The Example We Set

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” —James Baldwin

An interesting story is told of Monterey, California, a coastal town, that quickly became a pelican’s paradise. As the local fishermen returned each day to clean their fish, they would fling the unused internal organs of the fish to the pelicans. The birds graciously accepted their gift and as a result, quickly grew fat, lazy, and contented. Eventually however, when the fishing industry in Monterey took a downturn, the free meals began to slow for the pelicans.

When the change came, the pelicans made no effort to fish for themselves. Instead, they waited around and grew gaunt and thin. Many even starved to death. Because of the free handouts, they had forgotten how to fish for themselves.

To remedy the situation, an unprecedented solution was sought: import new pelicans from the south accustomed to foraging for themselves. These new birds were placed among their starving cousins, and the newcomers immediately started catching fish. Before long, the hungry pelicans followed suit, and the famine was ended.

My son is 12 and my daughter is 9. Right now, and for a little while longer, we live together as a family. This, then, represents my great opportunity to prepare them for life. Whether we like it or not, our children are soaking up values from us as parents about how to live, how to work, and how to achieve significance. We serve as their most trusted examples for life.

Embracing a life content with fewer possessions has modeled for them the important truths that personal belongings are not the key to happiness, that security is found in their character, and that the pursuit of happiness runs a different road than the pursuit of possessions. These are, of course, valuable life lessons they will never learn in a world that often promises short-term happiness in ready-wrapped packages.

There are countless truths I desire to pass on to my children: being content with less is among the most important.

Since embracing the principles of minimalism, I am overjoyed at some of the lessons my children have learned. They have learned:

They don’t need to buy things to be happy. We own far fewer things than we did years ago. We purchase far fewer things than we did years ago. Yet, we are far happier than we were years ago. Go figure.

They don’t need to live life like everyone else. Even though they are not quite old enough to understand all of the intricacies of our minimalist life, they completely understand we have made a decision to live differently than most people in our neighborhood. Our lifestyle has given them permission to live a countercultural life.

They can live within their means. Although our children are not balancing our checkbook, they do hear us speak often about debt, the joy of not being in it, and our desire to stay out of it.

They ought to think carefully about their purchases. Because we believe in giving our kids opportunity to find/grow in their interests, we still need to buy things: toys, school supplies, art supplies, and sporting goods. We just think through our buying decisions more carefully. This is an invaluable lesson for children to learn as they get older. We no longer buy something just because we have the money, we buy things because we need them.

They should gladly share with others. Since we became minimalist when they were young, they have grown up watching us donate many of our belongings to others. They have seen generosity in action.

Clutter is a distraction. They have seen how minimalism creates a home where clutter is scarce. And when it does show up, it can be quickly remedied—and usually is.

The joy of spending time together. Our minimalist home has allowed us the opportunity to spend less time purchasing, cleaning, organizing, and sorting things. We have gladly replaced the time we spent managing stuff with time spent together as a family.

We are in control of our stuff. Not the other way around.

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