4 Ways to Raise a Minimalist Kid

Updated on February 5, 2018
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Let’s face it: One of the most common ways for a young child to begin a sentence is “I want.” Kids are naturally attracted to a lot of what they see, and we naturally want to get things for them, whether it’s an adorable outfit on sale or a book we loved when we were young.

But learning to be happy with what you have is an important life skill, one I decided very early on that I wanted to teach my daughter.

Our family lives in a small, old house with tiny closets and minimal storage. We became minimalists almost by default: because my husband and I like clean, spare spaces, and we have so little room to put things, we quickly learned to resist the siren song of new stuff. But when our daughter was born, we decided to make a dedicated effort to raise her as a minimalist. We wanted her to live lightly in a small space, and to be happy with what she had rather than always wanting something new.

By teaching children to treasure relatively few possessions, we can give them other wonderful gifts: the potential for greater mindfulness and gratitude (the appreciation for what they have), and the first steps to a lifelong habit of frugality, which will serve them well as they learn to navigate the work world and save money for their future. Below are some of the techniques we’ve found useful in encouraging minimalism in our daughter.

(A quick caveat: maintaining a consistently minimalist approach is hard, and slipping up--buying something new when you don’t really need or want to, feeling too tired to edit out the old, getting too overwhelmed for gratitude--is part of the territory. When this happens, it's not a reason to feel bad. It's a useful reminder to yourself of what you value, and how you and your family want to live your lives.)

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1. Set Boundaries

Books fit on one shelf. Toys fit in two boxes. No more than three pairs of shoes. Whatever boundaries you set are completely up to you, and should depend on your available space and how much you feel comfortable accumulating. It will help your child to pause and think about how much she’ll really value a new toy if you remind her that her toy collection needs to fit in the toy chest--and hers is almost full.

Another possibility is the “one in, one out rule” that Francine Jay outlines in The Joy of Less. This is exactly what it sounds like: if a new jacket comes in, an old one has to vacate the closet. If a new doll enters the toy chest, an old one gets donated to charity. That’s not to say that you should have an endless supply of new toys coming in, but it’s a good way to help your child think about whether he really, really wants that new truck or stuffed animal.

If your child has relatively few toys to begin with, the odds are that she’ll be more attached to the ones she has, and less likely to let them go when she sees something shiny and new.

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2. Encourage Gratitude

The benefits of gratitude have been widely studied in recent years. Prominent happiness researchers like Martin Seligman and Sonja Lyubomirsky stress the importance of feeling and expressing gratitude in increasing overall well-being. And for a minimalist lifestyle, gratitude is a valuable tool: it makes you aware of what you already own and more mindful in your enjoyment of it. If you feel grateful that have everything that you need--if you realize how extraordinarily lucky you are to have it--you’ll end up focusing more on that than on problems or downsides.

You can teach your child to feel something similar. After you’ve seen him playing or reading intently, you can tell him how great it makes you feel that he enjoys his toys so much, and how lucky you feel that you can all have nice things. In addition to encouraging your child to feel gratitude for health, family, and friends, ask him which of his toys he loves and what’s so great about them--teaching him to be more aware of them in the process.

And you can tell him gently in a conversation that not all children are lucky enough to be able to have toys and books, that being able to own them is a wonderful privilege. (Note: it’s best not to say "You're so lucky!" in an attempt to guilt-trip your child or talk him out of wanting something new. In my experience, conversations about gratitude are most effective when they’re positive and come out of peaceful, happy moments.)

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3. Keep Possessions on Rotation

According to the authors of Simplicity Parenting, “When they’re not overwhelmed with so many toys, kids can more fully engage with the ones that they have.” In my experience, that’s wonderful advice. My daughter plays for longer and is more absorbed when she has fewer toys to choose from, and she’s more enthusiastic about reading when the collection on her bookshelf is kept carefully pruned.

But that being said, she’s a kid, and kids like variety. I’ve found that it really helps to keep some books and toys in reserve, and to rotate them in when she’s bored with what she has--then stashing some of the original toys back in the closet, to rotate in again later. That way, a child gets the thrill of novelty without having to acquire more. And if you’ve ever lost something, forgotten about it, and then felt a little thrill when you accidentally stumbled across it, you know that there’s a special kind of pleasure in rediscovering a possession. If you put a toy away, it's likely that your child will forget that it exists. When it comes out of the closet, she’ll have the joy of rediscovering it--and everything she can do with it--all over again.

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4. Practice What You Preach

Kids are always watching us closely, learning from our behavior. Even if we’re enforcing boundaries on toys and encouraging gratitude, that won’t matter much if our children see a constant stream of packages coming in, or watch their parents get excited over shiny new possessions while ignoring old, well-worn ones.

So enjoy the things that you have, and talk to your child about your enjoyment: how much you value the necklace that was your grandmother’s or the boots you bought ten years ago. Stick to an edited collection of tools and gadgets, and explain to your child how much easier you find it to keep track of fewer possessions, and how great it feels to only have things that you love. Treat shopping expeditions like you would a trip to a museum: an opportunity to look and admire, but not to take home. Go to the library, not the bookstore, and focus on family activities, like hiking, art projects, and gardening, that let you use what you already have.

References/Further Reading

  1. Jay, Francine. The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Guide to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify. San Francisco: First Chronicle, 2016.
  2. Kasser, Tim. The High Price of Materialism. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002.
  3. Payne, Kim John and Lisa M. Ross. Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. New York: Ballantine, 2009.
  4. Wong, Joel and Joshua Brown. “How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain.” Greater Good Magazine, June 6, 2017.

Questions & Answers

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      • Talya Meyers profile image
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        Talya Meyers 2 weeks ago from Santa Barbara

        McKenna, thank you! That's very kind. It would have been great if gratitude had been more widely understood when we were younger, but I'm so glad that it's made such a mark on the world now.

      • letstalkabouteduc profile image

        McKenna Meyers 2 weeks ago from Bend, OR

        Beautiful, Talya. Your daughter is so lucky you're teaching her gratitude at a young age. She'll be happier because of it. It's the best gift you can give. I taught preschool for many years and, if I were to return to the classroom, I would definitely want to promote an attitude of gratitude in my students and teach in a more low-key, simplistic way.

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