You love your children. The avalanche of stuff that seems to come with them? Not so much. Help them feel more joy with fewer things.

By Lisa Armstrong
Updated October 19, 2018
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White shelving unit with colorful toys
Credit: Ted and Chelsea Cavanaugh

If you’re like many Americans, chances are your family is swimming in stuff: toys, clothes, trophies, electronics, cheap plastic figurines. To afford this abundance is a privilege, of course, but when it comes to our kids, we’re a nation of overconsumers. The U.S. is home to just 3.1 percent of the world’s children but consumes 40 percent of the world’s toys. Researchers in Los Angeles went into 32 homes to catalog the overconsumption epidemic: In one child’s room alone, they counted 165 Beanie Babies, 36 figurines, 22 Barbie dolls, three porcelain dolls, 20 other dolls, one troll, and a miniature castle. (“Where was everything else hiding?” you might ask.)

RELATED: This Is What Happened When I Got Rid of All of My Kids' Things

Much of this stuff is around for an ostensibly sweet reason: We buy lots of toys, clothes, and other items for children to make them happy. Unfortunately, this can backfire. All the clutter can actually overwhelm children and add to stress, says Kim John Payne, a family counselor and the author of Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. What’s best for kids, says Payne, might be teaching them to have only what they need and to keep those few belongings organized. It’s not just about being neat: “Keeping a room or house orderly can make your life feel more orderly,” he says. In other words, calm and focused surroundings can help your child stay calm and focused too.

The perks of minimalism could even reach into your child’s future. “The practical benefits of owning less are more money, more time, more calm, more freedom,” says blogger Joshua Becker, a father of two and the author of The Minimalist Home.

Plus, learning to consume less is a way to practice discipline, a skill that makes it a lot easier to become a responsible adult. “Kids who don’t learn to exist within boundaries may become adults who don’t set them,” says Becker.

But in a culture of consumerism, how do you raise a minimalist? How do you teach children, who are bombarded with messages from media and peers that they need the latest toy or pair of sneakers, to be content with fewer things? Some ideas ahead.

White shelving unit with colorful toys
Credit: Ted and Chelsea Cavanaugh

Why Do Kids Want So Much?

Attachment to toys, blankets, and other objects is a natural stage of child development. Between 6 and 12 months, babies often form emotional attachments to what psychologists call “transitional objects”—items that help comfort them as they transition from being emotionally dependent on parents and caregivers to having a bit more independence. Kids develop a sense of ownership by age 2 (the “mine!” stage), and by age 6 they learn to place special value on the things they own.

While attachment to one or two special toys is a healthy part of being a kid, the message that it’s best to have a lot of possessions is learned. “Kids often learn about ‘stuff’ from us,” says Jessica Mayo, PhD, assistant professor of clinical child psychology at the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine. “If one of the main ways we show our kids that we love them, or that we think they are good or special, is to buy them things, kids will certainly be paying attention to how often they get something new.”

Don’t worry: It’s not just you—it’s also the media. “No child is born wanting an Xbox or Barbie,” says Tim Kasser, PhD, a psychology professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and the author of The High Price of Materialism. “What happens is that via exposure to other kids and the media, they come to believe that certain products will make them happier or more popular or help them fit in. That’s what ads are designed to do—create desire for certain products.” Of course, most of us watched TV growing up too, with plenty of ads for the latest baby doll running during Saturday morning cartoons. But kids today spend an unprecedented amount of time interacting with media. A recent study from Common Sense Media found that the average tween spends six hours per day looking at a screen.

Laying the Foundation

The best way to have children adopt a lifestyle is to live that way yourself. “Promoting a lifestyle of minimalism is no different from passing along any value to our children,” says Becker. “We want them to be hardworking, selfless, caring, justice-minded individuals. Promoting these values always occurs the same way: We model it, we teach it, we correct when necessary, and we reward positive behavior.”

The ideal window: before age 6. During those early years, kids are like sponges, soaking up skills and habits by imitating what they see others do, says Payne. But even if your child is older, it’s important to lead by example. The first step is to declutter your own spaces. Start with the easiest and most lived-in rooms so you’ll quickly see results and feel motivated, says Becker.

Are you and yours struggling to part with things? Try the self-analysis recommended by organizing expert June Saruwatari, author of Behind the Clutter: Truth. Love. Meaning. Purpose. (Hint: The system is the subtitle of her book.) Start with the truth; the truth of the space—a closet, for instance—is that it can only hold so much. Then determine if you really love the item (or ask family members to). Finally, decide what the item means and figure out what purpose it serves.

“Things are symbols. They represent dreams and goals, like ‘I’m holding on to these pants because I want to lose weight,’” says Saruwatari. “If you get to the root cause of just one thing you’ve been holding on to, you’ll often figure out the reason you’re holding on to all of it. It’ll release the emotional dam, the blockages associated with stuff.”

If your children feel you’re unfairly making them ditch everything they love, give them total dominion over a clearly defined space: say, a closet or container where they can keep anything they want—as long as it all fits within that physical boundary. Everything else goes. “When my son was 5 and we first began pursuing a minimalist lifestyle, we told him he could keep whatever toys he wanted as long as they fit against one wall,” says Becker.

But also? Don’t forget that it’s your right and responsibility as a parent to push back sometimes. “I have never feared saying no to my kids. It’s healthy for them for me to say, ‘No, you can’t have that. We don’t have space for that,’” says Becker.

Donate and Keep toy bins
Credit: Ted and Chelsea Cavanaugh

Why Limiting Media Is Crucial

The experts agree that one of the most important ways to help kids have a healthier relationship with stuff is to limit screen time: Limited exposure to media means limited exposure to advertising. It’s a negotiation all parents of screen-loving kids have to manage themselves, but the American Academy of Pediatrics says that screen time should be avoided for children younger than 18 months and limited for older children.

“Research shows that, on average, children younger than 12 do not understand persuasive intent,” says Kasser. “They don’t understand that the person in the ad is being paid to sell things.” When they were 2, Kasser started explaining to his children that the people in ads were just acting, and that the products they were selling would not make them any happier.

Restricting media has worked for Lizzi Sofge and her husband, Alan, of New York City. They have always regulated screen time for their children, Amber, 18, Camila, 10, and Lucas, 6, and they limit TV to weekends and movie nights. “They don’t see a lot of commercials—they don’t want what they don’t know exists,” says Lizzi.

While it might be tough to reduce screen time for kids who are already accustomed to a certain number of hours per day, experts say it’s like anything else with parenting: Sometimes you just have to set a limit and stick with it. Find other activities—board games, crafts, reading—to engage in as a family: Your kids might roll their eyes at first, but you’ll eventually find something you all have fun doing together.

Lizzi Sofge grew up in the Dominican Republic, where as a child she entertained herself by playing outdoors. She wanted her children to have a similar childhood, to value experiences more than toys, so the family spends money on going to the theater, for example, rather than things. There’s also a practical reason for their minimalism: “We live in a two-bedroom apartment and need to be very conscious of what comes in,” says Sofge. “It has to be something they really want and really need.” The kids know to respect their parents’ limits.

The Gift Conundrum

To avoid getting a deluge of toys, clothes, and other stuff for holidays or birthdays, experts say to ask relatives and family friends for experiences instead of things. The key is to be specific. Cassandra Larson, a mother of three in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, states exactly what her children would like to do: “Gifts are not necessary, but if you would like to give one, [child] would be so happy if you gave money toward [such-and-such experience].” Sofge has asked family and friends not to give her children gifts, period. They get three gifts each from Santa at Christmas, as well as cash to donate to someone in need. Sofge says that the first year the family did this, her children weren’t quite on board, and the youngest wanted to know why he couldn’t spend the money on toys for himself. Last year, they felt great about giving the money to an immigrant in need who works near their school.

Toys on top of white shelf
Credit: Ted and Chelsea Cavanaugh

Is It Ever Too Late?

Truth time: If children haven’t been raised from the get-go to be minimalists, it can be difficult to teach them to adopt that lifestyle as tweens and teens. Lisa George of Cobb County, Georgia, said her 16-year-old son, Dez, was the first grandchild in her family and was showered with toys and clothes. He learned to associate things with love and often didn’t value the toys and clothes he had, she says.

Around the time Dez was 8, George realized the amount of stuff was getting out of hand and it was time to make a change. She started by going through Dev’s closet with him and discussing whether he truly needed each item, explaining that things he rarely used could go to people who needed them. “If you have 20 pairs of shoes and are only wearing five, you could be helping 15 other people,” she told him.

Interestingly, Kasser’s research reveals that people who care about image and popularity are more likely to be materialistic, while those who focus more on personal growth and community don’t worry as much about having things. Helping your child focus on those positive values can also help her deal with jealousy she might feel when kids show up at school with the latest cool gadget: “Encourage her to feel gratitude for what your family already has and learn you don’t have to be like everyone else,” he says.

George encouraged Dez to get an after-school job last year to earn spending money. He says that it’s helped him consider whether he really wants something before purchasing it, and that he cares for the items he buys because he understands that hours of work made it possible for him to have them. The journey to minimalism has been a gradual one, but the family has started spending money on hobbies and trips rather than stuff. The result: happier parents and a happier kid.