Our early hatching is lauded, our late hatching a reason for worry.
We’re expected from our earliest years be like the other ducklings. (Well, better than others but not stuck up about it.)
If we keep flying when it’s time to swim there’s medication to calm our out-of-bounds impulses. If we like to sing but can’t quack there’s a star chart to reinforce more appropriate sounds.
We’re graded on the dexterity we demonstrate when curling our beaks under our wings at nap time, tested on our ability to dip our heads under water, judged by our willingness to stay in line. Poor results means doing these things over and over again until we thoroughly detest ourselves for not measuring up.
When we don’t do as well as expected we’re told we just need to try harder to be the very best duckling we can be. We’re told that we aren’t living up to our potential. We’re told we need to get our priorities straight (or a growth mindset, or grit, or an attitude adjustment).
Ducklings from more affluent families might be enrolled in perfect-your-waddle coaching camps. Their preening may be assisted and their diets enhanced with imported bugs. Less fortunate ducklings may just get some quack tutoring.
When we’re still not like other ducklings most of us try even harder to be normal. Remember those reindeer who wouldn’t let someone different play their reindeer games? Yeah, peer culture is harsh that way, especially when we’re segregated with our age-mates rather than interacting with many fowl sorts in the larger community.
As adults, we measure our own success against the most attractive and capable ducks. That’s painful, but it’s what we learned from our earliest days on.
This isn’t to besmirch ducks. Ducks are great, particularly at being ducks. But some of us
or great blue herons.
Some of us aren’t birds at all.
Every creature in and around the pond is necessary. Each is integral to the larger ecosystem’s wisdom.
We have to be extraordinarily stubborn day after day, year after year, in order to be ourselves.
The ugly ducklings of this world, the ones who still aren’t who they’re “supposed” to be, are the ones with the vision big enough to create a future for us all.
Well, maybe. I haven’t seen anyone with pink hair in our small town, passing through or otherwise. But I’m contemplating it. Action may be necessary after what happened the other day.
I was out on the town engaging in a not-so-fascinating adventure: shopping for canning jar lids. I heard someone call out behind me from a distance. It was a stranger’s voice.
Using the logic bestowed on most members of our species, I assumed she was hailing some other person in the store so I ignored her. A moment later that stranger zoomed up behind me and said,
“Oh, I thought you were my mom.”
I’m a warm and motherly person, true. But I was not that stranger’s mother. Worse, she was in my approximate age group. Which means her own mother either looks like someone who gave birth as a kindergartener OR I look really old. (Particularly from behind.)
The stranger muttered something like, “Sorry, she has blonde hair too.”
Raised to be polite at all costs, I simply smiled at her (fist shake at Nice Girl upbringing). I’m not sure what an appropriate response might have been. Snort-enhanced laughter perhaps.
Wait, it gets worse.
I saw her join a woman one aisle over. I witnessed her call this woman “Mom.” Her mother was clearly 15 to 20 years old than I. And wearing tan stretch pants. With tennis shoes. And a quilted handbag.
Alas, I see I’ve fallen right into the basement of People Who Make Superficial Comments despite my regular attempts to be my Better Self.
I’m not mocking my elders, heck, I’m looking forward to being a rowdy old lady myself (which is how I’ll finally outgrow that Nice Girl upbringing). And I’m in no position to judge this woman’s appearance, especially after outing myself as a beauty flunky. As I tell my kids, everyone has a lovely gleaming soul. (Boy do they ever like to hit me back with that one when I get snarky.) But I’m finding the chronological escalator a bit too relentless.
When I was younger I took a constantly functional body and seemingly unlimited time ahead for granted. Now various parts creak and I realize I may not be able to fit all my enthusiasm into an ordinary lifespan. Sometimes I walk by the library windows, noticing a stumpy little woman in the reflection. Who is that woman, I wonder? Why is she carrying my purse? It takes a moment to sink in. That’s me. I may feel like a fourteen-year-old sneaking out of the house in a halter top, but instead I’m some lady wearing a scarf.
I was raised to use everything up. To smack the bottle till it was empty, then add a little water and shake it to get out the last lingering drops. I fully intend to do that with my life too. I’ll be using up every single bit. But if I get any more reminders about being old before my time, you may see me with pink hair. Or at least pink streaks. My quietly rebellious fourteen-year-old self would be proud. And the rowdy old lady I hope to become will understand.
While waiting with other members of our food co-op, someone who should think of other ways to start a conversation asked me a cuttingly critical question. I couldn’t even come up with an answer. That’s not like me. The best response I could muster was a fake laugh, as if to acknowledge that she must have been joking. (She wasn’t.) Her question seemed to be more curious than mean spirited but it forced me to think about how other people see me.
I thought I’d let Beauty go, along with her twin sister, Shame, long ago. Apparently not.
Some people look amazing all the time and at any age. They know what clothes are in, what accessories to use, how to walk in fussy shoes gracefully. I’m impressed by them even if they seem like a species only faintly related to my comfortably slouchy self.
My presence makes people who are fashion backward and technologically inept feel much better about themselves. Clearly there are perks for hanging out with me. But apparently I give so little thought to my appearance that others might come away with the wrong impression. As my questioner put it, “You really leave the house looking like that? It must be easy when you don’t care.”
I churn through my days trying, and sometimes succeeding, in doing what good I can do even if on the smallest scale. I talk to people and animals kindly, try to listen more than react, and when I’m upset ask myself what darkness in myself lets me see shadows elsewhere. I write about natural learning and sustainability and peace. I support good causes and when times are hard, as they tend to be, I attach myself to hope like a barnacle. This leaves very little energy for personal beautification. Heck, I rarely muster up the ooompf to keep weeds from towering over my vegetable plants so there’s no way I’ll get around to using a blow dryer or nail polish. I’ve never had the money let alone the inclination to have a manicure or pedicure, go to a spa, or have my hair styled. Well, I’ve never actually had a hair style….
When I came home I emailed a few close friends. I explained I’d been at the co-op, where we unload a truck and do other labors befitting less-than-great clothes, so I wore jeans and an old embroidered cotton shirt, my hair tied up and scuffed clogs on my feet. Because I’m no saint, I described the unflattering horizontal stripes of the shirt my questioner wore and how it was a so tight that her form-fitting pants pushed bulges of flesh through at least three of those stripes. (I try to be non-judgmental. That day I failed.) Then I asked the most important question. I’ve never steered that question to appearances before. My friends were all ridiculously nice when really, I was hoping to know if it’s time to start dying my hair or stop wearing my daughter’s hand-me-ups.
I know we broadcast something about our self-esteem via our appearance. Still, I’m not any more motivated than I was before that day at the co-op. I tweezed an eyebrow once, back when I was a teen. It hurt at the tears-in-my-eyes level. Won’t do that again. There’s no way I’ll bother wearing earrings or remembering hand lotion.
But I’ve realized an appearance-based truth from all of this. My body, like everyone else’s body, gets used up by life. And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. Years of changing diapers, gardening, canning, washing dishes, kneading dough, and taking walks no matter the weather have left me with creaking knees and hands that belong on someone much older. These are all ways of using my body for a purpose. When I stroll off the planet I want to know that I’ve enjoyed all the health, vigor, pleasure, and meaningful work my body can generate.
During yesterday’s walk the wind was intense and it started to rain. My face and hands were pelted with icy drops from a beautiful still-bright sky. I should have left the house with a scarf and gloves but I didn’t turn around. I walked right into the wind, letting it toss my hair as freely as it blew the last leaves off the trees. I felt completely alive.
Sophie is a single mother raising a five-year-old boy. She’s working to establish her own house cleaning business after losing her job nearly two years ago. Sophie and her son live in a small trailer home.
Marissa and Jack run a thriving dental practice while raising five-year-old twin daughters. They live in a suburban home on several acres.
The five-year-olds from these families are at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. But their parents are raising them in remarkably similar ways. Frugally.
Although Sophie would prefer a more reliable income, she wouldn’t spend a cent more than she already does on herself or her son. She adheres closely to simple living tenets. Sophie grows as much food as possible in a community garden plot and makes meals from scratch. She and her son fully enjoy the free benefits of the local library and park system. On weekends, Sophie’s folk band crowds into her trailer for practice sessions. Her son is already learning how to play the harmonica and fiddle. Sophie believes he should rely on his imagination for fun rather than on toys. When she does buy him gifts, they tend to be modest items such as crayons or socks, or ones that have long- term use such as simple tools or sheet music.
Marissa and Jack choose to live simply in their own way. They buy clothing and their children’s playthings from thrift stores, exchange only homemade gifts, and emphasize having fun outdoors. They carefully consider expenditures based on their ethics. Health is a priority, so they buy only organic foods and belong to a CSA. Supporting the arts is another priority so they invest in original works to hang on their walls and regularly attend plays, concerts, and gallery events. They strongly believe in the importance of international travel. When they go to far-off places, they get around by bike or local mass transit, a method they find brings them closer to the cultures they’re visiting.
Many of us are living more frugally. It certainly eases financial strain. It also makes a difference in wider ways, from reducing our ecological footprint to promoting social justice.
Today’s relentlessly materialistic culture tells young people in every way possible that their identity is built on wearing, playing with, and using the very latest consumer products. That’s a heavy tide to fight against on the home front. But that tide is worth turning.
Living simply puts the emphasis on exactly the conditions that are best for our kids, now and as they grow into adulthood.
Shelter From Commercialism
Humanity has always raised her children with the stories, foods, rituals, and values of particular meaning to the people close to them. While there are undeniable benefits to today’s connections and conveniences, a major drawback is the way advertisers have insinuated themselves into the lives of even the youngest children. Nowadays, a child’s stories, foods, rituals, and values are more likely than ever provided by the marketplace. And we know what’s preached there – that meaning comes from what can be bought.
Every year, a 15 to 17 billion dollar marketing industry is aimed at our kids. That money is spent because it’s effective. It’s estimated that 565 billion dollars in purchases are influenced by four- to twelve-year-olds.
Susan Linn, who teaches psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, notes in Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, that psychological and neurological research is used to exploit the vulnerabilities of children. She writes, “The explosion of marketing aimed at kids today is precisely targeted, refined by scientific method, and honed by child psychologists – in short, it is more pervasive and intrusive than ever before.”
These strategies are not only employed in advertising itself but are embedded in Internet sites, video games, television, and movies. They’re designed into packaging, implicit in many playthings, and nearly ubiquitous in schools.
Those of us who live simply shelter our kids in different ways and to differing degrees. No matter what approach we take, it’s neither possible nor desirable to shelter teens the same way we shelter toddlers. That’s why it’s vital to raise our kids to be critical thinkers with a strong sense of self. Then they’re empowered to make their own fully informed choices.
This is a biggie in the “you’ll thank me later” department because kids who are able to delay gratification are much more likely to do well as they grow up.
We model delayed gratification each time we choose to save, make do, or make it ourselves. We demonstrate it when the whole family adds coins to a jar until there’s enough to finance an anticipated event. We teach it when we help children find ways to earn and save for their own aims. And we show that it’s expected whether our kids have to wait to see a movie until it’s available at the library or wait until the next birthday for a new pair of jeans.
This may seem negative, particularly when popular culture constantly screams “have it now” and “get what you want.” But there are enormous positives. Our children become familiar with the pleasures of anticipation, which multiplies the eventual delight when a goal is reached. They also begin to internalize the ability to delay gratification. In multiple studies (cited in Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence) children who were able to defer gratification grew into teens and young adults who were more socially competent, better able to deal with frustration, more dependable, reached higher educational attainments, and were effectively able to make and reach long-term goals.
Delayed gratification is related to impulse control. Research shows that a child’s ability to control his or her impulses at an early age is predictive of success even decades later as a healthy, financially stable, and positive member of the community. There are many ways to help kids gain the positive coping skills that help them control their impulses and delay gratification. It may be about waiting, but the outcome is extraordinary.
Despite advertisers’ images of happy children playing with new toys and giddy teens dancing in designer hoodies, the facts are glaringly obvious. Things don’t make us happier. Children seem to understand the “time is money” conundrum. When their parents spend more time away from home earning an income, they have less time to spend with the family. In a nationwide poll of American kids ages nine to fourteen, ninety percent said they’d prefer increased time with friends and family over material possessions. And when asked if they could have one wish to change their parents’ jobs, sixty-three percent said they would like their mom or dad to have a job that gave them more time to do things together. Only thirteen percent wished their parents made more money.
The more materialistic young people are, the unhappier they tend to be. According to research cited in The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser, people who hold materialistic values are more likely to suffer from a whole dumpster load of problems. This includes aggressive behavior, insecurity, depression, low self-esteem, narcissism, even physical maladies. And when people place high value on material aims, they’re prone to have trouble with interpersonal relationships and intimacy. Materialism is also related to less independent thinking and lower value placed on being “true to oneself.” Of course, we want to spare our kids this festering personal mess.
How? We recognize that a sense of well-being depends on intangible qualities like warm interpersonal relationships and reasonable autonomy in one’s choices, exactly those things that money can’t buy. But what’s interesting is that materialism and unhappiness seem to “cause” each other. We all know people who exemplify this. Unhappy people tend to seek status and satisfaction in more transitory ways such as acquisition and appearance. When they do, they feel a temporary boost in happiness, which reinforces even greater materialism.
Studies show that happiness has much more to do with experiences than with possessions. A family camping trip will provide more lasting pleasure than a large purchase. That may be due to the way we access memories. Long after the experience is over, we have fuller sensory-based recall that’s invariably richer than any a purchase can provide.
It’s important to model a cheerful approach to simple living for our kids, but that’s not enough. To ward off materialistic attitudes, our children need the personal strength found in the self- worth that comes from supportive relationships and a sense of accomplishment. In a marvelous example of synchronicity, these are precisely what simple living reinforces in our daily lives. We consciously choose to do for our- selves, to spend more family time together, and to focus on active rather than passive entertainment.
Creativity and Enthusiasm
Many adults seem determined to keep kids busy by enrolling them in supervised activities. And they provide kids with plenty of distractions like toys, video games, and television. Unintentionally, these efforts teach children that fallow time is undesirable. But brain studies show that daydreaming, contemplation, even that uncomfortable condition we identify as “boredom” is vitally important. These natural periods of down time are necessary to incorporate higher level learning and to generate new ideas.
If we expect children to resolve their own boredom without resorting to electronic or other distractions, we help them access a wellspring of ideas that seem to come from nowhere, a wellspring they discover within. Frugal living is one way to preserve a slow pace and minimal distraction load, letting our children become familiar with generating their own ideas.
When we live frugally, we also tend to avoid popular methods of “enriching” our children’s lives such as academic preschool, specialty classes, coached sports, and other paid programs. That saves on fees. It also fosters the kind of expansive learning that’s natural for our species. Research continues to show that when adults are highly directive and exert influence even in the form of rewards or evaluation, their efforts actually diminish a child’s motivation, enthusiasm, creativity, and ability to innovate. Well-intended efforts to hone a child’s abilities through early instruction tend to be counterproductive.
That’s also true of play. Our kids don’t need expensive toys or games. Children’s creativity and resourcefulness flourish when they play without the structure imposed by most playthings. Imagination flows freely when they use what they find in the backyard to play act, build hideouts, or create their own games. In contrast, a toy linked to a movie release or a game with structured rules has predetermined uses and children are much less likely to innovate.
Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughn write in Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul that, “play lies at the core of creativity and innovation.” It enhances development in areas such as emotional health, social skills, motivation, confidence, a sense of justice, and much more. Young people who maintain a playful nature into adulthood are, according to Brown and Vaughn, remarkably well suited for success. A playful adult is more flexible, humorous, optimistic, and efficient. They note that throughout life, “the ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person.”
When our frugal homes provide plenty of raw materials necessary for play without up-to-the-minute popular toys, we’re putting into place the best conditions for sustaining creativity and playfulness.
Self-Reliance And Responsibility
There’s a resoundingly positive impact on our children when we include them in the real work of maintaining our family home, yard, vehicles, and more. Children growing up in frugal households often have regular chores. While some complaining is natural, chores help children understand how things work. They see the benefits of saving as they do calculations for the family budget. They recognize what happens if they forget to take the dog out or don’t bring the laundry in from the line before it rains. They take extra pleasure in the warm fire from firewood they helped to stack. Chores also enable children to master useful skills that will help them become more self-reliant adults.
Taking on early responsibility brings long-term consequences. A study, starting in the 1930s, followed men from young adulthood to death. These men had very different lives; some were affluent Harvard graduates and others were impoverished inner city residents. The men who helped out with regular tasks starting at a young age were most likely to enjoy stability and good mental health.
And there’s more evidence. A long-term study followed children from early childhood to their mid-twenties. What led to success? Balancing all other variables, it was found that the best predictor of a young adult’s success was participation in household tasks at a young age. And we’re talking resounding success – including educational attainment, high intellectual capabilities, a career, and good relationships with family and friends.
The optimum age to get started is three or four years old. According to researchers, starting in the preteen or teen years doesn’t have a strong association with success, although children who take an active role early continue to help out as teens. It’s important to gear the task to the child. Parents should take care to present tasks that aren’t too difficult and that fit the child’s learning style, and not to “pay” for tasks directly or through an allowance tied to the work. Researchers also suggest that children be involved in choosing tasks, perhaps through family meetings or rotating chore charts.
They key to success may also lie in the sensory riches gained by hands-on tasks. Those of us who live simply tend to do more for ourselves. We may grind our own grain and make our own bread, we may raise chickens and barter the extra eggs for a local beekeeper’s honey, we may fix rather than replace what’s broken. And when our kids take part they also gain learning experiences that apply to many other areas of life.
Neurologist Frank Wilson explains in The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture that brain development and hand use is inextricably connected. And Wilson found a transfer effect. As he studied people who were masters in all sorts of fields (surgeon, puppeteer, and guitarist to name a few), he found each of them had engaged in regular hands-on efforts during their formative years. Whether they grew up doing farm work, playing a musical instrument, or helping grandpa build birdhouses,Wilson says the hand-brain link activated “hidden physical roots . . . of passionate and creative work.”
Starting our kids on tasks at an early age blesses them with self-reliance and a greater likelihood of success. It also demonstrates to them day after day that their efforts are needed. A child can see the outcome of his or her efforts in a meal the whole family worked to get on the table. It feels good. It feels even better is when a parent says, “Thanks, I couldn’t have done it without you.” There’s not a commercial product out there that can create the same genuine satisfaction.
Sophie’s little boy and Marissa and Jack’s twin daughters know that satisfaction. Their young lives have ample time for play, working alongside adults, and warm family conversation. The children soak up their parents’ values while learning and growing largely free of commercial influences, at least for now. Their parents have never met each other but they have the same focus. They see simple living as an integral way to bring forth a more conscious and life sustaining future for their children.
For years my daughter’s favorite movie was Just Visiting. This old remake of an older hit French comedy was packed with plenty for my little girl to adore. Magic, time travel, and plenty of humor. Some quotes from the film are still in rotation as favorite family sayings. Although it didn’t lack for laughs, it was missing something more vital. Strong female roles. Sure, women star in the film. Passive, pretty characters who only gain a stronger sense of themselves through men. Well, there’s also a stereotypical witch. Don’t even get me started on that. I’m not about to stomp my foot and decry one B movie because the women’s roles aren’t up to good-for-my-daughter standards. But when I take a look at movies available in theaters and on Netflix, foot stomping seems imperative. In the real world girls and women have full, interesting lives. Their conversations are complex and rarely limited to shoes, hair styles, and attracting the “right” XY chromosomes. But in the entertainment world, females are often little more than gloss. Little more than women’s roles in the past. One way to gauge a female character’s presence in any movie is the Bechdel test. This method doesn’t imply that a particular movie has merit, it simply demonstrates character treatment based on gender. To pass the Bechdel test, a movie has to meet all of the following three qualifications:
Have at least two female characters (with names known to the audience)
who have a conversation with each other
about something besides a male.
Recall the last five movies you saw. How many really pass the test? I’m not sure Just Visiting passes. But according to the Bechdel test database, recent movies such as Limitless, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Tree of Life, Water For Elephants, Your Highness, Beastly, I Am Number Four, The Lincoln Lawyer, No Strings Attached, Source Code, and Avatar don’t pass. Kids’ movies aren’t much better. Bechdel test failures include Hop, Rango, Rio, Jack and the Beanstalk, Megamind, The Secret of Kells, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, andShrek Forever After. Another way to pay attention to gender disparity in movies is to simply count the number of female speaking characters. Top movies for kids from 1990 to 2005 averaged less than one female out of every three speaking characters. And in both animated and live action movies from 1999 to 2006, researchers noted that females were outnumbered by males in speaking roles as well as crowd scenes. Worse, girls and women were typically portrayed in stereotypical, often hypersexualized roles. It seems girl power, even in today’s family films, has a lot to do with sexy clothes.
Jeff Brunner thesocietypages.org/socimages/2009/10/25/disney-princesses-deconstructed/