Thursday, March 08, 2007

How much is enough?

A couple of things of late have led me to this topic. I have just read Peter Walsh's new book, It's all too Much - An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff. I thought this book would be a nuts and bolts plan for decluttering your life and it does cover that. The real purpose though is to figure out why you are keeping so much stuff and why you keep buying more stuff. Walsh blames our constant need for more on a lot of this, that and the fact that we cannot seem to part with anything. We are lured by the words 2 for 1 or buy 1 get 2 free and this supplies our homes with a steady supply of stuff; this coupled with our inability to get rid of anything means we are drowning within our own walls.

This premise, that what we covet and so actively seek out for our own happiness, is actually what is making us so unhappy and unhealthy is what interested me. Your stuff starts to own you and this what Walsh tries to uncover. He makes reference to the fact that while the average house size (in the US) has gone up by half the self-storage facility industry has grown by 75%. Apparently, people are more than willing to store it rather than sort it. I find that so unbelievable.

"We are at the center of an orgy of consumption, and many are now seeing that this need to own so much comes with a heavy price: Kids so overstimulated by the sheer volume of stuff in their home that they lose the ability to concentrate and focus."

This book is great and goes beyond the idea of buying a few totes and stashing things away. He has focused plans for each room and walks you through the steps. In the end, most people realize that all the stuff that they "could not live without" is easily given up and not missed a bit. Walsh talks about imagining the life you want. Is your home your refuge from the world, your place to connect as a family? His plans help you achieve that. While I don't have a horrible clutter problem now, I used to. I have come to realize that keeping a few choice precious mementos is more meaningful than boxes of stuff. If your use of space doesn't match your priorities Walsh can help. Sorting the memories or perceived value of an item, from the actual item is key and this is Walsh's specialty.

Since Alpha Dogma tagged me for a long forgotten meme I am going to use this book since I was planning on talking a bit about it anyway. Here are the instructions:

Find the nearest book. Name the Author & title. Turn to page 123. Post sentences 6-8. Tag three more people. (Tagging not likely since this made the rounds a while ago.)

Page 123-This is the second page of Chapter 3 Family and Living Rooms. Here are the sentences (as best as I can there a few bullets in the area):

Gary and Marie have three young children. They live in an 1,800-square foot home. When I first saw their living room it was a catch-all for anything you can imagine - clothing, books, mail, the kids' toys, crafting materials, even two large stacks of romance novels that Marie had recently collected from her grandmother's home.


Bub & Pie's recent post about narcissism and the subsequent thought-provoking comments also got me thinking about how much is enough these days. This applies to so many things (see above), how many toys, books, time with you, time without you, time as a couple, activities, lessons, the list is endless. We talk a lot in the blogging world about balance, how to achieve it and if it is even possible.

Christmas 2005 we decided that each girl was going to get five gifts. I picked five as a random number and it just stuck. We don't give the girls any gifts from us just from Santa. So five gifts from Santa and their stockings. Leading up the holidays I found myself struggling to come up the one gift, you know the one, the one they gasp over and won't put down for days. Since I had "given away" many of the gifts I knew they really wanted to grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents and friends; my list was a little dry. Feeling stupid for not saving at least one for us to give the girls I came up with idea of sticking to five gifts and that could include pajamas, books and toys.

In the end I did come up with some great and well used and loved gifts. My girls were completely happy and satisfied Christmas morning and it was not at all hours of endless gift opening and tossing. What I wasn't prepared for though were some of the comments from some of our friends. Many clearly felt five gifts was pretty chintzy and I was shocked. How many gifts does a one year old or three year old need? I mean they get gifts from at least six other sources, as it was I felt they were getting too much. I am no Scrooge I promise you, but when I am struggling to come up with gifts they would truly love and play with - the key word being struggle - you know they are not wanting for anything. They can always use more books and passes to places like the zoo or Science Centre are always appreciated, but really more crap - no thanks.

We are still sticking by our rule three years later and I think it is great. I know exactly how many to buy for each girl and it forces me to think a little harder. One family we know bought each child over twenty gifts to open and several were the big ticket items. I just don't see the point of that. They also let one of their children spend all of their birthday money in Toys R Us a month before Christmas. While I am not at all a wooden toys and cloth dolls only Mom - Nickelodeon characters are my friends - I sure value the quality gifts much more than another plastic piece of junk that will be broken or forgotten in a few days.

This theory also applied to our "big trip" last summer to Disney World. Hubby felt strongly at first that this was just too much to give them at such an early age. Would they start expecting such grand holidays all the time? We used all our Air Miles and loyalty points so the flights, hotel and car rental were covered - what I am getting at it is it isn't likely another trip of this scale will be happening for quite some time. Turns out we all had an amazing time, the reconnection as a family without any distractions was just what we needed. They talk about our trip all the time, but show no signs of being spoiled about it all. They were more than thrilled with our three day trip to Collingwood over the Christmas holidays.

I think we are just used to getting and giving too much. With dollar stores in every plaza and toys chests in every restaurant kids (and us too) are used to walking away with something in our hands. Don't get me wrong I love to shop, it is recreational for me sometimes, but I have seen the hazards of tripping over hundreds of dollar store toys. What is the point? Why do you need a hundred of something when a handful will suffice. In terms of giving, when did we create so many new holidays and occasions? We have the requisite Mother's and Father's Day, Easter and Valentine's Day, and now there are St. Patrick's Day gifts and cards in stores. Even engagements and baptisms have become a reason to have a fancy party. More and more frequently we are being invited to these type of parties, and by this I mean, 50+ people, sit-down dinner, often dancing, and oh yeah a gift or envelope. I mean I am happy for them and all and I would encourage them to have a lovely dinner with both sets of parents, but I have been to these engagement parties where if the priest had been willing we could have been done with it on the spot. Add to this the shower and wedding gifts and it really does seem overboard.

I worry that I am becoming a big old curmudgeon. I would never want my kids to want for anything, but more and more I am realizing more is not necessarily better; in fact it IS worse. A blog I wish I had more time to visit My Dog Harriet posted recently about an article in New York Magazine and the hazards of over praising, which ties in so nicely with Bub & Pie's post. This is something I have long thought and have commented on before on other blogs. Following around little Timmy all day with a steady stream of, "good job and you are the best" cannot be good for a child. How do they know when they really are doing a good job? What about when they know they are not trying hard and are getting the same recognition as when they do? Go read the article you will be amazed at the connections they make between self-esteem and over praising; feeding right in to the narcissism debate. You will be surprised when you realize that we all absently do this, especially when our little prodigies are holding up something for us to see and we are busy doing something else.

Where is this all going? We are constantly surrounded by too much stuff. It might be physical stuff like toys, books or clothes. It might be media that floods into your life on every possible channel. It might be giving too much praise (or the wrong kind) to your children. I think it is important that however you define balance for your family, that you actively try to achieve it. Personally, when I let things slide is usually when I feel my most scattered and helpless. When I make an effort to stay present and in control of our stuff we have more time for the things we love doing, whether it is a Scrabble game before bed or a trip to the park.

More and more I am working on making our home and our lives less filled with stuff. When this happens my life opens up to all the other things I want to fill it with and that makes me feel good inside. I will never shun shopping or toys for my kids, but I will try very hard to limit the flow coming into our house. I love a good Coach bag as much as the next gal, but I don't need twenty purses, one or two will do. Now the new Aerosole sandals I saw...that is another story.


Mimi said...

Great friggin' post Jen G! Wow! Thanks so much for sharing this.

Pynchon and I have only been in our house a year and a half. Before that, we were, for one reason or another, moving every year or so. You get real good at whittling the lifestyle down that way, and we've promised each other to not fill up attic/basement/garage with an endless profusion of STUFF. It takes more care to edit it, to not buy it, than it does to just shove it somewhere, and we don't want to be like that.

And. I'm totally with you on the limiting of what you give the kids: too much is too much, and then none of it is enjoyed, and it occupies so much physical and mental space that it's more trouble than good. The most awful thing is to watch a child open a gift she would be happy to play with all day, only to get redirected towards opening the next big thing. It's like teaching lack of appreciation. Ack.

Ok. Will stop hogging your comments now.

Brilliant post. I'm gonna read that book, I think ...

Melanie said...

You put it so brilliantly (and I'm NOT over-praising). We are constantly striving for balance. Myself, especially. At Christmas, there weren't really any "big ticket" items this year. There was just nothing the kids really didn't have. Each child got about 5 or so gifts (young enough that we don't have to worry about being exactly even yet). The only thing I really buy a lot of are books, but even that isn't crazy. And my house can still get cluttered. I have only about 1,500 sq. feet. And NO storage facility. We get rid of anything we don't use within a year. It's the rule. Lately I'm trying to follow a new rule: if you bring something new into the house, you have to get rid of something. It's catching on. I sort of like it. I am so with you on all of this. Do you think the book provided a good solution? I may have to go see if I can get it at the library, I'm always up for a good read. Anyway - I would give you an award for this post, but I don't want to clutter your space!

bubandpie said...

So much to say...

On buying too much stuff: Just this morning I was flipping through some flyers and said excitedly to hubby, "Maybe I should buy this two-for-one DVD set with The Break-Up and You, Me and Dupree!" He just stared at me. I enjoyed The Break-Up when it was in theatres and have been waiting for the price to come down to buy the DVD because it makes a nice counterpart to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (SJ/SP romance vs. NF/NT romance). Not because I think I'll necessarily watch it more than once, but purely for collecting purposes (idiocy #1). You, Me and Dupree, on the other hand, is a movie that looks terrible - there is no evidence whatsover that it's worth seeing, much less buying. But two for one! $19.99! I'm such a sucker.

On the Christmas gifts thing: I'll reveal my prejudices here and say - this is why I live far away from Toronto. This past Christmas, my kids were 1 and 3, and we bought them two or three gifts apiece - and by the time two aunts and two sets of grandparents chipped in, I still felt overwhelmed by all the toys. But at least nobody was looking askance at me for being chintzy.

On the praise thing: I haven't read the link yet, but I'm still very conflicted about this issue. I can see the logic behind praising the effort rather than the results, but I can't quite decide to cut down on the "good job": my kids are not all that verbally sophisticated yet, and "good job" tells them, "That's right, keep going, you're getting there, you did it!" And now they tell themselves that when they accompish something, and tell each other "Good job." I refuse to succumb to the paranoia that I am somehow crippling them for life by doing this.

Jenifer G. said...

Mimi-Moving does sound like a good way to keep things under control you are forced to "go through" everything more frequently. It is so hard to draw the line sometimes and this is why Papoosie Girl did not get a formal birthday party this year and we took away for a few days up North at my Step-Mom's condo. Her b-day is three days after Christmas and we usually have her party at an indoor playland. I just could not handle her getting 30 more gifts right after the holidays. Funny thing is, most people still bought gifts and we have been getting them staggered for months. I don't want to come out and say "no gifts" but I am really having a hard time keeping it under control.

Melanie-You are already following one of Walsh's rules which is if something comes in something goes out. Another tip for clothes is to turn all your hangers around backwards and each time you wear something turn the hanger the right way. At the end of 12 or 18 months (depending on the season) get rid of anything still backwards. He quotes something like we wear only 20% of our wardrobes...
My house is 1200 sq. feet so I can appreciate your struggle to keep things under control.

Bub & Pie-We are all lured by those deals! Nothing speaks to me like a good offer for something free.

In terms of praise I think it depends a lot on the age of the child and the child themselves. In a way I am conflicted too about this. I have always thought that a non-stop steady stream of praise is not helpful. I have seen parents praise everything everything and anything the child has done. That said, only the parent really understands what is a struggle for the child and perhaps encouragement is helpful for the child to continue the task.

Well-chosen words of encouragement when they are trying hard or working on something difficult is not only good for them but it shows you understand their struggle.

You are right the article focuses on the effort and at Bub and Pie's ages that is perhaps not so appropriate. My girls are a little older and extremely verbal, so when they are sighing and exclaiming, "it's too hard" I try hard to focus on the task and why they can do it, citing examples of things they have done in the past. etc.

I do not believe for a minute that praise in any form will scar a child for life, but the article makes a good argument. Constant over-praising can lead to inflated self-esteems and a child that cannot do the simplest of tasks without a cheering squad. I worry it can lead a child to even lower self-esteem, a child who doesn't feel valued unless they constantly hear it.

More food for thought. I do praise my kids quite a bit I just try to pay attention a bit more to what I am saying.

Thanks for the fab comments everyone!

NotSoSage said...

Oh, I'm going to break with the tradition of previous commenters and just say that this is something that is ALWAYS on my mind and a constant source of frustration.

And with that, I'm avoiding cluttering up your comments! :)

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Hello, I've seen you commenting around and thought I'd say hi... So hi!

I agree with what you said about de-cluttering. We are 4 people in 1800 sq feet and are filled up. Nothing more comes in w/o something else going out, that's the rule now. Otherwise we'll just be tripping on everything!

This Christmas my son, who loves to build, got more supplies than toys -- tubes, tape, glue, string, construction paper, etc. etc. He is still, three months later, using that stuff almost every day. And now my house is decorated with his work : )

Melanie said...

On the praise thing - I'm curious (and will admit that I haven't read the link), is it all about over-praise, but also about making sure to tell the child when they have done wrong or disciplining them when they are misbehaving? There are some parents who don't correct their children about anything, who just look the other way at bad behavior. I try to balance the two - discipline and praise. There's the whole movement of positive behavior supports, which applauds the good and ignores the bad. I just don't know. And I totally get that a child could come to a point where they can't do anything without a cheering squad. Already my 3-year old bring things to me or asks if I've seen her do something and asks, "Did I do a good job? Do you like it?" They are so hungry for praise. I guess it all comes back to that one word - my main goal in life...balance.

Mad Hatter said...

Great post, Jennifer. I do try to keep Christmas small. There's no way my daughter needs that much stuff and what with her birthday being just one month after Christmas, it all gets overwhelming.

I am, however, a sentimental hoarder. This is something that I likely should address but, like Mimi, I have moved a lot and that has kept me somewhat honest.

As for the praise. I don't know I know how to turn off that capacity yet. My girl is still young, though, so I guess I have time to think about it. In fact--here is a funny story. The day following the "stuck poo incident, Miss M started grunting in the dining room while my husband and I were lingering over dinner. It was clear she was still a bit constipated and that she was a tad scared from her most recent experience. In short, my husband cheered her on and heaped no end of praise on her success. Now, a full week later, she still says "Yeah!!! You got it out" each time she takes a dump. Too much praise?

Sandra said...

This is so well written and reasoned and something I am really wrapping my head around right now. I actually don't have alot of stuff ... I am a compulsive de-clutterer. But I struggle with living a live of commercialism and consumption when it would be so much less stressful to live with simplicity.

Thanks for writing this post.

Jenifer G. said...

NotSoSage-Thanks! (See me following your lead?)

Jennifer (Ponderosa)-Craft supplies are always appreciated and I try to recycle in this area too. My daughters cannot get enough crafts. At least this is using their brains and imaginations even if it does contribute to the clutter a bit. I sometimes take photos of the girls with their special work then if we eventually recycle it we have a lasting reminder.

Melanie-You bring up a good point. I have seen parents overlook all kinds of behaviour-good and bad. I so agree that is all about balance. If you catch them doing something great, say something and likewise if they are doing some thing less than desirable point that out too. Constructive comments whether praise or disciple are what the article is getting at, I think.

Mad-Picture this. I am in high school and I have every movie stub, bus transfer that "adds" up to my beloveds first initial, every memento I ever saved-collected-was given from this relationship. Sentimental? Um. Guilty as charged. I have learned slowly to let go of some of the stuff. Takes time.

Sandra-Glad you are back. I know from your posts that you are the least "commercial" person I know. I think you set a good example of how to live a less consumer driven life. I know I can't change my family overnight, but I feel the weight lifting with each step.

You guys are the best! So smart! So good for me.

Haley-O said...

I sooooo need that book! My house is so cluttered. Totally makes for a cluttered mind! Thanks for making me think more about this. It's high time I do something about it. It drives my hubby and I nuts, and, yet, we keep buying toys and stuff....

Alpha DogMa said...

Oooh, Peter Walsh. He was (is?) on TLC's Clean Sweep, and I lurve him. I'm a purger so watching him just validates my lil' ego.

I like your idea for Christmas presents. For our boys we do stockings of toys (however, they're supersized stockings and it adds up to about $40) from Santa and one present (under $30) from us. Like you, we don't get a lot of validation from friends and family who think we are mean. I think that (like with many situations) people don't like it when you question the status quo and rock the boat as it makes them feel uncomfortable.

And back to the issue of praise, I wonder if someone is going to read the article and misinterpret the message as "don't praise your child, but rather insult or belittle." I am alternately amused and fearful of this idea.

(Off to blog back at my site)

Oh, The Joys said...

I love the idea of a life with less stuff.

Brilliant post!

Alpha DogMa said...

Tag you're it!