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 when they deem it necessary they pay for alternative medical treatments. 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.
Young people have minimal defenses against such tactics. Children under the age of eight aren’t even able to understand the persuasive intent of advertising. And studies show that a network in the brain necessary for many introspective abilities – forming a self-image, understanding the ongoing story of one’s own life, and gaining insight into other people’s behavior – is profoundly weaker in young people. Those brain networks aren’t fully established until adulthood. Just at the stage when selfhood is forming, our children are most vulnerable to the messages of a consumer culture.
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, 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.
First published in Natural Life Magazine