There was stuff everywhere.
As much as I would’ve liked to point the finger elsewhere, there was no one but myself to blame for the chaotic mess that our life had become. Yes, my girls were being showered with gifts from a very generous auntie who showed her love by providing more toys and books and art supplies and dresses than they could ever possibly use, but I was just as guilty — if not more — of filling our house to the brim with the really nice stuff that we really didn’t need.
A simple trip to Target would inevitably result in a cute new dish towel or a picture frame or a limited edition pair of rain boots from the latest designer-inspired line. I could barely open a Pottery Barn catalog without needing just one more lamp, one more rug, one more pillow. The combination of my own shopping addiction and my sister-in-law’s generosity was practically lethal.
And then, finally, I woke up one morning and realized we were literally drowning in stuff.
Something had to give.
I started a mission to purge the chaos in our life and start getting rid of all the excess stuff we had accumulated, but it was slow going. Our home was not filled with junk; it was filled to the brim with really nice stuff that we really didn’t need.
It is easy to purge things that are broken or damaged or old or junky, but it is a lot harder to justify eliminating things that are still useful or valuable. It seems so wasteful.
Over the course of several months, I slowly began weeding out my girls’ toys, trying to keep only the items they actually played with and that encouraged their imaginations. Even so, there were warning signs that my kids still had too much stuff.
One weekend we took the girls to Reptile World in Orlando. Afterward we thought it would be fun to have dinner in the dinosaur-themed restaurant, T-Rex, in Downtown Disney. While we were waiting for a table, six-year-old Maggie spotted the Build-A-Dino workshop in the gift shop and begged to go in.
We immediately said no way, but from that moment on, she could think of nothing else.
Throughout our delicious dinner, surrounded by dramatic meteor showers and animatronic dinosaur shows, she fixated on the one thing she couldn’t have rather than on the incredible sights she was experiencing. She was too busy pouting to enjoy herself.
On the three-hour drive home, worried by Maggie’s inability to enjoy what should have been a fun experience, we made a point to talk about all the neat stuff we had seen that day. We talked about our favorite reptiles and how funny it was that Annie had wanted to hold the boa constrictor three times — and even given the snake a kiss! By the time we made it home, Build-A-Dino had been forgotten. At least by her. But we were worried.
In the weeks that followed, Chuck and I talked a lot about how to handle this lack of contentment we were noticing in our eldest daughter. Then one morning, a few weeks after our Orlando trip and about six months after I had started my mission to simplify our lives, I made the semi-impulsive decision to take away all the kids’ toys.
I had warned them repeatedly that if they couldn’t keep their room tidy, the toys would go away. I wasn’t asking them to clean a giant, out-of-control mess — I had just reorganized their room two days earlier — but simply to pick up a few items from the floor and put them away in the very clearly labeled baskets.
After asking them to pick up for the umpteenth time, I finally decided enough was enough. I gave up and took it all away. I wasn’t really angry — just fed up — and I calmly began packing up not just a toy or two but every single thing. All their dress-up clothes, baby dolls, Polly Pockets, and stuffed animals. All their Barbies, building blocks, toy trains, and Littlest Pet Shop animals, right down to the furniture in their dollhouse and the play food in their kitchen. I even took the pretty Pottery Barn comforter off their bed, leaving them with just the plain white sheets and blanket underneath.
The girls watched in stunned silence for a few minutes, and then, after the shock wore off, they helped pack it all up.
Just like that, the room was clear.
I could never have predicted what a dramatic difference this one decision would make in all of our lives, but we first started noticing a real change about four weeks later when we took the girls on a family trip to Key West.
In contrast to our previous outing, and perhaps for the first time ever, neither daughter asked us to buy a single thing the entire weekend. Not a toy, not a cheesy souvenir, not a light-up necklace from a passing street vendor. Nothing.
We passed hundreds of shops, and they loved looking in the windows — but they were content just to be. What was most amazing to me was that we hadn’t instructed them not to ask for anything. They did it all on their own.
Had I not experienced it with my own eyes, I would have never believed that an addiction to stuff could be broken so fast. When I took all their toys away, I was terrified at what might happen. I worried that I was possibly scarring them for life, depriving them of some essential developmental need, or taking away their ability to self-entertain.
In reality, the opposite happened. Instead of being bored, they suddenly had no shortage of things to do. Their attention span grew longer, and they were more able to mindfully focus on the task at hand.
They were able to read or color for hours at a time (they still had access to books and art supplies) and would happily spend the entire afternoon playing hide-and-seek or making up an elaborate and imaginative game. They became far more content, more able to appreciate the things they did have, and more able to enjoy the moment without feeling the constant need to move on to the next thing.
They became more patient, more willing to share, and far more empathetic toward the plight of others. They even, for the most part, stopped fighting with each other. Their friends seemed to enjoy coming over more, and more than once we overheard playmates asking their parents if they, too, could get rid of some toys.
Even more importantly, they seemed better able to recognize excess on their own. Even when they were given the ability to earn some of their toys back, they didn’t really want them, at least not on a permanent basis.
They wanted their American Girl dolls and a few special stuffed animals, and we kept Legos and a few Barbies on the shelf to play with on occasion. Overall, however, they genuinely liked not being overwhelmed by so much stuff, and they were happy to not have to spend so much time cleaning up.
In fact, a few hours later on that day I took their toys away, my oldest daughter said, “It’s okay that we don’t have any more toys, Mommy. We can just read and use our imaginations. And now we won’t have to clean up so much!”
She understood before I did that more stuff doesn’t make us happier.
Stuff isn’t bad or dangerous in and of itself, but in a world where we are constantly told that what we have isn’t quite good enough, the love of things can so easily consume us. The pursuit of it all — more toys, cuter clothes, a prettier house, a nicer car, a newer computer, a fancier phone— makes us forget all the things that actually matter.
Not until I observed firsthand the real and immediate changes in my kids after getting rid of their toys did I truly begin to understand. My lesson to them was really their lesson to me, one I wish I would have learned a long time ago. Less stuff equals more joy.
Excerpted with permission from Living Well, Spending Less by Ruth Soukup, copyright Zondervan, 2015.
Does your life seem overwhelmed and complicated by stuff? I’d love for you to share how you’ve battled and won any similar struggles in your own family in the comments below.