When is Less More? Thoughts on Parenting, Giving Kids Options and Contentment

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Last week, Elena and I were on our way back from an afternoon errand. As soon as I pull up in front of our house, her little voice from the backseat both asks and exclaims, “Agua? Agua!”

I pull her out of the carseat, going over my mental to-do list that should be written down somewhere, but it’s not. Call Sandra. Email the hotel. Peel Carrots. I make a mental note to buy a planner for 2015.

Elena interrupts my thoughts, “Agua!” “Agua?” I smile, knowing very well what she wants.

I leave the diaper bag in the car, grab my phone and keys while setting Elena on the sidewalk.

Ah–wa!” She points toward the cement basketball court.

She remembers.  After it rains there are always puddles of water.

She squeals as she runs toward the court, one hand pointing toward her destination the other hand tightly wrapped around my mine.

I marvel at her excitement. She splashes her feet in the water and giggles.

She hops over to the next puddle and does the same. Water splashes, her little white shoes get wet.

She pauses and notices the dirt on the side of court.

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She waddles over, and squats down. With one hand on the ground to sustain her, she uses her other to pick up a tiny rock. She holds it out for me to see, “mah-ma?” 

I nod and offer my motherly, “wow.”

She tosses it into the puddle. It barely makes a ripple, but she laughs.

She walks over to the puddle, splashes her little feet and then picks up the rock and gently tosses it into the next puddle.

She watches it land, then runs over to splash next to it.

Then she goes back to the dirt to look for another pebble.

I snap a few pictures.

I ask her, “What did you find? “ so she knows I am still there.

I stay about three feet back from where I usually would be, too hesitant to ruin her playing.

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She tries to run, but slips and falls down. Her pants get wet. All wet.

Her eyes meet mine for reassurance.

It’s ok. You’re just a little wet. 

She seems consoled and begins splashing her hands in the water. The sleeves of her sweater absorb half of the dirty water. I restrain myself from interfering. I want to push up her sleeves or remove the wet sweater, but I don’t.

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It will wash out, I tell myself.

Her face is now wet, a mix of dirt and water drops have landed on places I usually try to keep clean. But she is smiling.

She straightens her legs into a little mini downward dog pose and pushes herself up to standing. She runs back over to the first puddle. She finds another little rocks and picks it up and then tosses it into the neighboring puddle.

For 25-minutes I watch this continue.

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I notice she has a pattern, a rhythm to her play. She is learning and discovering. She is having fun.

It is moment I realize, that I didn’t bring anything for her “to do.” We come to this little park often, but usually I wheel the stroller down with bubbles and a ball and sometimes snacks to share with friends we meet. I know those things are not inherently bad, but it made me wonder how often do I miss opportunities because I bring too much stuff?

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I am a product of my generation and my country. The “if-I-don’t-buy-this-then-my-child-will-miss-out” parenting myth is strong and believable.  Sophie the Giraffe, gotta have that. Stacking wood colored blocks, yep. Baby moccasins, of course. Books, yes, please, more books! There is poverty in privilege because I can choose to buy all of these things for my daughter. I could choose (and often do) fill up her shelves and our lives with stuff, but I often wonder when I say yes, to those things what I am I saying no to.

How often is the cliché true, less is more?

Months ago I read part of the book, Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. The idea is that in the US, we give our kids too many choices, too much stuff and too little time and so it goes through ways to de-clutter your stuff and your life, taking away screen time to have more family time, planning less activities, etc. It’s mostly geared for school age children, but I think a lot of the principles are applicable now.

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So I am thinking about this as a parent, but also a person.

I am by no means the poster child for simplicity. This blog is called Simply Complicated, with slightly more emphasis on the “complicated.” Just look at my computer desktop or how many drafts I have saved in my email (454!). I can pack-up tw0 50lb suitcases with tightly rolled clothes, cushioned around picture frames and cute anthropologie bowls like it’s my job. I have “wishlists” saved in my phone of things I want to get when we’re in the US later this month. I am usually a more is better, always be prepared kinda person. Ask anyone who knows me, simple I am not.

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So I am thinking about this idea of less is more on a personal level, but also on a societal level.

I would say one of the most frustrating and perhaps best parts of living in Guatemala is that I have fewer options. By nature there are just less choices here. There is no Target, no 2-day amazon prime, or return policy. What you buy is yours and when the store if out, it means they’re really out. There’s no backup. You can find things like frozen fruit in pre-packaged bags and pre-chopped bags of broccoli or lettuce, but you’ll pay 5 times as much for it. Convenience and efficiency are not a high value in Guatemala. But you know what is? Contentment.

I don’t think I am alone when I say, I feel more content here, than I do when I am in the states. And it’s not because I have found some secret recipe for contentment. No, I think it’s more circumstantial. Less is more. When you have fewer options, I think in general you’re more grateful for what you have.

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So, I am left wondering how do you raise kids in relative material wealth, who still grow up to be content? Does contentment grow out of the very fact of not having enough? By buying our kids too much stuff are we taking away the very opportunity to practice being content?

It’s privilege of the wealthy that even get to look at this whole notion that less is more. I know for many families growing up in poverty, less really is less. There is nothing to glorify about poverty. My husband can attest that there is nothing nostalgic about never getting a birthday present or not ever getting a new toy. He never had his own books to read or crayons to color with. Sure, he learned how to be creative and climb trees and run through corn fields, but it wasn’t cause his parents were trying to give him “opportunities”for play and discovery or practice being content, it was really because there were not any other options.

When is less more? And when is it really less?

It seems fewer options leads to more contentment, but no options leads to fewer opportunities.

Maybe the question I am learning to ask is, by saying yes to (buying/bringing/getting) _______ ____ for myself or our daughter, what am I saying no to?

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I think about that day at the park last week. About the simple joy of watching Elena play.

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As the sun begins to set, I carry home my wet, dirty and smiley, little girl. I set her down on the doormat before walking inside. She puts her colds hands on my cheeks as I lift up one leg at a time.

“Let’s get these dirty shoes off you.”

I peel off her wet pants and stained socks. I lift her shirt and sweater up over her head and kiss her bare bell button. She laughs and squirms away.

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I leave her clothes in a pile by the front door, thankful that I can throw those in the washing machine as soon as she’s in bed. I pick her up as we march up the stairs for bath time. “Bah?!”

Yes, time for a bath. And then night, night!

I smile as touch my nose to her hers.

She can’t yet say it, but I have a feeling we both went to bed that evening feeling quite content.

 

P.S.  Look, her curls! They also make me quite content! xo

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