Why Less 'Stuff' Is Better For Our Kids

The ‘Keep Up With The Joneses’ Mentality Is Hurting Our Kids

April 26, 2019 Updated April 28, 2020

kids-clutter
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I’ve long known that clutter and too much “stuff” is not good for my mental health. Though I’m a pretty horrible housekeeper (a little dirt never really bothered me) and our house is very far from picture perfect, I absolutely despise clutter. It overwhelms me and causes a visceral reaction. In fact, when I watched Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, I had to take a few breaks sometimes because the “before” rooms make my chest feel so tight I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

It doesn’t take much to set my anxiety ablaze either. Little things like a couple of dirty socks or a pair of rogue shoes can do it. I’ll be going about my business, and then one look at the collection of dirty glasses in the family room or the few old Sports Illustrated for Kids magazines on the dining room floor, and all hell breaks loose. Even too much “good” stuff — whether it’s a closet full of clothes or a houseful of rooms — overwhelms me.

I’ve long known this about myself — though I didn’t know that clutter and anxiety are so closely intertwined until recently — so I regularly purge. I don’t have a lot of knick-knacks or tzotchkies. I don’t hang on to things for the sake of nostalgia or sentimentality. (In fact, I tossed out my own high school yearbooks years ago.)  I don’t go shopping unless I absolutely have to. And I try to live as minimalist-ish as possible. Within reason, of course. Because who doesn’t get excited about fresh new pair of summer flip-flops or a cool new pair of sunglasses.

But what I didn’t really appreciate until recently was how all this “stuff” could also be impacting my kids. Specifically, how too much stuff is actually hurting our kids.

We live in a culture that tells us we need to keep up with the Joneses, and there’s an innate parental drive to give our kids the best life that we can.

For many people, this means living in the nicest house we can afford, signing their kids up for a shit ton of extracurricular activities, and making sure they have the nicest clothes and coolest gadgets we can buy.

We’re fed this idea that bigger is better, that better is better.

Well, you know what? Bullshit. BULL.SHIT.

It’s fucking exhausting trying to keep up with this mentality. It’s not healthy.

So I’ve dropped out. I’ve stopped trying to keep up. But my kids? Well, it’s harder when it comes to them. I’m pretty good about limiting my own belongings. But kids seem to be magnets for stuff with natural hoarder-like tendencies.

Not to mention, kids today are growing up in a world of instant gratification. They can stream shows commercial-free on Netflix. They can buy whatever they need with the push of a button, and (thanks to Amazon Prime), it’ll arrive (magically) the next day. They have phones and iPads to keep them entertained lest they feel the slightest twinge of — what’s that word? — boredom.

So even though my kids might not seem to share my propensity for decluttering and minimalism (as they try to convince me they really do need all those Pokemon cards), maybe that’s why it’s even more important for them to experience minimalism.

First of all, just because our kids don’t seem bothered by the clutter, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t negatively affecting them. Of course, we all have our personal threshold, but psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter explains in Psychology Today, clutter is stressful even when people don’t recognize it as such. “Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren’t necessary or important,” she said.

And let’s face it, our kids are already bombarded with significant stimuli, whether it’s through a jam-packed school day, an afternoon filled with piano lessons and baseball practices, or their supposed “downtime” watching television or playing video games. Why overload their developing brains with even more stimulation?

Our bigger/better culture is literally killing the Earth too. As explained in this article, since 1950, we have manufactured around 8.3 billion tons of plastic — over half of which ends up in landfills, 9% gets recycled, and the rest goes into the ocean where it kills animals and hurts entire ecosystems. Only 3% of the world’s children live in the U.S. but our kids own 40% of the toys. Yikes. Americans today own 3 times as many clothes as we did in 1930, and that’s even taking into account that the average American throws away 65 pounds of clothes every year. 65 POUNDS!

We aren’t just killing the Earth either; we’re killing ourselves. In our quest for bigger and better, Americans are working longer days, taking less vacation, and retiring later. And experts generally agree that many Americans are overstressed and overworked.

If we don’t teach our kids to get off this bigger/better/newer merry-go-round — or keep them from getting on it in the first place — how do we expect to turn things around?

I’ll be the first to admit that my kids don’t want for much. They are incredibly privileged with food on the table each night, a safe neighborhood to play in, and new(ish) gadgets to play with. But I’m realizing that they take a lot of it for granted. They whine about “needing” this or that. They complain about trivial things (like waiting a few days for something to arrive from Amazon). And they generally seem downright spoiled sometimes.

Look even though I’m a clutter-phobe, I struggle with this too. When my son started complaining about needing new shirts, my impulse was to do a little late-night online shopping. But even though our pocketbook could have withstood a little Amazon-ing, that doesn’t mean it should. So instead, I’ve endured several painstaking (and maddening) conversations with him about why he can make do with what he has.

Folks, it starts with us. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should — that goes for upgrading to the newest car or buying our kids the latest iPad or even building a bigger house.

So, I’m trying.

I’m trying to expand minimalism beyond my own personal belongings to those of my kids and our family. We are currently trying to do the 30-day challenge — on day one, give away one thing; day two give away two things, and so on. We’re on day 12 right now and already it’s getting hard, really hard.

But even more than that, it’s about not buying these things in the first place. And it doesn’t need to be about large-scale change either. It can be a bunch of little things; as with all things, balance is key. For our family, that means fixing our old ass minivan instead of trading it in for a newer (and better) one. It means having our kids share a room so that they are forced to take up less space with their belongings. It means using local “buy nothing” groups to find things we need and to get rid of things we no longer use. It means spending our money on traveling and experiences instead of a bigger house or new furniture. It means passing around clothes our kids have outgrown and relying on hand-me-downs. And yes, it means that when we do buy stuff (or hang on to something), we talk to our kids about why.

These aren’t easy issues, and everyone needs to find their own comfort level. For me, it might be a bit farther to one side than others, given my personal disdain for clutter and my ethical objection to the bigger/better mentality. For others, it might be something different. To each their own. But whatever the case, one thing is clear: when it comes to excessive “stuff,” less is definitely more.