Can a Simple Childhood be Magical?

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I’m Done Making My Kid’s Childhood Magical, by the author of The Honest Toddler, has stuck with me since I first read it over a month ago. Rarely do I read about or meet another parent that openly says, I’m not doing the crafts/themed birthday parties/surprise everything. It was refreshing.

I’m not immune to self-doubt and I often wonder, am I not giving my kids enough? Should there be more parties and surprises? Should there be more toys? Should there be more planned activities and crafts?

If our grandmothers and great-grandmothers could see the pressure modern mothers put on themselves, they’d think we were insane.- Bunmi Laditan

I’m thrilled that my kids amuse themselves most of the time, that they spend a lot of time “reading” a book out loud or constructing a village and acting out village life, the tragedies and the joys, with Duplo people, but is it the right childhood for the time they live in? When I see so many people doing more more more it sometimes makes me question our choice for less less less.

Our parents were around in case we needed something or there was accident, but they were not our main source of entertainment.- Bunmi Laditan

There wasn’t a lot of money during my childhood but there was magic. There was freedom to be out playing games with neighborhood kids until a sibling came to tell us it was dinner time.

I climbed trees. Tall, tall trees with no adult supervision.

I read stacks of books from the library during my summer vacation and went to the local beach with my siblings and friends. The only thing I can remember about my mother entertaining me was her oft repeated reply whenever I said I was bored: only boring people are bored. 

Right now we live in a place that hasn’t quite caught up with the handcrafted/unique/themed extravaganza movement I see elsewhere. The half dozen birthday parties we have attended this year have all been mostly the same party: meet at one of the two gymnastics places in town, wear a superhero costume if you like, run around for a bit, have some sandwiches and chips, sing Happy Birthday, then take home a loot bag with a few trinkets and a slice of birthday cake in it. The invitation is Angry Birds themed, the loot bag is generic and the cake might have a superhero logo on it made by a creative Aunt. Loads of fun and a great celebration but certainly nothing you would see on the pages of Real Simple.

This is one of the reasons I enjoy living in a small remote town. Yes, the weather here is mostly terrible and there is no Starbucks and when I visit Paris or even Dublin I come back and it feels far too quiet. But what we do have, a quaint small town seaside lifestyle with an 80s level of freedom, is magical on its own. It’s something I’d have to fight really hard for if we lived elsewhere. It’s something I have to remind myself of when I have ex-pat moments/weeks/months and crave home and city life.

Has anyone else read Bunmi’s piece? Did it resonate? I know people that truly love going all out for parties and making things extra “magical”, it’s not a chore or a competition for them but something they love doing. It’s just not something I enjoy doing nor do I think it’s a requirement for today’s kids.

P.S. Back after a quiet spell on the blog due to some life changes. More about them soon plus an update on my In Out count for 2014.

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Comments

  1. Holly says

    I’ve never read Bunmi’s piece, but will definitely read it now. I love the statement about modern mothers trying so hard. Unfortunately, I find myself in this category. I’v been thnking for some time that I really need to get better at just letting and encouraging my little guy to play and discover on his own. I think it frightens me. I think, “am I being a bad mom when I encourage him to do things on his own?” Thank you for always giving me something to think about. I love your blog!

    • theminimalistmom says

      Independent play is so necessary – both for kids and parents – and yet I also find myself feeling guilty that a few hours went by with them mostly playing on their own. I’m a mostly stay-at-home mom and when I read blogs by other stay at home moms they appear to do so much more in the planned activities category than we do. I think it’s important that my kids see, and help, with the work of the household and I find on the days we do a lot outside the home or planned, I have to do household chores once they’re in bed.
      And yet… my mother never set up a craft table at home for us. We tobogganed down the stairs in sleeping bags, we made clothes for our dolls out of scrap fabric and set up a doll clothing store using empty Christmas chocolate boxes. All on our own.

  2. Sarah says

    My great-grandmother entered table decorating contests, and my grandmother was an artist/art teacher who made handmade pressed flower bridge score cards, and loved to decorate with flowers from her garden. I’m much simpler when it comes to parties, I firmly believe that what makes a good party is plenty of food, drink, and good people (and a cleanish area to entertain). Casual yard games and music are a nice touch. Everything else is fluff, and I don’t have the desire to go much above and beyond. I hope I can maintain the correct balance when our little one arrives.

  3. Katherine says

    Yes and amen.

    I have plenty of friends who get to exercise their creative bent through fun party invitations and favors, decorations, and stuff. That is not something I enjoy and, when I think about my own childhood, just don’t feel guilty about it.

    Having fairly like-minded friends (who also keep the bar low/accessible) really helps.

    • theminimalistmom says

      Yes, being in a community that keeps things simple really helps. Other parents are doing as we do about parties, not a big one every year and fairly simple, and it really does help me stay true to how we want to do things.

      All that said, when I go to a party and the host has obviously enjoyed themselves and handcrafted everything, I do enjoy it. One of my sisters is very creative and loves to theme up a party. I really enjoy hearing about her endeavors and seeing the photos (the crafty gene skipped me!).

      • Jennifer says

        Thanks for including this comment. I definitely don’t think that parents should feel guilted into these activities, but I feel that it has become a bit of a backlash and those of us for whom it is a natural and cherished form of self-expression are left a bit ridiculed. Spending 5 minutes when my daughter is asleep or out of the house “staging” a mouse tea party, or setting up an afternoon of birdhouse building and painting — that’s something that I enjoy, and is a natural way for me to express my love. That said, its important for people like me to also step back and let our children develop inner lives and not take the reigns too much.

  4. sarah @ little bus on the prairie says

    I linked to bunmi’s piece when it came out because I absolutely loved it, and I’ve gotten so many comments from readers who really appreciated it as well. I think the frenzy to prove ourselves as mothers by doing all this stuff is overrated and does no-one any favors.

  5. Renee says

    Yes! I reported this on my Facebook page when it came out with a hearty “Amen!” I was suprised that it really struck a nerve with a few of my friends. So e of them just really love that shit, er, *stuff*. Which is great, for them. But I’m lazy and I want to keep their expectations low, so I subscribe to simplicity parenting theories that reinforce that. And honestly, I do think it’s best for the kids. They don’t need themed everything and constant entertainment and super hovery parents telling them what they should be imagining or inventing. They need to discover that on their own.

  6. Janna says

    I’m glad you’re back! I missed your posts. And I started my own in/out count after reading about yours. I am blown away by the numbers (and not in a good way). But, seeing it written out will help me figure out where the cracks are and how stuff is getting into the house (so far, it’s all grandparents and kindergarten class party loot bags)

  7. Carrie Willard says

    I have and loved it. Today my kids have climbed trees, rode bikes, played Monopoly, played dolls, played guitar, colored and painted. Little was supervised or set up by me. Yes childhood with normal good parents is magical on its own!

  8. Sarah Mueller says

    I completely agree with your philosophy. My kids have the most fun with their bikes, kicking around a ball and catching bugs (plus a frustrating love for computer games). I have never been one for fancy birthday parties and crafts. Our favorite times together are spent reading aloud together.

    The book you mentioned sounds intriguing. Looking forward to hearing more of what’s going on for you!

  9. Melissa L. says

    Glad you’re back. I’ve read the piece. I fall somewhere in between. I lack the funds/talent to be an over-the-top-designer-party mom. However, I love all things handmade, homemade, etc. and am disappointed that I find myself purchasing things that I would attempt to make if I didn’t work outside the home. I live in an over-the-top area, but mostly socialize with people I really enjoy and none of us gets ridiculous about parties. As far as free play, I definitely DON”T entertain my kids and they make the most of our outside time in ALL weather- but I don’t know if I will ever live in a place where it would be comfortable to let them roam the way kids used to (I grew up in NYC and we didn’t roam until much later, and our parents had to know where we supposed to be). Without a community of helpful, trustworthy adults – not just parents but neighbors, shopkeepers, etc. that feel a responsibility toward the kids I would just be the lone, crazy, irresponsible parent if my kids were running around unsupervised (they are 7 and 5 years old.) I like reading older books to them and much as I felt 30+ years ago, they are surprised at the independence and freedom of young characters.

  10. Brianna says

    I hadn’t seen the piece but I just went and read it. I like the sentiment and agree, for the most part. I also feel it’s an incredible privilege to be a stay-at-home-mom and have my kids Unschooling at home. I want to take advantage of that and spend time with my kids and enjoy their childhood along with them. When they were younger I set up tons of crafts and activities. Now they’re almost 9 and 13 and it’s SO much easier because we just ‘hang out’. I wish I had simply played with them more when they were younger, or just watched them play. I too played on my own a lot as a child and while I was fine, it also would have been nice to spend more time with my parents and have a closer relationship. The idea that the older generation didn’t parent this way isn’t because of some planned and researched philosophy, it’s because they were busy! Working outside the home, or doing all the housework that is much simplified in today’s world. I like a balance of not manufacturing their days and letting them be on their own as much as they want, but also being available to play or hang out as desired with an occasional fun activity that I plan because they simply wouldn’t think to do it. :)

  11. Sarah says

    It was such a relief to read this article. I have always felt uncomfortable about the insane birthday parties being thrown around me with “exclusive” custom mailed invitations, days of preparation, entertainment, and on and on. I love a simple party, surrounded by family and friends. The presence of good food and a Dairy Queen ice cream cake meant you were being splurged upon in my childhood. So refreshing to hear I am not the only one. Reading your blog makes me feel like maybe I’m not a bad mom, just a simpler one.

    • Margaret says

      One thing I don’t understand is the need for guests to leave these birthday parties with a bag of goodies (toys, candy, or both). Being at the party was fun enough and we just had cake — we don’t need a parting gift or more sugar. Or is it because kids can’t give a gift without expectation of one in return (an extension of the “everyone gets a trophy” philosophy)?

      • Cathie says

        I give loot bags after parties. They’re part of the party process here. I have a budget, my son helps me pick out the treats and put the bags together. It’s an opportunity to teach him to think about giving something to others and not just what he’s going to get. I also stay away from plastic-crap and junk-food as much as possible and opt for things like bubble potion, post-it notes and colored pens.

  12. Starr @ The Kiefer Cottage says

    I love to entertain, and I go overboard with the food I prepare, but it’s not about making anything magical for the kids! I just like feeding people. We had a birthday party with no games, no decorations, and no party favors. The kids still had a great time. I’ve never been good at being cruise director, and my children tend to entertain themselves.

  13. Eva says

    I myself grew up with a very simple childhood, however I didnt have anything different to compare to as my friends had the same lifestyle. Im raising my kids to enjoy simple games. We play chess. Hide and seek, we draw and ride bikes around the block. But I also take them to lakes and the beach which I consider simple things to do. On occasions we might go to the movies or ice skating or stay in cabins. These things where I have splurge a bit I feel are not necessary but I do them because since I dont splurge on much else why should I not splurge on the kids having different experinces. My kids wont remember what name brand shirt or shoe they had. But they will remember the activities we did together.

  14. trevor r says

    Very nice! Lots of thoughts to reflect on in terms of how we grew up vs raising little ones in todays times. Here’s to replicating all the good aspects of an 80′s childhood! (minus the Billy Ocean…)

  15. Opalstitches says

    I just read Bunmi’s article and I found it refreshing and affirming of things I have recently been mulling over. I am expecting my first child this summer and have been wrestling with the pressure our culture puts on moms to be so put together all the time. I grew up in the country and spent much of my time in the woods, in my parents barn, or reading in my room; I never felt neglected or undernourished creatively. I remember our family vacations to Disney World fondly but I also cherish my memories of quiet, summer nights on the porch and a crackling woodstove in winter. Childhood is meant to prepare you for the rest of your life, and those memories are what helped make me who I am.

  16. Vicki@ Vee's Easy Vegan says

    Hi Rachel :)

    I had a look at the piece after I read your article. I have mixed feelings. On one hand I 100% agree that independent play is important. I see as Little g gets older she is doing more of this. I also like that she chooses what she wants to do rather than me “setting up” her independent play. Lately I have been getting more of the “will you play with me” question. It will be something like cars or dancing. If I can at that time I will because I think it is OK to play with your kids. If I can’t I give reasons and she can figure it out. I want her to know I enjoy playing with her though I also believe boundaries are healthy.

    We play board games together as a family. This is a special part of our bedtime routine.

    In Bumni’s article she says she does not recall ever doing crafts with her parents. It is OK to do things with your kids such as crafts etc. Maybe not every day but in my mind if parents introduce ideas of what kids can have access too then they are more likely to seek it out for themselves later. Recently G and I made a fairy garden. I set the scene ( got the supplies such as the pot and suggested things we could use) and we did it together. It was so much fun and very special. She now adds to it herself and it is her thing.

    Bumni talks about crafts being something that happens at daycare. Not all kids go to structured daycare. More families are homeschooling. Daycare can be great for some families it does not work.

    On the birthday party note. When we moved to Australia I was surprised at the structure of the kids parties. The presents were expensive. I was not used to this in Vancouver where it was a party in the common room of our co-op and play outside. This year Little g got to have a pool party because now here birthday is in summer :) All we did was swim, the whole time. I asked for presents of art supplies and games and that is all she got. I wanted to go the no gifts route but was told by the other parents it would not happen so to avoid the plastic garbage/Disney trap we requested the gifts. It worked. No pass the parcel, musical chairs or structured games of any kid. Vegan food. I was told later that it was the best party the kids had been to all year.

    I think magical childhoods are OK. It is how they come about. As parents we are indoctrinated to outshine each other and consume so our kids will consume. It is all part of the machine. I am mindful of what is important to my child and my family. I could not care less how other people are doing it. As always how we live is about balance, including how we raise our kids.

    Love, love, love R. I have been thinking about you of late :)

  17. Melissa says

    I’ve been thinking about the over the top birthday parties for a while now. And I think there is a large sliding scale on that. I recently saw some pictures online of a lady bug theme where a mom actually painted her walls red ( !!). Ok, just my opinion but that is OVER.THE.TOP. I have thrown some theme-y super planned parties too, but the longer I am a mom ( my oldest is 10) the more I see that they are happy with simple fun and imagination. Sometimes I prepared games or crafts, and we never got to them because the kiddos got involved in something they created or imagined, and I wasn’t going to stop it and declare ” no! You must do this craft!”
    Just lately my daughter, 8, was getting ready for a friend’s birthday party, and she casually wondered out loud. ” I wonder what the theme is?”. I asked her why does there have to be a theme, couldn’t it be just a birthday party? ” Oh mom, she said, there’s ALWAYS a theme!”. In a funny way, it made me kind of sad, that she already has been to enough parties to believe that there must be a theme of some sort, even though not all of hers have revolved around a theme.
    I ditched doing gift bags for party guests a few years ago, and while occasionally some child might mention ” where are the gift bags?”, no one seems shocked or upset with the simple answer ” oh, we don’t do those”,
    Also, trying to move our kids to a ” no gifts please” party, but I’m not too sure how to do it so it doesn’t offend anyone.

    • mreeanne says

      A few years ago my son saw an ad for Operation Christmas Child and wanted to do it. Since then we have had my kids joint party, (their b-days are a week apart) as a fundraiser for this charity. They still end up with a few things, but not as much.

      I do, however, love decorating DIY for their parties. It’s once a year and our idea of going all out is making a huge cardboard castle and having it a dress-up party. The craft was adding jewel stickers to the plastic goblets. The kids love this.

  18. Sophie says

    My little boy is 2 next week and up until recently I’ve been the Pinterest mum that crafts, makes toys, bakes, and generally entertains him 24/7. If it wasn’t for housework I’d love it all the time… My friend sent me the link to the Magical Childhood article when I said I felt pressure to live that way. It really helped to take the pressure off. However…we are very undecided about adding to our brood, and my little boy is likely to be an only child (mainly because of just how close we are – I already resent the second chd a bit for coming between us and they don’t even exist). It’s probably my insecurity around our decision, but I felt the article’s approach was great if you had siblings…running round playing with each other, but I worry about how lonely a hands off child might be. I know that’s silly, but I don’t like the thought of me telling him to go and entertain himself if he’s come to ‘me’ his mum because he wants to do something. I’m clearly feeling some guilt that he might be lonely! X

  19. Heather says

    I felt a lot if pressure to do big birthday parties when my kids were little (and the cost was not something I felt was a good use of our funds). I found myself so stressed about the parties that I mused actually enjoying my child! Finally, I decided that in our family birthdays should be about making the birthday boy feel special as a member of our family. So I made the transition to family oriented birthdays. I’m sure as the kids get older and make good friends, they will want to include them, or possibly even have a party with their friends. And that will be fine. But for now (ages 9, 7 and 3) we have a special family outing and they get a special breakfast. We do have dinner as well with the few family members who live nearby. The kids really enjoy their special day, whether it is at the beach, mini-golf, or our community pool. We just try to make them feel special and loved :). They have adjusted fine, and I am super happy not to have to focus on a party instead of them.

  20. Jessica in Canada says

    Wow, did you read the comments on Bunmi’s article? I thought her article made a lot of sense and resonated with a lot of people, but apparently not! People are pretty defensive and justifying their kids being indoors, toys, and time spent with them.

  21. AriaNa says

    I definitely struggle with wanting to do it all “right” for my son and thinking that one mess up on my part is going to ruin his childhood. I appreciated the article for showing me that I need to relax. However, I grew up with divorced parents and have many great memories of going to the library, movies, park, events for children, and doing crafts with my dad. I have hardly any memories of spending quality time with my mom who I lived with. For this reason, I absolutely think its important to spend quality time with my son doing the things my dad did with me.

    • Heather says

      Quality time . . . I think it is important too, and I’m amazed at how little time and effort it actually takes to satisfy my childrens desire to have that time with me. In the past I thought I had to come up with a great idea and set aside several hours to achieve quality time. But I have found that an impromptu twenty minutes reading a book, playing a game or talking is more than enough for them. So, it is about whatever works for the parent and the child :)

  22. Frugal Babe says

    Great article! Although we love to play with our boys and teach them things, we’re also big fans of sending them out in the backyard or down to their playroom to use their own imaginations and just play together.

    And birthday parties… I’m not even into having a bunch of friends over. When I was a kid, birthdays were special, but it was only ever my immediate family (and occasionally a few neighbors who happened to drop by at cake time!) for the “party.” My mom made awesome cakes and could turn basic round, square, and rectangle cakes into just about any shape you wanted with creative cutting and frosting. And we got to pick the meal for dinner that night too. But there were never birthday presents, and there were no parties. And that was perfect. My husband and I are not party people. We don’t like to entertain large crowds, preferring to hang out with just one other family at a time. So our sons have friends over throughout the year, but it’s never a large group. For our sons’ birthdays, we don’t do parties at all. We take them somewhere that they want to go, and it’s just our family. We make a cake, sing happy birthday and have a fabulous day. Our older son just turned six and we bought him a huge roll of paper and a good set of paints and brushes (he loves art). It was the first time we’ve done birthday presents at all.

    I know that my parents always wanted to avoid the concept of having a huge buildup to one special day. They let us set up a Christmas tree in July if we wanted to, and didn’t make a huge deal out of holidays, anniversaries, or birthdays. Instead, they taught us to make every day special, to focus on loving each other and creating memories in all sorts of little ways. My husband and I have a similar philosophy, and it works perfectly for us. There is no let-down around here after Christmas, no stress leading up to birthdays, no worry about finding just the right gift or planning just the right party. Life is just awesome, every day. No day needs to be elevated to a status above all the other days, and that’s how we like it :-)

  23. Swissrose says

    Each to his/her own – we’re all different. End the competition, please!!
    A popular subject just now, I also recently wrote a piece about how I hope kids can grow up. I don’t remember my parents ever really playing with me, although we did stuff together, maybe the occasional board game when I got older, otherwise, it just wasn’t expected.
    However, my grandmother played with me and that is how it is with my granddaughter, too (grandson not so much, he’s too busy doing his own thing!). I still have a wonderful relationship with my 98 yr old grandmother and hope my own will be as good with my grandchildren – I have the time for them, which their mom doesn’t, really. or not so much.
    As for parties, when we had my eldest daughter’s first party when she was 7 in 1991, it was the first children’s party the kids in our Swiss village had ever attended and they didn’t know what to expect… the kids were delightful. All 28 of them! We made origami frogs and boxes as favours, the kids asked for milk or water when we were offering juice and soda (!) and they had to be shown how to play traditional English party games like musical chairs… it was a memorable occasion and a lovely party :) When my neighbour’s daughter had her birthday, it was so low key I was full of admiration. All she got was a redcurrant pie for snack with her family after school and a new book from her godmother. She was happy. 1991, folks.
    I think it’s probably different now, but I would hope there are still pockets of country folk like this in the Swiss countryside! Otherwise, excess is catching up with us, sadly.

  24. Meghan says

    Simple childhoods are the MOST beautiful! Mine was incredibly simple — complete with cardboard boxes, mud pies, and imaginary games in the attic — and it was the best childhood I could have asked for. Lovely post. I also mentioned your site in my most recent blog post here http://theblissfulpoet.wordpress.com/2014/05/15/7-new-ways-to-spend-your-money-instead-of-buying-stuff/ about living more simply. Hope that’s okay! Thanks for the great insights.

  25. april says

    Have missed reading your blog, welcome back! Your posts always inspire me to step back & simplify. (And you even make living in a place without a Starbucks sound fun! Guess there is hope for me :) )

  26. Erin B says

    I love this! I’ve stumbled upon your blog today and I can’t get enough…so inspiring! About this topic, I wanted to share something I’m doing with my 7 month old daughter for a little while each day. I made her a “treasure basket” based on the Heuristic Play idea. Since she’s so into playing and moving her body these days (not quite crawling, but getting around by rolling and pivoting around on her belly). I put the treasure basket just barely out of her reach. She makes her own little roly-poly beeline towards that basket, tips it over, and has a ball. I keep a close eye on her for safety and chat to her a bit, especially if she seems to be actively seeking my attention, but I don’t sit there and watch her every move and talk to her constantly. I’m hoping that this experience every day of having time to herself will set her up well for independent play as she gets older. Of course I spend time (most of my time while she’s awake, actually) interacting with her. She has plenty of toys (all gifts) that keep her amused for moments, but the treasure basket keeps her happy for ages…sometimes up to an hour! It’s full of “found” items from around my house, such as scraps of fabric in different textures, wooden spoons, a large tin Easter egg, toilet paper tubes, a small tupperware container, etc…it was great fun looking around my house for “toys.”

  27. Cathie says

    I think free-play/planned play has as much to do with your child’s personality as it does with your own. My first son is very social and doesn’t like to play for much by himself. He needed more interactive play and planned activities when he was pre-school. On the other hand, my second son loves to play by himself and can spend hours with his trains.

    As for Pinterest-worthy parties and activities, I am not the mom for that. I would rather spend time doing things and having adventures with my kids than planning the perfect party. When summer comes, I’ll throw the wagon, sunblock, duck-food and snacks in the back of my vehicle and leave it there so we can spontaneously do whatever we want. That’s my idea of magical.

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