Does living simply mean simply being mean?

In an environment of consumerism and waste, how do we raise children who are content with simpler things, asks Catherine Masterman.

“They can’t just eat sawdust!” wailed one family member. “But it’s Christmas, – they like getting lots of presents!” protested another when I baulked at the volume under the tree.

It’s one thing to change your own consumption habits. I can now look at reduced packets of the specialist cakes and biscuits I am restricted to and not want them if they contain a lot of plastic or palm oil. A few years ago I would have hoovered them up without a thought.

But it’s another to impose yours on your children isn’t it? Shouldn’t they just be able to enjoy a ‘normal’ childhood? What we consume and how we parent is almost more than anything else governed by our expectations of what’s normal. But what’s ‘normal’ about resource use is currently changing. A few years ago I happily bought plastic foam craft kits in plastic containers with no thought but to the creative stimulation it would give my child (and the few minutes peace it would give me). Now, I see craft cupboards in institutional set-ups as the future contents of my recycling/rubbish bins.

There is an apocryphal story of a monk who said to a guest “let us know if there’s anything you want and we’ll teach you how to live without it”. Given that that’s my tendency as a parent, I’m asking for a sense check on my framework of what I think is OK to deny children as a way of teaching them that there are limits to our resource use that are not to do with how much they cost.  Some of these need a luxury of time (refilling bottles or looking in charity shops). Others have just been a change in what I see when I look at something. This isn’t trying to be a statement of virtue – there is an equally long if not longer statement of consumption I could make (I have done far more than my share of flying over the last few years). It’s a question about our norms. Can we break away from a childhood flooded with stuff, or will it always seem simply mean?

  • not buying magazines with plastic toys
  • hand-me down clothes and new ones from charity shops where possible
  • no ‘character’ toothbrushes or toiletries if we can find bamboo or refill bottles
  • choosing which presents (birthday or Christmas) they won’t keep before they get put in over-stocked cupboards
  • not buying ‘gimic’ toys that entertain for only a few minutes
  • only eating processed packet food like crisps and smoothies out of the house and in holidays on picnics
  • not buying fruit (esp berries) out of season even if it’s their preference
  • presents of toys/books/games from charity shops encouraged from others
  • not buying clothes with plastic in/on (sequins, glitter etc)
  • re-used craft materials and minimising plastic pens and plastic craft kits etc
  • no big one-off birthday balloons
  • re-using stationery from my childhood and writing notes in pencil rather than biro
  • jumpers are compulsory – thermostat at home is almost never above 19 degrees

I’d love to know what you think.

(First published at the Grain of Sand blog)

3 Replies to “Does living simply mean simply being mean?”

  1. I was born at the end of WW2 and grew up with rationing. Minimal sweets and food other than what grew in the garden. My sister and I had a dolls pram and a doll between us and my mother made clothes for it – and for us. We had three sets of clothes – one on, one in the wash and one in the drawer- and that was all. There was no plastic. I don’t think I was deprived – it was ‘normal’ for the time and we felt loved and were happy. I would encourage Catherine to help her children understand that the world is not a limitless supply of ‘goodies’ and we have to decide what is important. God made us to love each other and that is the most important gift we can give our children. Susan



  2. I am a grandma and probably about the same age as Susan (above) although the only rationing I remember is sweets. This reminds me of our son when he was maybe about 9, coming home from playing at a friend’s house. He stomped around the house a bit and then said, ‘Are they rich or something?’ as his friend had a lot more toys than he had. Also when our daughter was very small and a neighbour’s daughter came round to play. She emptied the toy cupboard and then said, ‘Is this all there is?’ I now feel a bit of a mean grandma as I think about buying things for my grandchildren and that they have so much. Whatever I get will only add to the pile, so I usually get a small something I hope they will like and give their parents some money to buy what they really need. I really appreciate Catherine’s article and agree with what she says. We gave up buying and receiving birthday and Christmas presents years ago (except for the under 18s) as I felt it was a matter of buying and receiving things nobody really wanted and it would be better to give the money to a charity.


  3. Thanks Susan and Elizabeth. I think things will change again away from plastic toys and the schools are doing a lot more about awareness than they did when I was small. But it will take time and need our children to be a bit counter cultural. We can encourage them but they will need to make their own choices.


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