Just a quickie review this time, so let’s jump right in to Book #3 of my “8 Favorite Parenting Books”.
Living Simply With Children: A Voluntary Simplicity Guide For Moms, Dads, and Kids Who Want To Reclaim The Bliss of Childhood and the Joy of Parenting, by Marie Sherlock.
This book is now ten years old, and though some of the resources cited within it may be outdated, the principle behind the book remains stronger than ever: you and your kids do not need a lot of “stuff” to be happy, have fun or feel worthy. Less really is more.
Intrinsically, I know this and we really try to live this way as much as we can. For me personally, it is primarily from an environmental/waste standpoint. But it can be hard at times, particularly when you feel like you are swimming against a pounding sea of materialism, commercialism and peer pressure to keep up with what everyone else is buying. Of course we falter, and sometimes it feels like often. And it’s hard to curb the actions of well-meaning friends and family who do not understand, appreciate and/or remember your simplicity objectives—this is an area I have not mastered except in a “pick your battles” kind of way. It continues to be a work in progress.
Anyway, I read this book not too long after M was born, I think during my maternity leave. I had read three other “simple living books”* prior to M being born, and so finding this one seemed appropriate (and more current) as we added a new dimension to our lives. Indeed, that seems to be the first time period in parenting when you become aware of all the “stuff” that is supposedly necessary to raise a baby. I wanted to stay as close to the simple life as possible. Looking back over the past five years, I didn’t always succeed, but I am more or less happy with the decisions we made.
Now, as M approaches Kindergarten and has peers that are starting to talk about and compare their “stuff”, I (sadly) see that we are entering a new tidal phase that will require us to double down on our preference for simplicity. I seem to know more about which dolls M’s friends have than I do about the girls themselves. And just today I personally witnessed one little girl in M’s class, who apparently does not have the particular line of dolls like M and some of her classmates do, ask her mom if she could have one because she saw M carrying hers in. It was awkward for me and for this girl’s mother. I honestly was under the impression that all of the girls (there are 6 in the class) were each bringing in a doll every day to play with at play time and no one was being or feeling left out (indeed I had asked about this a few months back when we enrolled because while M was begging me to bring a doll to school like her friends were, I had initially said no because her prior school had a “no toys from home” rule, which I favored; I was told that kids can bring something in to play with and that it was OK, so I sent M in with a doll so she could tender her “social currency” when they played together…now I am completely torn about what to do given what I just heard this morning). This is not sitting well with me at all. What I observed at the Disney On Ice show this past weekend was another sad reminder of why I need to re-read this book and regain some hope, perspective and…well, balls.
Fortunately, this book will do that. It is certainly more of a beginner’s guide, very general in its approach (i.e. there are not deep philosophical discussions about the virtues of simplicity). It has several chapters about what simple living is, why it is important (for your family, community and the planet), and perhaps most importantly, it gives pointers about how to remain confident and steadfast in your preference for simplicity despite peer pressure, media/TV and marketing. It provides age-appropriate (young child through teenager) advice about how to teach and instill in your kids the value of living simply. It does this by offering explanations that you can give your children that are values-based, earth friendly, people friendly, and/or financially friendly. It gives ideas for simple family rituals and celebrations that you can incorporate into your home. There are resources listed throughout the book for further reading about a particular area (like the negatives of television or finding groups of other like-minded families/individuals). In sum, this book is a perfect introduction to simple living as well as a good resource to consult when you start to go off course.
* The three non-parenting simplicity books that I have also read (and should probably re-read!) are The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life, by Cecile Andrews (1997); The Simple Life: Thoughts on Simplicity, Frugality, and Living Well, by Amy Dacyczyn et al. (1998—this contains essays by several writers); and The Simple Living Guide: A Sourcebook for Less Stressful, More Joyful Living, by Janet Luhrs (1997). These are obviously much older than Living Simply With Children, and so perhaps outdated from a resource standpoint. Aside from that, these books go much deeper into the philosophy of simplicity (particularly The Circle of Simplicity) and the how-to’s of simple living around the house. I also have another book, which I have not finished yet, called Voluntary Simplicity, by Duane Elgin, which is more recently published/revised in 2010. Any one of these books would be a good supplement to the book reviewed today.
Also, there is a more recently published (2010) book geared toward simple living with children entitled, Simplicity Parenting:Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids, by Kim John Payne and Lisa M. Ross. I do not know anything about this book, but just mention it because it may have more current resources/links within.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
We recently installed a clothesline outside in our backyard. While it was part of our ongoing efforts to green up our home and use less energy when we can, the unexpected benefit that I have discovered is that there is something so peaceful about hanging clothes on the line. With the wind at my back, and sometimes music in my ears (today it was Robert Plant & Alison Krauss’s “Raising Sand” album…highly recommend it), a wave of relaxation always seems to overcome me in a way that doing laundry inside just doesn’t. And there is no really great fast way of hanging heavy, wet laundry without potentially having it fall to the ground, so you are forced to slow down, if just for a moment.
M has also taken to sometimes running in and out of the sheets and has fun while I get the job done. In some ways, I feel like it connects M and me to our families that came before us who did not have the luxury of indoor dryers. Even though it was fifty or more years ago, I imagine there were many young children afoot when laundry day arrived, chasing the sheets just as M does now. With technology erasing so much of the way life “used to be” (often for good to be sure), I like it when there are some things that I know that just will not change over time that can connect me to my foremothers. Although I don’t think that I will be buying a washboard anytime soon though!
And sometimes, there is a bit of whimsy to be found too…
I am not sure who originally coined the expression, but I first learned about the notion of “social currency” from a parenting advice column that I read daily on www.boston.com. Anyway, the idea is that, at least in the context of kids and fitting in among their peers, that there are certain things that allow kids to participate in conversations, feel like they are part of the group and, in a word, seem “cool”. The best examples would be watching popular TV shows, owning the latest gadgets or toys, or buying every conceivable piece of merchandise to show your allegiance to the icon or character of your choice.
The way I see it, parents are the “bank” that provide the means (the stuff or the money to acquire the stuff) to the end (fitting in), at least until a child is old enough to start making some truly discretionary purchases with self-earned money. For someone trying to live on the simpler and greener end of the spectrum, my natural tendency is toward “no stuff”. So I am generally not in favor of buying stuff that is all the rage for M’s contemporaries. I did not expect to have to confront this issue for at least another couple of years.
Enter Silly Bandz. The scene: M’s preschool. The cast: M and an older preschooler who M idolizes because is the very cool age of 4 1/2. The props: tiny, colorful and fun-shaped rings of medical grade silicone. The plot: M (thinks she) wants some.
I see these and I cringe. I immediately think of the images that I recently saw online in the exhibit entitled “Midway” by photographer Chris Jordan who took pictures of dead albatross chicks on the Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. These images were heartbreaking to say the least. As he states on his website, “not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world’s most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent.” Am I acting like Henny Penny or too alarmist? Perhaps. But look at these photographs and tell me that there is not some remote chance that someday silicone bracelets might not be considered interesting fare for a mama albatross to feed her young. They are also not unlike the plastic soda can rings that we all so dutifully cut into tiny pieces before throwing away so that sea turtles and the like wouldn’t get entangled.
Fear not. I am no Luddite–much of my reading is done electronically now and yes, I have a cell phone–but I truly and honestly have serious guilt, discomfort and usually mild remorse almost every time new stuff enters our home. Unless it is for the basics–food, shelter, clothing, health–it is hard for me to buy stuff that I know has likely had a dubious life before it entered my home (like environmental impacts and the use of nonrenewable resources to make the stuff, extraordinary shipping distances that require unnecessary amounts of fuel, inequitable labor practices, perhaps child labor) and an uncertain future when I am done with it (ideally recycling or reuse by someone else, but at some point, all or parts of the stuff are ultimately likely destined for a landfill–no matter which way you slice it, each of these comes with its own baggage of environmental impacts). For me, worrying about these kinds of things is the closest thing I can imagine to participating in a religion that has a defined set of principles and rules under which one is supposed to act. In fact, I suppose it is a religion for me. Reading books like The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard and Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell only makes matters worse…or clearer, depending on your perspective.
I am consistently amazed by the sheer number of stuff today that is marketed to and made appealing for kids. I honestly do not think it was quite as bad when I was growing up. At least I certainly don’t remember it that way. Perhaps it was the extraordinarily fewer number of children’s television stations, programs and commercials that were available when we were growing up in the 70′s and 80′s. We certainly did not have the internet as another media source either. Sure, there was the “it” toy of the moment–Strawberry Shortcake, My Little Ponies, Cabbage Patch Kids, Transformers, He-Man, just to name a few–but other than the toy itself, maybe a few items of clothing, and occasionally a special run of cereal, that was about it. Now–you can’t even go to the Bronx Zoo without seeing Dora the Explorer. (See another blogger’s take on this issue here.) I personally find most of it really disheartening. Soon enough, even buying groceries is going to be a challenge for parents trying to keep their kids away from the bombardment of commercial programming.
But back to the Bandz and my growing awareness that I am looking down the barrel of a very large and powerful gun called peer pressure. I am struggling big time. I am struggling to determine how best to teach our values to M in a way that does not ostracize her among her peers or diminish her self-esteem. If she’s not aware of it now, soon enough she will be: having certain “stuff” makes you fit in better. And at its base, that’s what childhood is all about–fitting in and finding your place, your individuality, among the social strata of your peers. Someday she might appreciate, or at least understand, the values that we are trying to teach her. But I don’t expect that to come for many years. So what to do in between?
Do we buy one package of Bandz? That seems to wholly contrary to my beliefs about these kinds of things (especially trendy, throwaway things). Hypothetically, if we were Jews who kept kosher, would we let her eat bacon? Of course not–yet, my impression is that when it’s religion, rather than lifestyle, that guides one’s decisions, it can’t be argued with or poo-pooed.
Do we buy none? At the age of 3, M has probably already forgotten about them, or still thinks that they are things that other kids just “have” rather than they are things that can be purchased. But the window on that ability to distract her or keep her largely uninformed is closing quickly I can sense it. Case in point: flip-flops. She now has a pair. She knows shoes are purchased in stores. She wanted a pair and after many nights of her coming in crying because she was the only one on the block that did not have a pair, I caved. It was not one of my finer moments. She still doesn’t know where the Bandz come from. I think I am safe, for now at least. But if she did know, buying none seems all at once harsh and unfair yet a teachable moment (I can’t stand that phrase) that lends itself to learning about we can’t always have what we want, some things we do in life have greater impacts than others and we have to choose which ones we can live with, and that things like trends come and go so it’s not always necessary to jump on the bandwagon.
I am well aware that this is not the last round of weighing M’s ability to feel comfortable in her own skin and among her friends against my own personal philosophies about what is truly necessary in life–philosophies that took me almost 30 years to master comfortably in the face of what others do and think. Fitting in is necessary, particularly for kids. I know this. But animal-shaped bracelets are not necessarily the right means to that end in my view. So for now, we will carry on without the currency of Silly Bandz in our house and await the next trend that we will have to negotiate and maneuver in the context of all of these issues. In the meantime, I remain hopeful that somewhere, someone is crafting the next kid craze with a larger, more sustainable worldview in mind.
Edited on 8/16/10 to add the following: Chris Jordan and his crew have recently started another website that documents what they are currently finding on the Midway Atoll with video footage. No words can adequately describe what he is witnessing. Please view for yourself, but note that the images are quite disturbing. www.midwayjournal.com.
Copyright (c) 2010-2014 Kristen M. Ploetz. All rights reserved. Personal theme was created in WordPress by Obox Themes.