Simplicity vs. Responsibility

I recall a conversation I had with another mom during a sweltering swimming lesson one miserable summer day.  We were discussing our children’s jobs around the house, the things they did to help out, and I commented that the habit we were working on that summer was loading the dishwasher.  Each meal, each snack, the kids were responsible for taking care of their own dishes—which meant I had better be on top of emptying the dishwasher.

“Why can’t they do it?” she asked.

“They could, but most of it is too high up for them to reach.  It would involve climbing on a chair to put things away, so I take care of that part for them, right now.  That’ll be a new habit for another summer,” I joked.

“Don’t they have their own plates?” she asked, looking genuinely confused.

“Well….we have a drawer with their cups,” I admitted.  “But other than that, we all use the same stuff.”

“Oh, gosh, you need to get them their own stuff, plastic stuff that doesn’t break, so they can learn to take care of it.  Then it really is their responsibility to load and unload their dishes and their cups.”

I really chewed on that one for a while.  I absolutely saw her point of teaching responsibility, of kids caring for their own things.  But at what expense?  An entire extra set of plates and cups?  Was I willing to sacrifice simplicity, and accept a potentially huge amount of clutter, to teach that lesson right now?  Would the gain, the lesson learned, be worth it?

I finally decided the answer was no.  Extra plates?  Bowls?  Cups?  Where on earth would we put it all?  As the kids grow up, as they get taller and more able to reach the upper cabinets, we can move on to dishwasher emptying.  Right now, we can focus on loading:  loading only one set of dishes.

“Everyone has one but me”

Intentionally having less is not always easy, especially on the kids involved in this process.  I was reminded of this each time my son’s class earned an “electronics day” as a reward at school.   They could bring in their handheld games to play for a set amount of time…..but he didn’t have any.  Fortunately, he’s always had very understanding teachers who would set up a computer game or let him hang out with a friend who did have one of the devices.  (Because watching over someone else’s shoulder is a lot of fun, right?)  This was one instance, though, where when he came home saying “Everyone has one but me,” I absolutely believed him.

What to do with that information, though?  I wasn’t going to run right out and buy him a Nintendo DS “because everyone else has one”—what on earth kind of message would that be sending him?  He hadn’t cared enough to ask for one for a birthday or Christmas until this past year.  We held out for quite a while to see if that desire held steady, and when it did, he finally (he would probably repeat, FINALLY!) got a DSi for his 8th birthday.

I’ve been pleased at how it hasn’t taken over his life.  He’s never been my TV kid, so I guess I shouldn’t have worried.  It lives downstairs, so there’s no possibility of him staying up with it into the dark hours of the night (that’s what books are for).  He plays with it some, and puts it away, and moves on to other things.  The biggest difference has probably been that “electronics days” are no longer dreaded events in this house.

I know that this is only the beginning.  I know, looming in our future, we’ll be hearing about video games and cell phones and tablets….the list goes on and on.  As a mom, I hate when my child is the one “without,” just as much as he hates being the one to stick out and be different.  But if you asked me what our priorities are, knowing that how we spend our money reflects our priorities, these things really don’t make the list.

HOW many?

My son was getting ready for church, and couldn’t find any white socks.  As he finished his breakfast, I had a running commentary in the back of my head; something along the lines of, What do you mean you don’t have any white socks?  I just washed a load of whites after our trip.  I remember washing all your white socks.  How can you possibly not have any white socks?   Thankfully, I kept it to myself.  (Well, I might have said it out loud a little bit.)

Finally, I asked him to go check the basement.  They are constantly playing “gymnastics” down there, and invariably socks get removed, never to return upstairs.  I thought a basement search might turn up a missing pair.

The minute I said the word “basement,” his eyes got big.  “Oh, yeah,” he said, and then, with a slight British accent (please don’t ask why), “I forgot about Blanket’s sock machine!!”

He returned from downstairs with fourteen pairs of socks spilling out of his arms.  Not fourteen socks, mind you, but FOURTEEN PAIRS!!

Twenty-eight socks, now sitting on top of my washing machine, challenging me to see how even the mundane “stuff” in our lives so quickly multiplies and becomes overwhelming.  It’s sneaky….one day you have a perfectly reasonable amount of (fill in the blank), and then one day you look up, and you have twenty-eight of them–or another ridiculous number.  It seems to happen so slowly, so gradually, until that moment when it hits you:  How on earth did I end up with so many socks/magazines/food storage containers/insert your item of choice here?

In this case, not all were his; the bounty was fairly evenly divided between him and his sister.  But even seven pairs of socks seemed excessive when I realized that my daughter’s sock drawer was already full.  (Apparently girls have cuter socks that are much more difficult to let go of.)  🙂

That’s my new challenge to myself:  to look around and do a “number check.”  How many of (this) do I really need?  How many do I really use?  Would my excess be better off blessing someone else?  Is it time to pass this on?

Maybe I’ll start with our books…. (Ack!)


Months ago, I moved our unused computer armoire and a chair into my son’s room, to be used as “Lego central.”  It gave him space to store his stuff and a nice, large area to spread out on to build; plus, you could close the doors when he wasn’t using it and his room would suddenly (magically!) look cleaner.  He loved it.  For about two days.

The reality is that my kids would always rather be close to the rest of the family, and not “banished” upstairs in their rooms.  So Lego building usually happens on the dining room table.  The giant cabinet sat in my son’s room, unused except for storage.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been evaluating what he really needed in his room.  The wood-tone cabinet is ginormous (around 2′ x 3′, and 5′ high), and his room isn’t that big, and if the thing isn’t being used for what it was intended for, why is it still in there?  It seemed like what he needed was some place to display the items he had built, not a place to actually do the construction.  So I painted a tall, narrow bookcase white; six shelves that might show off his creations.

I’d talked to my son a few times about changing things out; he’s not the kind of kid where you can just redo his room and expect him to be happy with the surprise.  He had gotten to the point where he completely understood the idea of “why are we keeping this in here?  I’m not using it,” and once I heard that understanding, I started asking permission to change things up; once permission was granted, I started warning him that he might come home one day to a change.

Tuesday was the day.  I moved the cabinet out, and moved the bookcase in.  I rearranged two other furniture pieces in the process, and I took away his area rug to run through the washer.  The difference was incredible.  (I actually think removing the rug made just as much difference–now there’s a big expanse of carpet, instead of the floor being “broken up” into smaller parts.)

His first response was, “Mom!  I like it!  I really like it,” which eventually shifted to “I love it!”  Finally, he lay on the floor, arms and legs splayed out everywhere, and yelled, “Space!  I have space!”  And that was the word he kept going back to for the rest of the night.  “I have space!  Look at all this space!”

If that is the response of a eight-year-old confirmed pack rat, how would the rest of us feel with more space?  I don’t mean “a bigger house” more space, I mean “clearing out, getting rid of, making room” more space.  I think we’re fooling ourselves when we think “If I just had a bigger house;” in reality, if we had a bigger house, we’d just buy more stuff to fill it up and then moan (again) about how we needed a bigger house.  Instead, work backwards.  Edit.  This is what I have; what can I get rid of?  What am I not using?  What is just taking up space?  Or, the definition of our computer cabinet:  What was a good idea in one house, that is not working in this one?  What one item would make me feel twenty pounds lighter if I got rid of it?  Is there someone I know that could really use this item?  Or do I just need to donate it to a charity?

There is something very calming about having space around you; space to move, space to breathe.  What can you get rid of today that will contribute to “space,” and that feeling of a more peaceful home?


Left behind

We were halfway through a nine-hour drive home from our family vacation when my husband’s cell phone rang.  It was the hotel, informing us that we’d “left an item” behind.

“What?”  I asked, as in, what the heck was it?  We’d scoured that room repeatedly before we left; I was pretty sure it was empty.

She couldn’t tell me over the phone; my husband would have to figure out the missing item and call her back to identify it, and then we could make arrangements to pick it up.  (Um…..did you notice the area code you just dialed?  We’re not exactly next door.)

My husband and I spent the next five to ten minutes running through every possible item we could have possibly left behind.  My immediate response was to turn to the kids in the backseat and start an inventory of “loveys:”  “Do you have Blanket?  Do you have your Blanket?” and on down the line of stuffed animals that just had to come with us.  Finally, eventually, we realized we’d left a pair of my husband’s jeans hanging in the hotel closet.  Oops.

I tell this story because of two observations I made in that scramble of “what’s missing?”

First, the most important things to us, the “oh, no, we left that?” things, the things that would be truly heartbreaking to lose, are things that look like total garbage to other people.  Aside from my camera (photos) and our phones (photos and information), all the important stuff doesn’t look important.  Things like stuffed animals worn gray from so much love, and blankets that are–in the words of my son–no longer blankets, but “a wad of yarn.”  These are the things that no amount of money could ever replace; the things that, while we might not drive back for them, we would absolutely pay to ship home into the waiting arms of their owners.

Second, I wondered how many people have so much stuff that if they left something behind, they might never figure out what it was.  It took us a long time to walk through what we’d brought and what we possibly could have left, and we’d only been away for four nights.  I wondered how often the hotel would call people informing them of an “item left behind,” and people would never call back, because they didn’t ever really notice it was gone, they didn’t ever really miss it.  I’m beginning to look around my home, now, wondering:  would I miss that?  If that item went away, would I want it back?  Would I pay to retrieve it?  It’s been an interesting exercise.

If nothing else, I’ve learned to check hotel closets.  🙂

Moving Up

I struck up a conversation with a mom in the park one day.  She was one of those really easy-to-talk-to people; one of those people where one question—“So, you just moved?”—unleashes the entire backstory of the entire event, and all you need to do is nod and smile.

The (condensed) story went something like this:

“Yes, we weren’t even looking to move, but then we found out about this foreclosure, this woman was telling me all about how her house was going to be foreclosed on and we started really talking and I talked to my husband and we went to take a look at it, and it’s SO much bigger than our other house, with all this space, and the kids wouldn’t even have to change schools [it was in a neighboring subdivision], so we totally jumped on it.  It’s got FIVE bedrooms and three-and-a-half baths; it’s SO much bigger than the other house we were in….”

At this point, I admit, I laughed.  “I wouldn’t want to clean three-and-a-half baths,” I joked.  “I can barely stay on top of the two-and-a-half we have.  Or have to clean five bedrooms.”

“Oh, it’s not a problem,” she assured me.  “We just keep the doors closed and don’t ever go in those rooms.”  And the story continued….

But I got kind of stuck there.

I’m not even going to comment on that statement.  I’m just going to let it stand, by itself, in all its ridiculous glory.  (Okay, I guess that was a comment.)

The rest of the “conversation,” all I could think was, what’s the point??  Why on earth subject yourself to the hassle of a move, to the sorting and packing and cleaning and unpacking and having to sell your house (in a terrible market, I might add), to get a bigger home that you weren’t even going to use??  I realize that as a Christian, my perspective is vastly different from some people’s; but this is one situation where even just logically, it doesn’t seem to make sense.  Am I the only one to see the unbelievable futility in this?

Unintended consequences

I’ve been thinking about the unintended consequences of the choices we make ever since I wrote the post about the banker and his $350K pay.  At that point, I focused on the biggest choice we make:  our attitude about our money; whether we treat it as a gift from God, or something we did ourselves.

Since then, though, I’ve been thinking more about the domino effect of our choices:  how one choice automatically leads to another, and another, and so on.    To use the banker as an example:  by deciding to become an investment banker on Wall Street, he (by default) chose an incredibly high cost of living.  While he could move to a cheaper area, (though probably not in this housing market), a move would result in a much, much longer commute.  His choice of occupation dictates much of the trouble he’s dealing with now.

We went through our own version of this a few years ago.  When my husband and I originally moved back to this area, we took his place of work and drew a “twenty-minute” radius around it.  Twenty minutes seemed like a reasonable commute, and we only looked for houses within that area.  Job change after job change would alter the commute, but never terribly far from that twenty minutes we started with.

Until his last job.  The twenty-minute commute turned into a forty-five minute commute (on a good day).  Sometimes, if traffic was exceptionally bad, we were looking at over an hour.  During overtime season (which would coincide with winter) he would be setting his alarm for 4:00 in the morning, to get to work early for OT, driving on snowy, icy highways.  It was getting really, really ugly.  So we decided to go back to our twenty-minute idea, and move; especially before the kids started school.

Keep in mind this was supposed to be a lateral move–we were not looking to “move up,” not going bigger and better, just closer to work (though I was shooting for a four-bedroom instead of a three).  But the definition of “closer to work” meant, we discovered, a more expensive house.  Not bigger or better or fancier (actually, most rooms are smaller); but still a bit more expensive.

Even now I think about “if we’d just moved a little farther west…..”  A few miles further and we would have paid a little less for housing–but it would have completely defeated the purpose of moving.  The goal was to save time (and get my husband his life back); a forty-five minute commute from the west instead of the east wouldn’t have gained us a thing.

(One other observation:  what we pay for in mortgage payments is MORE than made up for in what we save on gas.  So actually, we’re still coming out ahead.)

Think about choices and consequences, though, the next time you get tied up in knots about a problem.  What choices were made that lead up to this?  Is it something that can be changed?  I know that the housing market is a disaster right now, so harping about poor choices in housing is pointless.  But try to think back–really think back–to where the dominoes started to fall.  Is there a choice I can change to help simplify my life?  To help in my finances?  Is there something I thought was a “need” that’s actually a “want?”  Follow that trail of dominoes back to the beginning.  That is where the most effective change will be made.