‘The compulsion to identify with consumer products reaches deep into our lives – from our choice of homes to what we put in them.’ (The Joy of Less, Francine Jay, 2010)
I’ve been reading (the kindle edition of) The Joy of Less: a Minimalist Living Guide, by Francine Jay, and also her short ebook Miss Minimalist: Inspiration to Downsize , Declutter, and Simplify (really a collection of her Miss Minimalist blog posts, but for $0.99, it was worth the price to have them all together on my mobile phone). Now, I am not now, nor am ever likely to be a true minimalist. As I’ve said before Joshua Becker’s ‘rational minimalist‘ approach works for me. And it’s worth noting that where Joshua has children, Jay does not. But that doesn’t detract from the value for me – both inspirational and practical – of Jay’s books.
In fact, although Jay really is a minimalist in the true sense of the word, what she advocates is not having next to nothing, but only having what you need: ‘minimalist living is not so much about living with as little as possible – but rather, as little as possible to meet your needs.’ Even then, her definition of needs is loose enough to allow for my need for (say) a food processor, because I do a lot of cooking and use it every day (actually I don’t have a food processor, though I suspect I would use it frequently if I did have one).
For Jay, once she began decluttering, she found it exhilarating and consequently much easier than she had expected. As I’ve said before, while I love the feeling of accomplishment I get with each bag of stuff I drop off to the charity shop, overall I find the process hard. I have too much attachment to stuff, too much respect for the ‘what if’ scenarios my brain just can’t stop throwing at me. For goodness sakes, I was collecting items for my ‘useful box‘ (the link is for those who never watched Play School) before I was even trying to get pregnant with my first child. Just very special things that you don’t come across every day, but still. It’s a pretty telling habit.
So for me, reading the decluttering blogs and books is a good way to help maintain my motivation. I’m never going to have a house like Jay’s – and I don’t want one. But I do want a house where there’s a place for everything, and nothing just shoved onto a shelf or into a basket because there’s no-where else to put it.
For me, decluttering has two main goals. One is to have a clearer, cleaner, tidier house. One in which everything is easy to find and easy to put away. One in which the children’s imagination can run wild, uncluttered by the vast array of stuff we have now. The other goal is really about modelling – and living – a way of being that is the opposite of conspicuous consumption. Where resources are not wasted, money is not spent wastefully, and the earth is respected and understood, so that the material we take from it is valued and used well.
But there’s a third one as well. In The Joy of Less, Jay identifies different categories of the things we own – things that are useful, and things that are only potentially useful, for instance. One of the sub-categories she comes up with is ‘aspirational stuff’.
‘Contrary to what marketers will have you believe,’ she writes, ‘you are not what you own.’
‘Nevertheless, we occasionally fall prey to the advertisers pitch. Therefore, we must account for another subcategory of items we own: ‘aspirational stuff’. These are the things we buy to impress others, or to indulge our ‘fantasy selves’ – you know, the ones that’s twenty pounds thinner, travels the world, attends cocktail parties or plays in a rock band.’
I would add to that, the one that’s twenty years younger. The one you perhaps used to be, in a different time and place. Do I really need that dress I bought when I was 22? Even if I lose that 10, or okay 20 pounds, will I actually wear it again? Do I need the books I read at university that let’s face it, I am not ever going to open again? Why do I keep them? So that people can look at my bookshelf and see that I once read Literary Theory and Philosophy? Who am I kidding here?
Okay, keeping those lit crit books on my shelf is probably not doing any major harm on its own, but I do feel that adopting a more minimalist lifestyle can send an important message to my children. You are not what you own. You do not need the latest Pokemon book, Lego set, or even Berenstain bears book to be happy or cool or fun. And you do not need to own things you can borrow from the library, read, and return. You can always borrow them again if you want to. At the moment my kids don’t have much issue with this (I’m pretty sure). They don’t want things in order to project an image, but there is a definite sense that having more things will create more happiness. Already Mikeala, who’s five, will ‘read’ a book and then examine the back page with the pictures of other books in the same series, telling me which ones she ‘really wants’, sometimes before I’ve even read the first book to her. Liam (who’s ten) will do the same with the catalogues that come with each set of Lego.
One suggestion Jay has for helping to thin out kids’ stuff, is to offer to buy their less used (or unused) toys, at perhaps a dollar an item, and then donate them to charity. I’m in two minds about this, as I’d love them to just give things to charity themselves, and I don’t want to create a sense of entitlement (any more than they already have). When they have finished using something, either because they are too old for it or simply bored with it, I would like it to feel just normal to them to pass it on to a younger sibling, or to simply give it away.
However, they are how they are, and there is definitely something to be said for working within the bounds of reality. Maybe by decluttering now, I’ll help Eliane, who’s only just turned two, start out with better habits. I just got rid of a whole bunch of her old toys (most of which had admittedly once belonged to the older kids), and put a few others away for when my one-year-old nephew moves back to Australia later this year (with his parents). Hopefully, Elli’s still young enough that she won’t even notice.
What about you? How do you go about decluttering (or avoiding cluttering) your children’s stuff, if you have them? Or how about your own ‘aspirational’ items – do you find it hard to let go of the things you bought because you want to be someone who will wear/use/be that item? Or do you not have that sort of stuff in your house?