|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.