It’s a perpetual struggle as parents. Having kids bring a whole lot of joy, noise, and it seems, clutter.
Is it inevitable? Are we destined to step on legos, find dirty t-shirts under the sofa, rainbow bands all over the floor of the minivan, doll paraphernalia strewn about the family room, and army men in with the pots and pans?
I’ve been mulling around ideas and possible solutions a lot over the past couple of years, and the answer I come to most frequently is “what if we (and they) simply had less stuff?”.
Revolutionary? Not really. Less stuff equals less mess. It seems like a pretty simple equation.
But culturally, socially, it’s not the message we’re receiving as parents. Don’t good parents provide elaborately decorated bedrooms (one per child, of course), and handsome playrooms with shelves and bins full of toys to entertain? If we provide our kids with less stuff, are we depriving them?
Last year, as we traveled abroad and lived out of backpacks, our kids had less playthings than they’ve ever had before in their lives. Besides their miniscule wardrobes, not a whole lot fit in their bags, so they each had a handful of playthings, maybe a small “friend” (stuffie or figurine), some playsilks, small purses, travel trinkets (shells, rocks, pieces of pottery), and a notebook with colored pencils. That’s about it.
Though they struggled with boredom early on in the trip, they grew accustomed to it after a while and less become the new more. They played longer, more creatively, and more intently with their few items. They (mostly) cared for them better, though not perfectly. They impressed me with how they made playthings out of nothing and entertained themselves for hours with hardly anything.
It was surprising. And surprisingly good. I liked it and had this deep down feeling it was good for them.
A couple months ago, I received Joshua Becker’s book “Clutterfree with Kids“. I finally got a chance to read it on a recent flight. As I read, I wrote scores of quotes and notes for myself, and easily came up with a huge list of questions to ask him.
This topic fascinates. How minimalistic living is not only possible with kids, but actually beneficial. At least, that’s what Joshua thinks and I’m inclined to agree.
An interview with Joshua Becker of Becoming Minimalist, about his book Clutterfree with Kids.
Stephanie: I’ve noticed that many of the most happy, intentional, and productive people I know lean towards the minimalistic side, which intrigues me. Why do you think that might be?
Joshua: Wow, Stephanie, I had no idea you considered me so happy, intentional, and productive! Just kidding. Seriously though, I do think you are on to something. When we intentionally decide to own fewer things, we open ourselves to countless life-giving benefits: more time, more energy, more money, less stress, just to name a few. No doubt these benefits contribute to our happiness and productivity.
Another benefit is an increased pursuit of intentionality in all areas of life—not just possessions. Trying to live with only necessary possessions forces people to answer questions about purpose and values. And then work to align life around them.
Stephanie: Many people think of being clutterfree or minimalist as a purely outward, external change. You get rid of stuff and life is simpler. End of story.
But you talk over and over again about the internal changes that resulted, and how it led to living with far more intention and meaning and significance. Can you talk more about that?
Joshua: Minimalism forces questions of value and purpose and significance. Think of it this way, you can’t really know which possessions are essential without an understanding of your highest purpose.
This was surprising to me at first. I thought I was just going to be removing a bunch of clutter from my home. But instead, I was forced to journey inward and ask some hard questions. For example, if I was no longer going to find success and meaning in the things that I owned, where would I look? And how would I need to design my life in pursuit of them?
Stephanie: I love how you talk about your children learning the values of contentment, and realizing they are far happier with less than they were with more. Would you say your kids are fully on board with minimalism?
Joshua: I have two kids: my son is 11 and my daughter is 8. From the very beginning, my oldest has been onboard. I remember, early on, asking him to go through his toys and being surprised at how many things he offered to donate. Nowadays, if he has a scooter, a soccer ball, and his friends down the street, he’s happy.
My daughter is much more of a collector. She likes dolls and clothes and stuffed animals. Interestingly enough, she’s exactly like I was at her age so I try to show her grace and patience. If it took my 33 years to understand minimalism, why should I expect her to understand everything at age 8. We model it for her and establish boundaries for her things.
Stephanie: What pursuits has minimalism freed up your family for? What passions have you discovered as a result?
Joshua: We never realize how strong the grasp of consumerism is on our lives until we try to remove it. But when we do (or at least learn to ease the grasp a little bit), we discover our lives are freed to pursue whatever we want. We are able to search for happiness and fulfillment elsewhere.
As a family, we have found more opportunity for trips and vacations and experiences. And those are great, but they still don’t totally satisfy. I find my greatest fulfillment in spirituality and generosity—minimalism has allowed a greater presence of both in my life.
Stephanie: I noticed that during our year abroad, and since we’ve been back, our children have grown by leaps and bounds in their creativity and their ability to make fun out of almost nothing. Have you seen this to be true with your own children? Can you share any examples with us?
Joshua: Oh, definitely. In fact, two German public health workers (Strick and Schubert) once conducted an experiment in which they convinced a kindergarten classroom to remove all of their toys for three months. They found the same thing to be true: increased creativity.
It makes sense in our minds and in the real world. When kids are required to stretch their imagination muscle, it responds. My kids have responded with a much greater appreciation for nature than ever before. We never went hiking before embracing fewer possessions, but now we love it.
Stephanie: You say that people should just start (somewhere, anywhere) and leave their toughest decisions (on decluttering and getting rid of things) for the end… I’m curious. What were your family’s tough areas? What did you get rid of last? Why did you hold off on, and how did it feel when you finally let go?
Joshua: My wife and I would probably have different answers to this one. There were very few sentimental/emotional attachments that I had to work through.
For me, the toughest areas were those that required a lot of intentional time and energy (our basement storage for example). I worked on it little by little for a few years. Eventually we moved to a smaller house. And that move was the final piece of motivation that caused me to finish the project.
Stephanie: You talk about developing habits for dealing with clutter on a continual basis (after you’ve done the big clutter purge). What types of habits have you had to train your children in? Has it been successful? This is a real challenge for me, probably because I struggle myself with developing these regular habits.
Joshua: There are definitely some habits that I enjoy more than others. Believe it or not, I really love hand-washing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen. It feels great to start the morning with a beautifully clean kitchen.
Our kids have boundaries for their things. My daughter’s toys need to fit in the closet and her collections need to fit in her bottom drawer. She knows if the toys spill out for too long, her dad is going to start questioning her about it.
And they know I feel it is important to clean up messes at the end of the day. Many of our evenings end with me saying, “And be sure to take these things back to your room before you go to bed.” There are obvious exceptions. But most of the time, I think the consistency is helpful. It’s an important life-skill I want them to learn.
Stephanie: I love your rule of owning only ONE. I resonate with what you’re saying about how you take better care of items when you have just that one, you use everything that you have, and you can also own higher quality items.
What would you say to someone’s resistance to owning just one of everything? And besides the obvious (things like forks or underwear come to mind), what does this rule not apply to?
Joshua: My goal is to not allow possessions to become a burden in my life. When we own too many, they become a burden requiring our time, money, and energy. But the same can be true if we own too little. The goal is to find the optimal amount—which I have discovered is usually less than we actually own.
For that reason, I challenge people to consider owning just one of a certain item, test it out. I own only one sweatshirt. I love it and I wear it everyday. I have one coffee-mug that I use everyday. We have one set of linens for each of our beds. We have one television. And it all works for us. But these things will always change from family to family. I encourage people to experiment and test it out. You might be surprised.
Stephanie: How did your children react when you first began the process of decluttering and removing their personal belongings, like toys or bedroom items? Was there any resistance? What about now, as they have gotten older… have they struggled with wanting more or wanting to hold on to things?
Joshua: There is definitely resistance at times—especially as my daughter has gotten a bit older (she just turned 8 last weekend). This might be surprising coming from somebody who writes so often about the topic, but honestly, minimalism is not the most important thing I want my kids to learn from me. I want them to know I loved God, I loved family, and I tried to live as selflessly as possible.
When they grow older and move away, this is the life I want them to live. These are the battles worth fighting. Now certainly I think minimalism makes each of those more available in my life, but it’s still just a tool to get there—and it is helpful for me to always remember that.
Want to read more on this topic? You can find his book Clutterfree with Kids at Amazon, in Kindle or paperback format.