One of my college roommates has been an editor of Real Simple since the magazine’s first issue. For years I was a subscriber – I loved the idea, the content, the layout. But over time it started feeling less “simple.” For one thing, as its popularity rose, the issues were increasingly full of ads. For another, no life simplification oozed out of its pages and onto my life. Instead I got gift ideas, clothes ideas, room-makeover ideas. Translation to me: more activity and more stuff.
My point isn’t to knock the magazine (which I still like). It’s to say this: what do we mean by simple? “Keep it simple,” we say, but no one knows what this looks like or how to get there. There’s a lot of talk about simplicity out there, but precious little simplicity to be had in most corners.
Back to good old dictionary.com, where my favorite definitions are “not elaborate; not complicated; ordinary.” A simple life is one in which elementary needs of life are met, and met well… and additions and excesses are intentionally avoided. [To unpack “elementary”, I’ll again cite Mary Ostyn’s list of kids’ needs as it hits the big ones: “love, food, clothes, shelter; clear expectations and responsibilities; time just to be kids; faith in a higher power than themselves.] Simple means: focus on the majors.
In an article called “Helicopter Parents: the Backlash of Overparenting,” I discovered there’s a book called Simplicity Parenting whose author “and his coaches will go into your home, weed out your kids stuff, sort out their schedule, turn off the screens, and help your family find space you didn’t know you had– like a master-closet-organizer for the soul.” Good grief, this is what our culture has come to: a state of abundance and chaos sufficient to require “experts” to teach simplification. The article goes on to say:
“The average child has 150 toys. ‘When you cut the toys and clothes back … the kids really like it.’ He aims for a cut of roughly 75%: he… gives away the outgrown toys and the busy, noisy, blinking ones that do the playing for you. Pare down to the classics that leave the most to the child’s imagination and create a kind of toy library kids can visit and swap from. Then build breaks of calm into their schedule so they can actually enjoy the toys.”
While limiting material items is only one part of a simple life, it’s vital. And if there’s a better time than Christmas to visit this topic, I can’t think of it. 150 toys per child borders, in my mind, on the absurd; at the same time I can see how easy it is to hit 150. After all, the average American kid probably takes in 25 or more toys at Christmas alone.
Anecdote: I was talking to my hairdresser last week who, while childless, has four siblings and numerous nieces and nephews. For years they did the standard Christmas thing – a gift for each family member (adult and kid alike). Finally, after concluding that no one needed more stuff and that money wasn’t unlimited, they corporately overcame the feeling they might be failing each other if they didn’t all exchange gifts and decided to only give presents to the kids. So each child in this family get gifts from four sets of aunts/uncles, grandparents, parents, and who knows who else. Probably not abnormal. I’d say 25 easy.”It’s still kind of fun to get presents for the little kids, up to around age 9,” she said. “But after that, all they really want is cash.”
Leave aside the issue of forking over cash to kids at Christmas (which probably occurs commonly) and take just the toy-receiving kids. Does any child benefit from receiving 25 gifts in one day? Or even in a month? Aren’t these the same families that, a year or a decade from now, may need help from the Simple Parenting coaches to eliminate 75% of their stuff to restore sanity to their household?
Look, I’m not trying to be the grinch here. I like presents and enjoy my children’s pleasure in new gifts as much as anyone. But we moms need to take a step back and look at what our culture has become… and how damaging its effects can be on our kids. I see an abundance of toys tempting our children toward greed, ingratitude, irresponsibility, and entitlement. As our children’s stewards, we’ve got to take that seriously.
Equally serious is Jesus’ statement that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” It’s not just simplicity for simplicity’s sake: a child whose household normalizes ‘treasure’ in the form of abundant toys, frequently delivered, is apt to struggle with ‘treasure’ issues as an adult. The question is what we’re teaching our kids to value… And reaching the heart of a child who’s binging on 25 new toys isn’t easy.
Bottom line: let’s be trendsetters in moderation. This year my husband and I decided how many toys we think it’s reasonable and healthy for our children to receive [total toys – from us, family members, stocking gifts, the works.] Then we’re planning Christmas gifts around that number – which includes conversations with other family members about our goals. No one likes feeling that they’re ‘spoiling the fun’ for grandparents or others by setting limits, but I’d argue that the souls of our children are – over the long term -at stake here. We don’t want to see our kids go down in the sea of materialism that has enslaved so much of our culture. Let’s be not just “Real Simple” but embody the spirit of Jesus this Christmas – making Him the treasure in both words and actions.