Read an Excerpt
Getting Started on Living Simply with Children
For most American families, “living simply with children” is the ultimate oxymoron.
Between Mom and Dad working full-time jobs, the kids being shuttled from day care to lessons to sports—wolfing down fast food along the way—and the never-ending need to buy and spend to “fit in” to America’s consumer culture, family life can indeed be incredibly complex.
But in reality, simplicity and childhood are natural counterparts. Left to their own devices, children lead down-to-earth, uncomplicated, genuine lives. This truth becomes profoundly clear when you hear an infant squeal with delight over a game of “peekaboo.” Or when you see the three-year-old birthday boy playing with the box instead of the battery-operated toy. You realize it when you witness the rapt expression of a kindergartner listening to a bedtime story.
As simple living mom Barbara Thomas notes, “Children are simple creatures. We bring the complexity.” Single mom Susan Kelly adds that “consumerism and advertising would have us believe that children need a zillion things to have a good life, but children make the most of simple things.”
I heard this theme over and over as I interviewed families for this book: Living simply with children is the most natural and beneficial way to raise kids, parents said. And if fami- lies chose to live on deserted islands, far away from all of the forces and pressures of our consumer culture, then living simply with children would be a breeze.
But most of us aren’t cut off from the rest of the world. We’re trying to live simply within a larger community that leads a much more consumeristic and frenetic existence. There- in lies the complexity.
Living simply with kids in today’s American culture presents gigantic obstacles. Among the hurdles are:
•Marketing aimed at kids and parents, indoctrinating them with the belief that happiness can be purchased
•Age-inappropriate and violent media
•The peer pressure of a society that believes more is better
•Overscheduling of children and adults
•Practices that harm the environment and, consequently, children’s futures
•The commercialization of schools
•The sheer excess that has become the norm in America
The purpose of this book is to help parents navigate the maze of materialism and the frenzied pace that society sets up for them and their kids. It will show parents how they can shelter their kids from the corporate culture; teach and model important values like compassion, generosity, and respect for the earth; and slow down and enjoy both quality and quantity time with their families. And it will make clear to parents that by doing these things, their kids’ childhoods will be focused on the good stuff, which of course isn’t stuff at all.
Living Simply—With or Without Children
Focusing on the “good stuff” is what simplicity is all about. Living simply—sometimes referred to as “downshifting” or “downscaling”—is both the means and the end to a meaningful life. A downshifter weeds out those aspects of his or her life that are of no lasting value and concentrates instead on those matters that are important. For example, a typical simplifier may consciously conclude that owning expensive cars, designer clothing, and a palatial home are not among her “values,” but that spending time with her family, working on worthy causes, and showing respect for people and the planet are. Simplicity will help her live with the “good stuff” at the forefront.
Living simply is clearly a financial means to such a life. By living simply—and consuming less—you can work part-time or retire early (or both!) freeing up time to focus on those things that matter most to you. Living simply is also a psychological and spiritual pathway to a more meaningful existence. Without distractions, without financial worries, our minds and hearts are released to pursue our true interests.
Simplicity is also an end in itself. A life focused on the nonmaterial aspects of existence—family, friends, nature, social service, those things that most of us value—is the goal of simplicity. As an end, the adoption of simple lifestyles by western megaconsumers is truly the only way we’re going to save the planet. And living simply is also the method we must employ if we care about global economic and social justice.
A few words on what simplicity is not. It’s not about being a penny-pinching miser. It is about consuming less, which often means saving considerable sums and/or being able to spend that money on other areas, like charitable causes, early retirement, kids, or travel. Simplicity is not about being supremely organized or having some zenlike interior decorating scheme, although mainstream media might lead you to think so. Decluttering—getting rid of excess—can, however, lead to a natural sort of organization. And simplicity isn’t necessarily about an easy life. Even those who manage to retire early by simplifying, by and large devote much time and effort to volunteer work. But while they continue to work, they’re engaged in activities that they love—helping others, primarily—without the stress that many Americans feel, so it’s easier on their psyches.
Contrary to some reports, simplicity is not about deprivation. Those practicing simplicity in North America typically are quite comfortable by global standards. The only thing they’ve given up is the unnecessary and unsatisfying excess that is common in America. In exchange, they receive the luxury of time, peace of mind, and happiness.
Because I believe that this misconception about deprivation keeps many people from simplifying, let me offer another way to look at it. The entire concept of simplicity is relative, both geographically and temporally. If a resident of a third world nation, or even one from one of the “developing nations”—in other words, about 80 percent of the world’s population—were to visit my family’s modest, by American standards, home, they would be in awe. Our 1,600-square-foot single-family house would stun them. Indoor plumbing! Electricity! Three bedrooms! Telephones! A refrigerator and microwave! CD player! Two computers! A VCR! A mansion of miracles!
The same thoughts would be harbored by my ancestors—even my own parents, who grew up without most of these things.
In other words, my family’s “simple ways” don’t seem simple at all to most of the world’s citizens. They’d consider them opulent. And I do too, to an extent. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be able to live comfortably—with every thing I could possibly need or want. So while some of my contemporaries in this country consider my life a bit austere— no cell phone, an older car, simple wardrobe, no high-speed Internet connection, DVD, or Palm Pilot—at least four-fifths of the world’s people would be happy to trade places with me.
Simplicity, then, is about not being a typical American, because in today’s society being an average American translates into being a consumer; indeed, a megaconsumer. That lifestyle is best described as materialism—the belief that acquisition and wealth are the highest objectives to be sought, rather than spiritual, intellectual, and humanitarian goals—and it’s the opposite of simplicity.
Materialism dictates that you should try to meet your needs through the acquisition of things. It promises, at best, that happiness, acceptance, and love lie just around the corner with a bigger house, newer car, faster computer, trendier clothing.
But materialism never actually delivers on its promises. Each new purchase, latest promotion, bigger and better model, merely sets you up for the next acquisition.
At its worst, materialism ruins the natural environment, creates a situation where billions of people go without adequate resources, while a fraction at the top live in waste. And with its emphasis on things rather than people and nature, materialism robs our souls.
Simplicity is the antidote to all that materialism represents and to all of its soul-sapping, earth-exhausting consequences. Simplicity promises a life that is focused not on the unsatisfying accumulation of stuff, but on those issues, values, people, pursuits, and causes that matter most to you and that make life full and meaningful. And, unlike materialism, simplicity keeps its word.
In the final analysis, simplicity is about living our lives as we know in our hearts they were meant to be lived. This book will help you take that equation a step further and raise your children as you know in your hearts they were meant to be raised.
From the Trade Paperback edition.