Ideas for Raising a Minimalist Kid

by - Sunday, August 20, 2017

Ideas and Strategies for Raising Minimalist Kids
picture by jenny bickel photography

I want my children to have less than I did.

I know this sounds crazy. Who says that? The American Dream includes the idea that we all give our children more than we had. If we are good parents, we dream for abundance for our children. That if we are doing things right, our children have more than we had.

What happens if we want our children to have less?

At the very least, I want my children to have less stuff.

I don't think I have fewer dreams for my children than any other generation of parents did, and I do want them to have more in some ways- more adventures, more stability, more sushi than I did, but I think in the long run, we will do our children a tremendous service if they have less possessions, less spacious living, less baggage.

Before you get offended on my lovely parents' behalf (I am grateful for my upbringing and my husband's), hear me out. We are offered so many conveniences and gadgets to help manage our life, but those conveniences come at a deep cost that our children and grandchildren will have to pay.

-Too much costs our kids their healthy food and water. The (then still relatively new) disposable diapers our parents used for us 20 or 30 years ago still have 400 years on this planet, in the landfills and soil our children will eat from and the water they will drink. These options are way more prominent now- those HORRIBLE snack pouches can't be recycled, so you have saved 3 minutes now, but that pouch will outlive your grandkids. Not actually that great a deal.

- Too much costs our kids the environment. The plastic toys we played with as kids will also outlive our children, and how many do you really remember? Why not only get used or recycled plastic toys for our kids?

- Too much costs our kids their future jobs. Because the market creates a demand for LOTS of toys (more toys is better than better toys), parents are looking for toys that are cheap. To make cheap toys, mainstream companies like Fisher Price and Melissa and Doug make all their toys in China. Those cheap toys mean someone is treated badly, fossil fuels are completely wasted in shipping, and more American jobs that can't compete with the prices fold. So fewer American jobs.

-Too much costs our kids their own happiness. Overconsumption when they are kids set them up for unhealthy habits through adulthood. If something breaks, replace it instead of fix it. More will make you happier (it's proven it never does). We all have to ask when these piles of stuff stop helping us and instead weigh us down.

- Too much costs our kids their time with us. It's well-documented that new American parents are pretty miserable. Some of these problems- like a cultural lack of a support system- can't be solved this way, but other's can. On average, our generation of parents lives in 1000 square foot larger homes than our parents did. What are we doing with all that space? And think of how much time all that extra space (and stuff that fills it) takes- we have to clean all of that! And if you have a toddler, you know life is like 80% cleaning. If we live in smaller spaces, our houses may not scream abundance and variety, but we win a lot of time back to just spend with our kids.

This dream of bigger and better keeps us working that much harder to just survive, when just surviving can be hard as it is. I see these beautiful pictures of children's spaces that look modern and pristine, not overun with toys, books, and clothes. I don't think my house will ever be that minimalist, and I am certainly still new at this.

 But the idea of effectively giving my children less is an ongoing challenge as a parent (we are in need of a purge at my house right now), so I thought I would share the ideas I have had and what has really been working. No one is going to be perfect here, but we can all do a little better. It will make a world of difference to our kids. Let's do this.

ideas for raising minimalist kids

1. Say Goodbye to Cable

Enough opinions are floating around about screen time (it rots your kids' brain vs. screenphobia is just the latest stand against Stay at Home Moms), but my beef isn't with a screen. Pick the amount of screen time that works for your family, Netflix it up, but stay away from media with ads. When you have cable, or you are watching any programming directed at children, you need to weed out these overstimulating and overpromising snippets.

Ads are designed to send a constant message- you aren't enough, you don't have enough, and that you won't be happy until you have this thing.

This is a pretty dangerous game of desire for anyone, much less kids. And before you roll your eyes and think your child is above it, just remember that these people really, really know what they are doing. They get degrees in how to send that message. They do research on how to do it most effectively. They get paid millions of dollars to do it. This is a serious business, and they are good at it. But, there is no law saying your kid needs to watch things that tell them what they want. Even

You get to choose what normal is, and do your kids a favor by keeping cable out of your home.

2. Just Stay Away from the Toy Section

Kids can't want every toy on the shelf if they don't know what is on the shelf.

The best way to get out of this game of desire is to just refuse to play. Stay out of the toy sections of most stores, and they won't know every little thing that is out there. If your kids are older, don't shop at stores you know will cause drama. Will this save you from the occasional breakdown in the grocery store? Nope. Does it mean your child will never want toys they see at friends' houses? Nope. Is this guaranteed to save you from Elsa or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Nope.

But it does make wanting stuff less a part of their regular life. We are trained to see wanting more as a regular part of life, but I have had really good luck sidestepping this whole narrative by staying out of places that encourage them to want stuff.

When we are at Goodwill, I will let my sons pick out one thing to take home. Anywhere else, they can look, even touch, but nothing is coming home with us. The less time we spend in Target's toy aisles, the less I have to have this fight.

too full christmas tree

3. Slow Your Roll Out

My sister in law taught me this, and it is genius. When her son would get a giant pile of loot from a birthday or Christmas, she just packed a bunch back up and gave them out when he seemed bored with the last thing. After Christmas, let 2 or 3 gifts stay out, and everything else goes into storage. As the previous gifts wear out (over weeks and months), another new object can come out.

We love that feeling of abundance, that fantasy of the super full Christmas tree, but gifting that way isn't very practical and the kids can't appreciate it anyway.

Kids can only process so much at a time, so those big gift mountains seem cool, but lots of toys get lost in the shuffle. Most children do get sick of things. Instead of constantly needing new toys, you just use what they were already gifted and Christmas last much longer! When they are little, they will not know the difference. When they are a little older, you can let them choose what will be a "now" toy and what will be a "later" one.

reverse advent calendar
from Mum in the Madhouse

4. Make Giving a Family Tradition and Habit

At Christmastime, many families have an advent calendar with treats inside. What if this year, each member of your family gave one thing away every day in Advent? Or connected it to holidays that you celebrate? To teach your kids about taking better care of the Earth, you have to illustrate the act of giving. Let them pick toys to gift.every day during a holiday season, then go together as a family to give it away.

Make it a tradition, whatever time of year you have the most time. Have your spring cleaning tradition include a big family day where you drop things off and donate things to charities. Let them participate with you on Buy Nothing once a month. Pick what works for you, but pick something and include your little ones.

Another way to bring this in? Don't have gift birthday parties; if you think people can't help but bring something, ask for donations instead. We have been to cool parties that collected for women's shelters and for the humane society. Decouple holidays with "you get lots of stuff"- you will be surprised just how little they miss it!

 I whole-heartedly believe that we have to model the behavior we want to see from our children, so if you want them to be generous (and non-materialistic), then you have to make giving a regular part of life. It well help your house stay cleaner, help them assess what they really care about, and in the end could be such a fun tradition!

5. Celebrate a New Kind of Birthday

Birthdays can be a serious challenge if you are trying to raise kids with less stuff. Even if you don't buy a lot (we buy our kids one gift for each birthday), one party full of well-meaning people, and your house might be overflowing with plastic nonsense.

So one of the key skills to protecting your kids from stuff is answering the "what does Betty want for her birthday?" question. The answer should always start with "Honestly, time with you. She loves being with you!" Encourage family to gift experiences and memberships instead of toys. Doubly encourage them to actually go and have that experience with your kid. They won't get that immediate high of a gift being opened, but I guarantee you that memory-making time (at the zoo, the symphony, at a park for a picnic, at their favorite pizza place, check this post for ideas) will become an addictive gift. Need more ideas? Check out these posts for 1, 2, 3 and 4 year olds' minimalist gifts.

That said, some people will never listen to you. Brush it off and move on.

The other big key? Throw a No Gift birthday party. In some areas, saying no gift is pretty commonplace, in others, it is mind-blowing. Either way, you are doing the right thing AND opening the door or some other parent to do the same thing. Here are our best tips on how to say "no gifts" on an invitation without offending people. Stick to it by skipping the terrible goodie bags full of nothing, so you aren't giving unwanted gifts either. Give really good food and a fun time instead.

That said, some people will still bring a gift. It's ok. The goal here is to cut down on gifts, not to eliminate them completely. All of these things give your child the gift of seeing celebrating as something bigger than just receiving things.

6. Spend More Time Outside

Inside, my kids will beg for screen time or dump out the toy basket looking for just the right Hot Wheels car. Outside, they can stay busy with a stick and a pile of rocks for HOURS. Encouraging exploration and imaginative play outside helps your child's development. Time outside encourages a love for nature, collaborative play, and growing that beautiful imagination.

I love play outside. For whatever reason, I am a better mom just from being outside. I am just calmer and happier, I don't have to worry about mess, and I let my kids take more risks. My goal everyday is for my kids to spend at least one hour outside. Studies show 4-6 (!!!) hours is ideal. Outdoor play reminds us just how little kids need to entertain themselves, and if you have reached the end of your rope with your kids, my best advice is to just go outside.

7. Don't Buy Characters

If given the choice, our kids are going to want the backpack or lunch box with their favorite character on it. Who wouldn't want Moana with them at school? I highly recommend you buy things with plainer colors and make them last. Your kids' taste in characters will change, sometimes pretty dramatically, but a plain red or blue backpack/ lunchbox/ bed spread can last many years. Shop with the intention for something to last 5+ years, because the longer it lasts, the less you have to buy.

If you want to make it fun, look up patches or stickers on Etsy and add the characters in a more low key (and removable) way!

8. Stress Connection, Not Consumption

We know that people use shopping and consumerism to try to avoid problems from loneliness to sadness and more. Even for kids, we are looking to improve moods or avoid the ever-terrifying boredom. Our kids need more connections to others, not more consumerism!

Don't shop as a passtime. Have a playdate instead. Especially when they are younger, encourage their friendships and cure boredom by spending time together. Go to a playground, library, or community center; the goal here is to encourage them to find newness and excitement in the company of others, not in the accumulation of stuff. This seems obvious, but it is one of the things each generation struggles with more.

This also makes life easier on the parents, especially stay at home parents. You need connections too. These relationships with other parents and other kids can minimize boredom and offset the loneliness of being a poop manager all day long. You definitely get a positive rush from shopping, but sustained happiness comes from the feeling of being in a community and the bonds we have with others. Just shifting our mindset to focus on those bonds will also change our relationships to stuff.

9. Don't Buy More Storage, Cut Out Stuff

The first problem lots of us face is that our house is ALREADY overflowing with stuff. How can we be minimalists if our house is already out of control?

It can be so tempting when the toys are taking over to think of more storage solutions. I get that, and I am not saying we don't have a plastic tub of toys in the basement, but before you get another toy box, book shelf, or hot wheels shelf, why not just give things away?

To have a house that makes sense, you need places for everything to go. If you no longer have enough destinations for toys, maybe there are too many toys. If you have so much storage that your kid can't see all of their toys in a day, you probably have more than they need.

This can be particularly helpful if you start when your kids are older. If you talk about their things in terms of a limitation of space, you can narrow down the things that need to stay based on spatial limitations. They can only keep as many books as fit on the shelf, toys that fit in the basket, etc. Just know, they will not pick the things you wish they would. You have to have some peace in that before things even start.

swap borrow and buy used toys
passed to us by a neighbor, passed on to a third child in the neighborhood

10. Swap, Borrow, and Get it Used

The difference between a minimalist lifestyle and a house full of stuff (even for kids) is seeing possessions as temporary. Join a library and you always have a resource for new books (and a place to connect with other moms and kids). Join your local freecycle or Buy Nothing groups, you can pass kids stuff around. Just ask friends if they want to do book or toy swaps to switch things up in your house.

 I feel like as kids, we treated our toys and collections like they were essential parts of our identities, and it made it hard to let them go even as adults. But your kid can still love Frozen without having every Elsa and Anna item in the world (is that even possible? God bless Disney and their marketing genius). Only a few things can be precious, everything else should be moved around before it sticks to a spot on the shelf.

Every parent of a toddler is constantly encouraging them to share (it's tough!), but this is a way to push that a step further, treating sharing as a part of life. The more they do it, the easier it gets to flex that muscle. That said, if they are adamant about keeping something, don't push it. That can set them up for failure later. But keep borrowing and sharing; it's a good feeling!

11. Have Confidence They Have Enough

This is easy to say but so hard to feel. Parents right now are under constant pressure about how they manage their kids, their time, their money, everything. We can look around and see someone else who is doing a better job in various ways. We feel self-concious because that Stay at Home Parent gives their kids so much time (and loves to talk about it) or the double income household has so many resources for travel or activities. We feel frustrated because we can't give our kids everything they want. We try to compensate by giving little gifts because we can see how happy it makes our kids, even for a second.

We have to have confidence we are giving our kids what they need. Parenting is so tough, because success can me so hard to define or measure- how do you ever know if you are doing alright? Sometimes shopping is as much about ourselves as our kids, because we can at least feel certain we are providing. A bigger house or well-dressed kid makes us feel like we are filling their needs well, not just enough.

Abundance feel like success, but it isn't. You know that, because no number of shopping trips really makes us feel like we are enough. If it worked, you would feel amazing already. Don't set your kid up for the same race with no finish line.

You are an amazing parent, and this job is HARD.

There isn't a void that you need to fill. Nothing you can buy will make up for that thing you wish you had done better.  It's a cliche, but your kid really does just want to be with you. Go to a playground instead of a store, and you will give them something worth remembering. Get clothes and toys used and save your money. Your kid doesn't know the difference, and you just have to keep building yourself up that you are  doing great at this job just by caring and getting in there. I don't know how to build this confidence more other than reminding ourselves, but it's a constant battle we need to fight. Buying mostly doesn't make us do a better job, but taking the pressure off and just enjoying our kids does.

playing in a blanket fort

12. Use What You Have

We all know kids love cardboard boxes, but it is amazing how far you can make one cardboard box go for play time. Blanket forts make amazing memories too, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.

At my job, people donate all sorts of objects that could be "art supplies" for a shopping space and classes for kids. This includes baby food jars, toilet paper rolls, flooring samples, jewelry boxes, gift wrap, broken crayons- all kinds of stuff we tend to see as junk and throw away. But you reframe that for a kid (turn the jewelry box into a robot, use the toliet paper rolls to make fireworks, make a "home" for a stuffed animal), and you can provide hours of entertainment, conversation, learning, and creativity. This isn't conjecture, it is my job and I see it all the time. Junk, when mixed with creative framing, is always an opportunity. Need a rattle? Clean and fill an old bottle with beans.

 That kind of creative play isn't always easy to come up with, so thank goodness we live in the time of pinterest. You can find so many ideas on there.

13. Slow it Down and Just Be Together

I know I am so guilty of this one. As an introvert parent of an extreme extrovert, I often feel desperate for a minute to just catch my breath (or check my email), and some days I know I don't enjoy the time with my kid as much as I should. I feel sometimes like toys are partially just tools to give parents a minute.

Whenever an older generation parent tells me "Oh it goes so fast," I try hard not to roll my eyes. Really? Because this sleep deprivation is making everything move in slow motion. I feel like a zombie, but with worse skin and hair.

But there is a lot of wisdom in the suggestion to let things go and slow down to our kids' speed. It doesn't mean we don't get those minutes or that we don't deserve a break while working and parenting, but when you are going to be there, really be there.

 The Bub and I have literally spent hours (this week) playing with a baseball hat and a pair of kitchen tongs. Even with older kids, you don't need many objects to have a perfectly great time. Go for a walk. Go to a playground. Just listen to them. Children are just tiny human beings, and they just want heard like everyone else. A game of tag (or robot tag) can be more fun than any toy, so the more you can focus when the quality time comes, the fewer things you need.

ideas for raising minimalist kids

Ideas and Strategies for Raising Minimalist Kids

So there you have it, buy less and give more. It will help them be their best selves, minimize everyone's stress, and you get to clean less!

Change the goals and you may just raise kids who aren't as caught up in this consumerist minefield we are all trying to navigate right now. We both know it creates a lot more work, a tremendous number of problems, and very little of the happiness or solutions that we are constantly promised. We can protect our children's futures from waste and from that constant want by shifting our attitudes now. Let's give ourselves a freaking break and give our kids less.

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  1. This is amazing! Love this and I dearly hope more people come to embrace this! Thanks for putting this out into the world

  2. We've practiced the art of "visiting toys" when we are at places like Target with our oldest daughter since she was about one---always picking out one toy to hang out with during the trip, then giving it a big hug and putting it back in it's place at the end. It's by far been one of the best decisions we've made. She gets to "play" with different toys, but we don't spend mountains of money or accumulate stuff around our house. Love so much in this post!

  3. This is so great and I need to use some of these tips. My boys are so easily distracted because they have too many options!

  4. Great post, I need to learn how to convey to my little ones that what they have is enough and not to always think their happiness in having more.

  5. I just adore this post! We are working to raise our kids with less, and I love some of your tips and strategies.

  6. Oh my gosh, I love this! I really need to go through my kids toys. I feel like I never buy them anything, but things just accumulate so quickly!! Really need to do a big clear out soon.

  7. Great thoughts. Thanks for the post. I love the being outside more idea and participating in swaps. We love being outside and it really helps us reset and appreciate what we do have. And swaps save money and saves "stuff."

  8. I am trying to do this with my kids. They have SO much stuff, I spend a lot of time purging and explaining why they don't need it all. My older kids are a lot more receptive and work with me a lot more.

  9. We do the slow your rollout too! My kids get way overstimulated at Christmas and their birthdays.

  10. What an incredibly informative post with great ideas!

  11. This is a unique view. One I’ve never thought about before.

  12. Absolutely spot on ! And really really nicely written. Everything you have mentionned is so so important to my husband and me. I have profited of this fantastic explanation and have sent this to my family 😁! Really, well done, it couldnt have been written better !



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