Introduction – Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less

Introduction

As you scan the panorama of your life, you ultimately know you have a lot for which to be grateful. You have a wonderful family, a comfortable home, and plenty of opportunity as you look toward the future. Life’s not perfect and there may be some problems to work out, but overall, things are good.

So why do you have a nagging sense that something’s not right? Family life feels so full it’s ready to burst. The schedule is packed, the house is cluttered, and your mind lacks clarity. It feels as if the many wonderful things in your life are crowding out something important—but what?

You know many families struggle with less security and fewer opportunities. You look around and it seems everyone else is juggling family life well enough. Perhaps you feel a little foolish for even thinking you might have a problem. But try as you might, you find yourself plagued by worry that you’re somehow not doing enough, and that if you slow down, you’ll zap your kids’ chances at . . . happiness? Success? Something. You’re not sure what, but you’re not going to risk it.

We’ve been there. We still go there sometimes. But we’ve discovered a way to navigate past the self-doubt, guilt, and overwhelm inherent in today’s parenting climate to a place of clarity, connection, and—most of all—fun. We call it Minimalist Parenting.

What Is Minimalist Parenting?

Minimalist Parenting operates on the knowledge that right now, you have everything you need to live the family life you want. You have enough time to fully engage in parenting while still caring for yourself, your work, and your relationships. You have enough expertise, enough love, enough stuff, and enough confidence to give your kids a remarkable childhood and a running start on a happy adulthood.

The obstacle standing between you and a happier, less overwhelming version of your family life isn’t something that you’re doing wrong. It’s that you’re wrestling with abundance—too many choices, too many obligations, too much stuff, and too much guilt about trying to do it all.

It’s no wonder. Never before have parents been faced with so many choices—of child-rearing philosophies, work schedules, educational options, savings plans, gadgets and gear, nutritional advice, even entertainment possibilities for our dwindling free time. The opportunity, comfort, and security of modern life inevitably come with decisions to make about each of these things, and many more.

Choice is good, but the sheer magnitude of choice we face today is overwhelming, even paralyzing. Minimalist Parenting is our prescription for how to handle too much of a good thing. We’ll show you how to minimalize your family life—how to edit your schedule, possessions, and expectations so there’s more of what you love and care about and less of what you don’t.

Gradually, you and your family will be able to enjoy the freedom that comes with your newly found room to breathe. Imagine life as a minimalist parent:

• Your decisions come more easily because they’re based on your values, not a fear of missing the boat or doing something wrong.

• Your schedule isn’t packed to the gills with things you feel you should be doing. Instead, there’s time to take care of your professional obligations and the requisite errands, homework, and appointments, and also jigsaw puzzles, bike rides, snowball fights, impromptu potlucks, occasional evenings out, and time to take care of yourself.

• Your home becomes a base for creative projects, raucous slumber parties, quiet evenings, warm memories, and plenty of open, free time instead of a repository for endless obligations and failed attempts at domestic perfection.

• You still enjoy buying things, but you choose your purchases based on what will decrease your long-term stress and increase your long-term joy.

• Your kids have free time “padding” their activities and lessons, giving them the chance to explore, entertain themselves, and find out what excites and interests them.

• Feeding your family goes from the Gordian Knot of planning for and preparing a daily array of well balanced, beautifully presented meals to a simple and nourishing part of your weekly routine.

• You can relax and enjoy the magic of your kids growing up.

This isn’t some Pollyanna fantasy of life over the rainbow. You can do this, and we’re going to help you figure out how.

We don’t profess to have Zen-like, perfect lives. If you spent a week at our houses, you’d see plenty of chaos and dust bunnies. But we have identified concrete steps that will help you reframe your thinking and craft a lifestyle so you can become a happier, more confident parent. It’s time to redefine what it means to have it all. On your terms.

This book is as much about “life optimization” as it is about parenting. The prerequisite for a relaxed family life is the space in your schedule, home, and budget to be able to live it. Ironically enough, it takes work to create that space, and that’s where we come in. We’ll help you identify what matters and brings joy to your family, and we’ll show you how to clear away the physical and mental clutter that’s getting in the way. Our intention isn’t to tell you how to parent, it’s to show you how to find your own parenting “right.”

It’s worth clarifying that our interpretation of minimalism veers from the traditional definition. Minimalist Parenting is not about living like a Spartan or a monk (we love our vacations and brownies too much for that). You don’t need to become tightfisted or anti-achievement or saintly. There are no rigid rules to follow because each family’s path is unique.

At the heart of Minimalist Parenting is formal permission to step off the modern parenting treadmill, and to have fun while you’re doing it. You’re not blowing your children’s shot at success—just the opposite. Living a joyous life that’s in line with your values (instead of some manufactured version of “successful” modern parenthood) will give your kids room to grow into the strong, unique people they are meant to be. More importantly, this way of being will provide a model that shows your kids how to trust their instincts as they move toward independence and adulthood. Finally, Minimalist Parenting will allow you to claim space in your own wonderful life. This is your journey as much as it is theirs.

As you embrace Minimalist Parenting, the roller coaster of family life goes from anxiety provoking to fun. You’ll still experience the white-knuckle drops, the ups and downs, and a few blind turns. But you’ll be strapped in with direction and confidence, and you’ll enjoy the crazy ride.

Who We Are

What do we know about Minimalist Parenting? We’re both busy parents: between us we’re juggling four kids, two husbands, several blogs, businesses and jobs, writing and social media careers, thousands of e-mails, business travel, two urban homes, and a dog. We know all about getting buried by what seems at first to be a good problem to have—lives full of opportunity in this fast-paced world that thrives on “more.”

Christine Koh

I’m the sixth of seven children—I grew up in a multigenerational household where my immigrant parents worked incredibly hard to keep both our nuclear family and various relatives afloat. At any given time, there were a dozen people, give or take, filling every nook and cranny of our three-bedroom home.

The affluent, predominantly Caucasian Boston suburb of my youth was a challenging environment in which to be so plainly different—both racially and socioeconomically. The racial slurs were painful, yes, but perhaps even more difficult to cope with was my embarrassment when kids in my class pointed out that I had worn the same shirt three days in a row (which was due as much to my lack of an expansive wardrobe as the fact that I really, really liked that shirt) or when I was excluded from the cafeteria table because I did not meet the minimum sitting requirement of owning three pairs of Guess jeans and two Benetton insignia sweaters.

These social hardships were challenging, as were dynamics at home, but there was also a lot of love. My father was tough (even terrifying at times) but had a soft, charming side that I fully discovered later in life. My mother was the rock—she held everything together despite immense and sometimes intense challenges. And though it wasn’t puppy dogs and unicorns all the time, my siblings and I share a deep sense of solidarity given everything we endured together.

Since becoming a parent, I have had many moments of internal conflict—stuck between the practical values instilled in me by my parents and the potential to overcompensate because of a childhood replete with exclusion. Ultimately, after much experimentation—and the irony of finding myself in a career where I now experience abundance—I learned that it was possible to find a middle ground. That I could acquire things I loved or found beautiful or interesting or meaningful without going over the cliff to excess. That there were ways for my children to experience cool things without becoming spoiled and entitled. That it was possible for me to find my own way, and to not only be okay not being the Tiger Mom, but also to appreciate that other parents—Tiger or otherwise—are ultimately working through their own issues and stumbling along trying to find their way, just as I am. That we’re all in this together, doing the best we can for our kids and ourselves in each moment.

Childhood issues aside, why did I feel compelled and qualified to write this book with Asha? First, I have always been a writer and a sharer. As a child, I wrote stories. In high school and college, I was a reporter and editor of the school newspapers. In my previous professional life I was an academic: I completed a BA with a double major in music and psychology at Wheaton College, a master’s degree in cognitive psychology at Brandeis University, a PhD in brain, behavior, and cognitive science with a focus on music and pedagogy at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, and a three-year postdoctoral fellowship with joint appointments at MIT, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard Medical School. I have written scholarly articles and have a rather meaty dissertation gathering dust in my basement. Since leaving academia for the freelance world, I have written thousands of blog posts and articles in the lifestyle and parenting space.

Second, every day I live the demands of negotiating a career and parenthood. As an academic I worked long hours in the lab while trying to juggle motherhood (pumping breast milk while squatting on the floor of a single-stall bathroom at MIT was a particular low) and wrestled with the guilt of sending Laurel to day care (those days I would only see her a few hours a day, tops, before and after school) and the limited time in which to take care of everything not related to my job or my baby. I now have a “flexible” career (notice the use of quotes) in the sense that I work out of my home office. However, I work as many or more hours than I did as an academic, given my creative palette, which includes my work as founder/editor of the parenting/lifestyle blog Boston Mamas, founder/designer at Posh Peacock (graphic design firm), consultant at Women Online (digital strategy firm), cofounder of The Mission List (social media for social good community/consultancy) and Pivot Boston (event series for making your life awesome), managing editor of the academic journal Music Perception, not to mention my other freelance writing and advisory commitments, writing this book, and regular travel for work. The key difference between my previous and current professional lives is that I became miserable in academia and love what I do now.

Also, I now have two children: Violet attends day care part-time and Laurel is in public school but is reluctant to participate in camps and after-school programs. What this means time-wise is that I don’t have full-time covered working hours during the day, work many nights, and have taken an impressive number of conference calls while nursing a baby, stretching, or eating my lunch. And I still have other professional dreams: future books, magazine writing, and on-camera work.

Third, like you, aside from my identity as parent, I’m a cog in a system of relationships. I married Jon in 2000; he is my favorite human on the planet and is, by virtue of being the person closest to me, sometimes at risk for getting what we (only sort of jokingly) refer to as “the dregs of Christine Koh.” I also am a daughter, an in-law, a sister, an aunt, a cousin, a niece, a friend, and a community member—with all of the associated get-togethers, requests, correspondence, and periodic crises that contribute to a full and sometimes complicated life.

All of this is to say that I get it. Every single day I live the awesomeness and the challenges of being a parent and a professional. I have my share of freak-outs. However, the reason I have felt so compelled to write this book (which has been percolating in my brain since 2010) is that I’ve been on a quest over the last several years to—forgive my bluntness—cut the crap. To focus on what’s important and to minimalize the obligations and “angry brownies” (keep reading because you’ll benefit from the angry brownie story) and toxic people (yes, it’s been crucial to minimalize toxic people) in my life so my bandwidth is less cluttered. So there’s more “happy and awesome Christine Koh” and less “dregs of Christine Koh.” Every day brings its challenges and the journey is an evolving one, but I’ve made a hell of a lot of progress. I know how palpable the pain points are for so many parents and I want to help people out of that woeful, aching, and stuck place. I hope you’ll stick with Asha and me for this ride from dregs to awesome. We applaud you for showing up.

Asha Dornfest

My upbringing was solidly middle-class and happily uncomplicated. I’m the only child of an Indian father and a Jewish mother of Eastern European decent, and my childhood was distinctly centered in American Suburbia.

Growing up, there was no sibling conflict, no difficulty in school, and no questions about where I fit into the world. We lived a modest life but there were no major wants. Struggle wasn’t something I was familiar with. My relatively easy, happy life continued all the way through college, marriage to my husband, Rael, and the beginning of my career as a writer.

While I was still happy, becoming a mother marked the end of easy. My day-to-day routine and self-image changed so dramatically that happiness was no longer my effortless, default state of being. It now took work I had no experience doing.

As my kids grew and changed, I embarked on a crooked journey toward a family life that worked for all of us. I struggled to find solutions in books and the experiences of seemingly knowing older parents, but always came up short. What worked for other families just didn’t seem to work for mine . . . or for me. For a time I thought it was a failure of my own parenting (those were long, hard years), but I slowly came to realize that parenting is more about being open to learning than it is about knowing the answer.

In 2005, I started a blog called Parent Hacks as a way to talk with other parents and swap ideas and discoveries about parenting. Those were the days before Facebook and Twitter, so the community that grew at Parent Hacks felt somewhat magical to me. So many other parents were stumbling along as I was, trying to follow their own paths to a balanced family life, and we could all talk about it and help each other along. We began a fascinating conversation that continues there today.

As Parent Hacks grew, so did the complexity of parenting. The early school years proved to be extremely difficult for my oldest child, Sam. As a grade-schooler he suffered from anxiety, and the resulting fallout at school was disastrous to his health and self-esteem. Thus began our family’s three-year odyssey through the school and medical systems. It was a frightening and stressful time, especially because it coincided with my husband’s founding of an Internet start-up. My daughter, Mirabai, was thriving in school, but Sam continued to struggle. Anxiety had effectively halted Sam’s learning, and we were out of options. In the middle of Sam’s fourth-grade year, we made a decision to do something I said I would never do: we decided to homeschool him.

I could write an entire book about what I learned during the maddening, delightful, eye-opening year and a half we spent educating Sam at home (and perhaps I will someday!). But for the purposes of Minimalist Parenting, my two biggest takeaways were confidence in my parenting decisions and trust in my kids. Many people disagreed with our choice to take Sam out of school, including people whose opinion and approval I valued. But we knew it was the right thing to do, even though we had no idea what was in store for us (and, frankly, we were petrified).

Eventually I found that the more I paid attention to my values and my family’s unique needs—and the less I was distracted by parenting experts, social pressures, and the opinions of well-meaning peers—the easier and better our family life became.

Today, both Sam and Mirabai are doing wonderfully at their local schools, and Sam’s anxiety is a thing of the past. My family is no longer in the grip of fearing for our child’s health. My husband and I are both doing work we love while watching our two amazing (and very different) kids grow up. And I believe, with all my heart, that Minimalist Parenting (even though I didn’t call it that at the time) is what helped us get here. We’ve still got a ways to go, and we still wrestle with balance and all the other complications of modern life. But we’re happy, we’re healthy, and we’re learning.

What You’ll Find in This Book

Minimalist Parenting is as much a mind-set as it is a set of recommendations for simplifying and streamlining your family life. In order to minimalize your life in ways that are lasting, we’ll guide you to shift your perspective as well as your practice.

We focus on the early to middle years of parenting (newborn to about age twelve) because those years place the biggest constraints on your time and space. We also see Minimalist Parenting as a way to build toward strong, healthy teen years. By the time kids are teenagers, the parenting focus shifts from direct care and teaching to promoting their independence, guiding and supporting their exploration, and preparing them for launch into adulthood. They’ll be making their own choices and navigating the path to self-reliance, hopefully with a well-internalized dose of your minimalist modeling on board.

We lay the foundational groundwork for Minimalist Parenting in chapter 1. In it, we explain the six simple—but key—assumptions underlying Minimalist Parenting.

The next five chapters will help you clear the path to a calmer family life by minimalizing its major “containers.” Chapters 2 and 3 help you manage and open up your (and your family’s) schedule. Chapters 4 and 5 address the whys and hows of clearing your space and decluttering your stuff. Chapter 6 offers our minimalist approach to money and spending, with tips for simplifying your financial setup.

The next six chapters move on to minimalizing day-to-day family life with children. Chapter 7 is all about rethinking playtime, and how fun and friendship don’t require a house brimming with toys. Chapters 8 and 9 offer our minimalist approach to the school years (while inviting you to enlarge your definition of education). We devote chapter 10 to extracurricular activities, providing suggestions for how to balance your kids’ interests and learning opportunities with open, unstructured time for the entire family. In chapters 11 and 12, you’ll find out how to minimalize mealtime: planning your menus so you’re no longer caught unprepared, and “rightsizing” your expectations about family meals.

Chapter 13 addresses the special occasions in our lives. We focus on ways to keep the fun and joy of celebrations, holidays, and travel while losing the stress and excess.

Finally, we wrap up right where we started: with you. We devote chapter 14 to self-care: why you need it, how to embrace it, and, now that you have the space in your life, what you might like to do.

Throughout the book, you’ll find anecdotes and contributions that help bring our concepts to life, whether from us (called out by our avatars), other parents (called out by a conversation bubble), or fellow colleagues in the parenting/lifestyle writing space (laid out as sidebars).

Minimalist Parenting is just the beginning. In the resources section, we share some of our favorite books, websites, apps, and other tools that will help you continue your journey to a happier, less cluttered life.

You’ll find even more inspiration on the Minimalist Parenting website (minimalistparenting.com). Printable worksheets, activities and a community of support awaits you when you’re ready to move beyond the book.

Buckle up: it’s going to be an exciting ride. The scenery is fantastic and you’re headed somewhere remarkable. Let’s go.