This is from my weekly email. Normally, I like to have the email essay go only to subscribers, but I had so many requests to share this that I posted it here. If you’d like to get my weekly short essays on How to Be a Happier Parent (even when I’m not), you should subscribe! It’s free and fun and usually cheerful. Except for that one time with the car thing.)
Here’s what we did last week: swapped rooms. One sister moved to the guest room, the other sister moved to the boys’ room and the boys moved to the biggest bedroom, previously inhabited by their sisters.
In the process, we took every single thing out of every single room and closet, and five years of accumulation became bag after bag of trash, and pile after pile of stuff to pass on. The result is glorious, but the way it felt to deal with all of those unwanted stuffed animals, crushed puzzle books and broken remote control just-about-anythings wasn’t. All I could think was, why did we buy this stuff in the first place?
I know why. Someone wanted it at the time. I felt indulgent, or wanted to end the whining, or reward good behavior. I hoped it would perform some magic not offered by the dozens of earlier purchases, and offer long term fun outside of the screen.
It’s both the blessing and the curse of our age that stuff—adorable or fun or amusing or briefly useful—is cheap and plentiful. You can get 10 yo-yos or a t-shirt or a tiny solar-powered dancing cactus for less than the price of a latte. Sometimes it seems like there’s no reason to say no to the pleading child wearing the giant souvenir sunglasses.
But there is.
Beyond the questions of environmental sustainability and the gradual emptying of our wallets lies the personal price of owning everything you can afford in a world where production and consumption have gone mad. Most of the stuff we buy our kids goes from treat to burden in less than the time it takes to get it home and realize they didn’t even take it out of the car. (Tweet that if you want!)
This isn’t a problem previous generations of parents have wrestled with, unless their name was Carnegie. Your parents will tell you that it’s you. You spoil those kids. They would never give them all this stuff. But they didn’t live in a world where teams passed out branded teddy bears at minor league baseball games, and you could get things we never dreamed existed for 300 tickets at an arcade.
Our parents had to teach us the value of a dollar. We have to do that too–and teach our kids the true cost of all the stuff that’s basically free. (Yeah, you can tweet that too.)
So what would I do differently if I could, and what will I change now? Sure, I’ll just say no more often. But here’s some other lines I’ve got planned:
“If you remember to ask me to come back for that tomorrow, we will.”
“Yes, you can buy that with your allowance. But if you don’t, I’ll give you an extra $ towards [whatever they’re saving for].”
“You can only buy that if you still want it by Friday.”
Those are helping. But the biggest thing I’m doing to encourage my kids to put the cheap and cheerful back on the shelf is to do it myself. Ever since I read My Year of No Shopping by Ann Patchett in January, I’ve put my own shopping on delay mode. If I want something beyond groceries, books and other needs (extension cords in a length we don’t have, that little piece that lets my headphones plug into my fancy new iPhone), I put it on a list, and at the end of the month, if I still want it, I buy it.
So far, the only thing* to make the cut was noise-cancelling headphones. Unpurchased items include: cute yoga mat. Apple Pencil. Ukulele. Candles. Washi tape. A thing to squash cans for recycling.
The only way to give our kids the pleasure of having things that are precious is to help them keep from having too many things—and while we’re at it, we can rediscover that pleasure for ourselves.
Buy it later. Or better yet, not at all.
*I did forget I wasn’t buying anything one day and buy a t-shirt in Portland, Maine that said “If loving donuts is wrong, I don’t want to be right.” I don’t regret that, though. I’m wearing it now.