Minimalism has defined so many trends in the past decade, from the rise of capsule wardrobes to the cottage industry around Marie Kondo, from her Netflix show to online store to a children’s book. And, of course, minimalist parenting.
What even is minimalist parenting?
As popular as it is, there isn’t one unifying definition of minimalism, let alone minimalist parenting. The term “minimalism” actually came from an art movement in the 1960s and has only been recently applied to our wardrobes, possessions, and decor. As for what defines minimalist parenting. The term first hit it big in 2013 when two moms, Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest, wrote the book Minimalist Parenting. Their approach is one that involves less all around: less stuff, but also less scheduling and fewer interventions in a child’s life.
Of course, any trend comes with a backlash or reaction, and it isn’t surprising that the age of the so-called helicopter parent and all its iterations (lawnmower parenting, anyone?), led to people seeking ways to step back and do…less. Just like with the minimalist movement at large, it’s about making do with what your family really needs and cutting out the rest.
In that way, minimalist parenting has a lot in common with the ethos behind Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which resists a one-size-fits-all approach to reducing clutter and doing with less. In one example, she writes about people who may find their life is enriched by being surrounded by a vast collection of books. Other people may find that books that were never read or not enjoyed (or won’t be read again) may just add unnecessary noise to their home. But while the KonMari method deals chiefly with possessions and how they enrich or hamper our lives, minimalist parenting tends to take a wider view to include things like family calendars, discipline, and play. But even if parents choose to focus primarily on reducing clutter, they can see a payoff in their day-to-day lives.
What the minimalist moms say
“For the kids, having spaces that are no longer jam-packed with all the things and are instead strategically staged with things they will actually use has been magical,” Nicole Cline, the blogger behind Not Quite Super Mom, tells SheKnows. Her family only recently shifted towards decluttering in the last six months, and adds that they still have a few rooms that need to be sorted through. But she’s already seeing positive results. By choosing to display toys that the kids actually enjoy, rather than losing them in a clutter of not-so-great items, her kids are more empowered to keep themselves entertained. Aside from reducing screen time, “I have not heard the phrase ‘There’s nothing to do’ in quite some time,” Cline adds.
Of course, getting kids to embrace fewer things (and curb their desire for new, flashy toys) takes some practice. Jewels, the blogger behind One Frugal Girl, actually has her kids, ages 4 and 8, review their “toy stash” every month.
“We look at all of the toys on the shelf and I ask, ‘Are you playing with this? When was the last time you played with it? Is this toy fun to play with? Does your brother like to play this with you? Do you feel joyful when you play with this toy?’ she tells SheKnows. When her kids also find out about a toy at a friend’s house, she asks them how often they would play with it and if they have any existing toys that could also do similar things. This leads to an emphasis on imaginative play.
“Over time I hope they learn that abundant joy is much more valuable than abundant stuff! In fact, I want them to understand that owning less is often the key to happiness,” she says about her philosophy.
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As many parents know, getting kids on board is one thing — getting doting grandparents and family members on board is another. Mandi Em, the mom behind Healthy Living for Hot Messes, cites “the desire to break free from the accumulation of plastic crap that ends up orbiting your family when you have littles” as her main reason for minimalist parenting. But reducing waste goes beyond just her nuclear family.
“One of the biggest challenges for us has been setting boundaries with family when it comes to gifts and things,” she tells SheKnows. “People are very much in a mindset that buying toys and things is a way to show affection for kids.” Not all minimalist parents approach new possessions the same way: some may not mind new things coming in, via grandparents or otherwise, as long as older stuff is given away. But, for Mandi’s family, the goal is both getting fewer things and, one day, getting rid of fewer things, reducing their environmental impact even more.
“My best tip for parents looking to survive the accumulation of child-related junk is to educate yourself and become very clear on the reason you are setting certain boundaries around the things that come into your home,” she says. If you know why you don’t want more toys in your home, you may be better able to set boundaries, both with your children and family. She also recommends parents be ready to offer alternatives to family members who may want to give gifts. Family who live nearby can give the gift of time, but those who live far away don’t have to be limited. Grandparents who can’t be there in person can give museum memberships or treat the family to a Saturday movie matinee, for example.
Sherry of Save Spend Splurge tells SheKnows that clutter, environment, and finances contributed to her decision to live a minimalist lifestyle with her family. She is part of a growing movement of people who set goals of early retirement and financial independence through frugal living. While not all frugal bloggers also identify as minimalist, there’s a lot of commonalities, a de-emphasis on things and shopping being chief among them. Sherry is aiming for 90% savings this year by doing things like never buying new clothes (only secondhand) and getting all her books and movies from the library. While money is a driving factor, she also says the environment is a huge factor. Plus, less clutter saves time — with less stuff (she even goes without a couch in the family room, opting for a wide-open space) she only cleans three hours a week.
“Clutter is also mentally stressful,” she adds. “To see a dirty desk, to see papers, to see THINGS that you have to dust and look at, can also cause distress in your subconscious. Don’t live with white walls in a box, but don’t fill it up with stuff that isn’t meaningful or that you don’t care for.”
Some parents define minimalist parenting beyond minimizing stuff.
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“To me, minimalist parenting isn’t so much about material things, it’s about taking a true, respectful view of your child and an individual and parenting them in ways that support their growth and development while minimizing influence or demands on them that come from my own desire,” Jessica James of Domestic Bliss Squared tells SheKnows. That means, among other things, letting her 11-year-old set her own bedtimes as long as she has a good attitude the next morning, as well as pack her own lunches as long as they are reasonably healthy. It’s not exactly full-on free-range parenting, however. Her younger child, who is also more impulsive than her eldest, needs more help choosing healthy foods, for example. So she gives him a list of healthy snacks that he can eat at any time without asking.
“If he dislikes his dinner… he is free to choose from any healthy item on that list instead, without interference from me,” she explains, summing up her philosophy as “staying out of who they are as a person while providing guidelines for healthy growth.” While she did not put the label “minimalist parenting,” on it, this hews closely to what Alison Gopnik writes about in her 2016 book, The Gardener and the Carpenter. In the book, Gopnik, a professor of psychology, argues that hands-off parenting, whether you call it minimalist or not, is better suited to how children’s brains are wired to work.
It can also be better for parents as well. Melissa Jennings, of Stockpiling Moms, says that for her, minimalism means letting her 15-year-old largely make his own decisions — with some guidance, like her teaching him to make a pro/con list. But it also means stepping back from an overscheduled calendar. She tells SheKnows “It is the best decision we ever made and it is teaching my son responsibility. It is actually freeing!”
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The anonymous owner and administrator behind MomConfessions found that cutting back on schedules and taking a more hands-off approach has had benefits for everyone as well.
“My children have been more creative with their time. I’m not hovering or pushing them so they’ve been discovering themselves and what they enjoy. They are free to explore the world and be independent,” she tells SheKnows. It’s also cut down on the pressure for everyone, parent and child.
While there are many different ways to combine the minimalist trend with parenting, be it through decluttering, cutting back on consumerism, or finding ways to even parent less (or some combination), all these self-identified minimalist moms spoke about similar outcomes: more room for togetherness, more room for creativity and joy, and more ability to focus on core values.
Georgia, of More Like Home, offered what was perhaps the best inclusive definition of minimalist parenting: “It’s focusing on the things that really matter to you and your family, and cutting out the things that don’t,” she tells SheKnows. There is no right set of wooden toys that can get you there. And, when approached thoughtfully and with intention, it’s the kind of parenting philosophy that can far outlast any of-the-moment “minimalism” buzzword that may be placed on it.