outgrown, movie tie-in items (too limiting), and freebie junk.  My kids were left with the things they loved and used.

Keeping toys to a minimum took some discipline.  I had to train my kids to be okay with not having something just because they saw it advertised (in fact, we stopped watching commercial television).  I decided I would not buy any more non-birthday or non-Christmas toys, but it was challenging to follow through.  "But Mom!" was a common refrain, but after a few times of whining and crying and me not giving in, they didn't fuss as much.  Sometimes they would point out a toy they liked, and I would remind them that their birthday (or half-birthday or Christmas) was coming.  We put rules in place, and we had to stick to them.  It was hard at first, but it got easier once it became a habit.

They were more inventive and self-directed with fewer toys.  Both kids started drawing more and crafting things with paper (we always had art supplies).  Both learned some hand sewing with fabric scraps and notions I supplied.  They started playing with their dad's chess set.  They made up a secret language and wrote stories about the "travels" and "adventures" of their stuffed animals (with hilarious misspellings).  Our daughter started composing her own music to play on the piano, and our son learned a lot about rocks and astronomy.

Disciplining them helped me discipline myself, and I learned to love the freedom of limits.  My children could be free of the "gimmies," they could create their own games and their own fun, and I learned that I could be the same way.  That was the beginning of minimalism for me.