Lessons in Simple Living from a Toddler

Unplanned beach walks, even without wellies, are the best.

Having a child has been an eye opener in so many ways. Before having a child I didn’t know you could live on 3-4 hours of broken sleep for months or become blase about poo. But I also didn’t know how much my child would teach me about creating a rhythm to our days and about the need, and benefit, to living simply. In his two years and three months on this earth, Henry has taught me:

Too much choice is overwhelming. I see this in meal time and play time every day. If I serve up a plate heaping with food, and different types of it, my son eats less, gets bored and throws a lot of his meal on the floor. However, if I serve up a small portion of just one or two things, things he can easily identify and pick up with his hands or a fork, he eats more and there is usually less food flinging (two year olds love to throw food). Same rules apply for toys. If there are too many toys out he can’t focus on his favourites and ends up not wanting to play with any of them.

Rest is vital. The next time you see an overly tired child throw a tantrum remind yourself of this: the only thing stopping an overly tired adult from crying and stomping their feet is ego and maturity. We need sleep. Good nourishing restful sleep. Not enough sleep can manifest itself in everything from overconsumption (food, shopping, tv) to more arguments with your spouse. When I see how much happier, energetic and good natured my child is with a lot of sleep I remember how I am all those things too when I get a solid 8-9 hours.

This also applies to over-scheduling. My toddler, and his mother, are happier people when we have a routine but not a packed schedule. This is especially true around busy holidays. Say yes to too many parties or get togethers and there is sure to be a meltdown, parent or child.

Experiences over stuff. While it’s very sweet to watch my son get excited over a new toy, the new factor and excited play might last 20 minutes at the most. He’ll enjoy it again and again but not with the same vim and vigor of that first time. In contrast, he gets similarly excited and joyful at our music and movement class once a week. Meeting a dog on the beach, which we do a few times a week, is a thrilling experience even if we already spent twenty minutes saying hello to some Jack Russell terriers. Every time I flip to the page with the goose and her goslings in our Baby Animals story book, my son screams, “duck! duck! duck!” (I don’t know, 87 readings and counting?).

I can remember so much about events in my life, the feeling after crossing the finish line and winning the NCAA Women’s Rowing championship, epic three hour phone calls with my husband when we were dating and he was still a touring musician, riding a Segway in Florence, but I can’t remember much about things I’ve bought or owned. If I remember details about an article of clothing or my first Walkman, it’s because there is a story attached to it, something that makes me laugh or cry (hopefully laugh).

What have your children taught you about simplicity?


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  • I so agree. I learned more from other peoples children while we were trying to conceive. While I’ll never judge what another parent does with their children, it was always overwhelming how many toys some kids have. My son could have zero toys and be delighted as long as we take him outside to play in a puddle after the rain.
    With an impending move to England from the US we’re adopting a less is more lifestyle and your site is encouraging, so thank you for sharing

    • I learned a lot from my brother. His kids have a lot less than most I know (they live off of one teachers salary in a small town) and they are some of the nicest and most grateful children I know. They wear second hand clothes, don’t have cable television and are bright, happy people :) I hope Henry is the same.

  • My wild boys have taught me that it’s more about the quality of time than quantity of toys. For example, they love both sets of grandparents, but they’d rather spend time with my in-laws over my parents. My in-laws will spend all the time playing with them while my parents play a little, buy them a lot, and often leave them to play by themselves or watch TV. They’ve also made me more aware of how I spend my time. They require me to single task more because they notice when they aren’t getting undivided attention and act accordingly. I firmly believe that our children will show us our rawest, harshest selves to encourage us to grow.

    • Well said, MM. I’m finding less opportunity to multi-task housework and childcare lately. My two year old will literally grab my hand and lead me away from what I am doing to play with him.

  • Our 4 oldest children are college graduates with good jobs, & have traveled all over the world. They also moved a lot, so they’ve gotten rid of things along the way. I moved from apartments to houses to bigger houses & worked hard to fill & decorate those homes. I’ve only lived in 1 state, in 2 neighboring counties, so I’ve been home with my stuff while they’ve been out living their lives. No regrets, because I love being a stay at home mom, but now it’s my turn to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. My children amaze me, how I gave birth and they just took off. They inspire me to conquer my clutter and live a full life.

    • Lovely :) And I can add, my mom had a whole new career and life after her six children left the nest. It’s been inspiring to watch her travel, make new friends and build a successful career from scratch in her 50’s.

  • Choice most certainly is overwhelming. I learnt my lesson with First-born. I didn’t realise then that Kids can’t deal with copious choice and thus it turns into stalemate or worse a battle. Since having the second the main thing I have learnt is how important routine is. Yes it may sound boring, but I definitely lacked routine and reveled in my lax attitude and free-spirit before Kids (and even to some extent when I had just Leah). Now I understand how reassuring (and productive) routine is, and defining structure to family life. It has helped me enormously to become more organised in all aspects of my life, not just with the Kids. My Kids have also taught me the meaning of true selflessness…

  • Our daughters have brought so much goodness into our lives. They are so innocent, caring and giving. And they don’t care about things. When people find out that we live in an RV and that our daughters have just one drawer for their little things, they ask “how do your daughters feel about living in an rv?” like they are the ones who want the huge house full of stuff. Our daughters don’t. My girls actually like the RV so much better than the big house we used to live in. We get to spend so much time together. That’s what they like.

    • So sweet! I like living in a small home too for similar reasons. And the look my son gets when he snuggles in between my husband and I – priceless. He obviously loves close family time too.

  • You’re so right about memories being more about what we did than what we owned. Having said that, I do have childhood memories about certain possessions that were very special to me. I saw a little girl in a red coat the other day, an old-fashioned button-up tweed coat, and it reminded me of a cherry red coat I had which I absolutely LOVED.

  • This is all so true! My son is only three months old but he has already taught me so much about the experiences of life. He absolutely loves bath time and yesterday while I was giving him a bath I thought what person doesn’t love a warm gentle bath after a long day. I know I sure love one! We sing the same songs day after day but he smiles each and every time we get to certain parts of the song.

    Thank you so much for writing this post. It touches my heart and makes me so proud to be a mom.

  • My kids have taught me that there is always another answer. That sometimes the easiest solutions are those right in front of us, and that we sometimes we just need to think ‘outside the box’. Life is not black and white, but many shades of grey.

  • While we feel that parenting is not simple, young children have simple needs: a mitten put on, a nose wiped, tears hugged away. We need to keep it simple with stuff and routines to have time for “quality time” and not so simple conversations (like why Simba looks like a girl with “long hair” when he grows up to be a lion king:).
    Lately, I started to give simple answers to my son’s questions, it sometimes prompts him to ask a more complex question and we’ll go and read to find the answers.
    Simba, as told by my son, briefly becomes a girl before he becomes a “man-lion-king”; simple? – no, cute? – you bet!

  • I think you hit the nail on the head. Especially when you talk about reading the same book 87 times. Just like you talked about having too many books for adults, I often believe that parents offer too many choices of books for kids. I encourage parents to put some of those books away and allow them to revisit, spend time, live in, and experience some of those stories over and over. To little ones EVERYTHING is new and it takes a lot of repetition for them to take in the story, the pictures, the language, the vocabulary, and all of the nuances of a really great story.

  • I love the post Rachel. Having my son has taught me more than anything how much I value time. After having him it became harder and harder to go to a workplace that felt uninspired and to spend my days around negative people. I’ve always valued time and experience more than money, but becoming a mother has compounded that feeling. I have less patience for things that waste my time and I am much more careful how I spend it. I want to live purposefully, so that I can enjoy more quality time my toddler :)

  • I totally agree about giving them too many choices. It’s too overwhelming!! I taught preschool for many years and realized that early on. They really do thrive at that age when they are able to make their own decisions from very few choices. Good for you for understanding that. I also have a teenager now and I do NOT overschedule her. Even in JR. High, it’s too much!!! Thanks for the great insight.

  • this is such a beautiful post; just what I needed to read today. Thank-you for your refreshing outlook, and for reminding me of what’s important.

  • I love your post and completely agree with your observations. I love how my son at 18 months love to go to bed at night. He knows what he needs, if only I would listen to what what my body tells me I need too.

  • I agree with everything you said here. Especially the experiences over stuff. We have gotten rid of so much stuff over the past year to make the move from our four bedroom house to fit into a two bedroom apartment, and we did it all to free up time and money to create more experiences. Our daughter, Faith, likes to get new toys, but what she really loves is creating adventures. Things like going to theme parks, exploring parks, and going on vacations. Experiences are the things that create memories that will stick with her for a lifetime.

  • Oh, this is so, so true. I find that my children play more harmoniously when there are fewer things in the playroom. Their play is more gleeful when the things that are there are open-ended (blocks, tinkertoys, a big tub of pipe cleaners). And most recently, we’ve transitioned to smaller plates of food, in an effort to make mealtimes more enjoyable. The one thing I differ on there– and keep in mind that my children are older, 5 + 8– is smaller quantities but more choices. I still like to give them ample choices of various fruits and veggies at each meal, but I have kept quantities smaller so they’re manageable, and they can then ask for more of something they particularly enjoy… but your post is spot on, and a wonderful reminder to all of us parents muddling through this great experience! Thank you!!

  • My babes have taught me to live in the moment and to forgive! At least they’ve modeled it for me, I’m slow to actually absorb it though 😉

  • My daughter is almost the exact same age as your son and I found myself agreeing with every sentence in your post. In particular we’ve found the importance of rest and routine (for all of us) is vital to a happy, healthy family.

  • This is great. I have recently begun my own mindful journey that has led to decreasing a number of items my children use daily. The result is their favorite Christmas present and one play center a week. This week they have a library, last week it was a restaurant and the week before that it was an office. They are enjoying less choices and playing more deeply as a result. Love your blog!

  • Yes, I totally agree. Less choices actually bring more happiness and calm – funny how in our culture of more and more choices and options we are learning the exact opposite.

    I see it mostly with our toddler with his toys, his foods, his activities!

  • Thanks for this. It’s a beautiful reminder of what is really important in life. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog. As a new Mom and someone who likes to focus on a simpler life, it’s been a pleasure to discover it!

  • Thank you for that great post! All of what you wrote is true for everyone, I think, but many people don’t pay attention to the signs and keep on doing the same thing they’ve been doing. My kiddos are 14 and 17 now and I remember having a hard time sometimes trying to find a toy that DIDN’T light up, flash lights, play music and do a million other things to distract my child. There’s a reason blocks have been around forever! I continue to be saddened by Legos and the “kits” they produce. Once you make that thing on the front of the box, it’s over. My oldest learned his colors from sitting on a hill with me and watching the cars go by. I’d tell him what color car it was each time, soon he could do it it himself. Thanks so much for the wonderful reminders! :)

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