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
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.
"Every year, a fifteen to seventeen billion dollar marketing
industry is aimed at our kids. That money is spent because it’s
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 fifteen to seventeen billion dollar marketing industry is
aimed at our kids. That money is spent because it’s effective. It’s
estimated that five hundred and sixty-five 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
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
"We model delayed gratification each time we choose to save,
make do, or make it ourselves."
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
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. That is pivotal for
success. In multiple studies, 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.
"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."
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
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 self-worth. That self- worth
tends to come 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.
"Children’s creativity and resourcefulness flourish when they play
without the structure imposed by most playthings."
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
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."
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
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.
Laura Grace Weldon is the author of “Free Range Learning: How
Homeschooling Changes Everything.” She lives on Bit of Earth Farm where she
makes tinctures, messy art, and according to her kids, too many experimental
meals. If you are interested in contributing to her upcoming book about
living simply with children, please use the contact form found on her
This article was published in Natural Life Magazine in 2011 and is
one of a small number of articles also available on this website. To read more