Christmas at Grandma's in Alaska, 2010
One question that people often ask us in regards to our simplified life on the road is "What do you give your kids for birthdays or Christmas?"
They realize that we have limited space on our truck (about 321 things), that is all organized with a place for everything (and everything in its place), so naturally they're curious about whether we add to it or not during those traditional gift giving occasions.
Our personal lives have swung from one side of the pendulum to the other. In the past, we were big consumers. We lived in large houses, drove fancy cars and bought lots of things.
When we began traveling in 2007 (driving from the U.S. to Costa Rica where we lived for a year), we simplified some at that time, but still hadn't caught hold of the whole idea (or reasoning) behind minimalism.
Today, we have swung to the other side. Rather than a 6500 sq. foot house, we live in Ford F250 (sorry, don't know the sq. footage on that one).
Instead of closets full of clothes, a room for every child, piles of toys, fancy furniture and doo-dads on in every nook and cranny, we live with what we need and what actually adds value to our lives - our roof top tent and annex room; one change of clothes for each day of the week; a handful of small toys; my cameras; our laptops; and some books.
But the extreme isn't entirely a result of our intentional homelessness. Behind it lies a recognition of the power of living with less.
While recently exploring the massive ruins of Teotihuacan in Mexico, we were approached countless times by peddlers trying to sell us souvenirs so that we could 'remember our visit to Teotihuacan.'
Quite honestly, what they were selling was very attractive - silver bracelets engraved with symbols of the sun and moon (for the Sun and the Moon pyramids); jade masks; sun stones; obsidian daggers; and cool whistles that made the sound of a jaguar (my boys really liked those).
Perhaps if we had a place to call home with a shelf waiting to be filled up with stuff, we might of bought some of it. With our limited space, it just wasn't an option. But more importantly, we realized that we didn't need to buy any of that stuff to enjoy our visit, or to remember it.
That's the principle behind minimalism, and that's what we've learned to live by. Too often, things are purchased on an emotional 'spur of the moment'. We see it, we like it, we want to own it. Humans are very much like this (even as children).
But the more we own, the more of our time and attention is required to care for it, maintain it, move it, clean it, organize it. In reality, we give up some of our freedom to pursue other priorities, because of the 'burden of possession.'
We realized that although intriguing and attractive, if we had a home to place these souvenirs, all they would really end up doing is collecting dust.
Does minimalism require that you don't own anything, that buying stuff is 'bad'?
Not at all. What it does focus on is buying things that you actually need, or that will add real value to your life.
If my flip-flops break, buying new ones (or getting them fixed), adds real value to my life, because then I don't have to walk barefoot.
And contrasted to the souvenir experience above at Teotihuacan, while visiting the city of Cholula, we hiked to the top of the biggest pyramid in Mesoamerica. At the summit was a women selling handmade beaded jewelry. I purchased a beautiful bracelet because it was a souvenir that I would use, that I could wear everyday. That, to me, is a lot better than a 'dust collector'.
So then, back to birthdays and Christmas presents. Even in our non-minimalist days, we didn't believe in showering our kids with hoards of gifts - I just don't think it's good for them. We focused on making the day special, and on the emphasizing the uniqueness of the child (or the reason for celebrating Christmas).
Now that we live minimally, and have limited space, will we give our kids anything this holiday season?
Yes, I think we will, but we'll follow a few specific guidelines:
1. Give what they need
Underwear starting to look like rags? Shoes got holes in them? Then this is an obvious gift that can be given which is needed and useful. Of course we don't wait for special occasions to purchase needed items like that, but if it happens to coincide, then all the better.
"But how can your kids get excited about underwear?" I hear you saying.
I've actually been surprised. When you purchase few things in general, it's amazing how excited my kids will get over buying something simple like underwear or socks (even if it's not plastered with Lightening McQueen or Spiderman - yes, it has really happened to me).
2. Give what they really want
Every time we visit a market or store, I have a son who sees something that he really wants. An action figure, sling shot, or other little doo-dad.
Following the rule of not buying things on impulse, we explain to him that he has to wait at least a week before we'll consider purchasing anything he wants.
Most often, the impulse will pass, and he'll forget all about it. But if it doesn't, and he continues to remind and pester, then I know that it is something he really wants, and that he'll thoroughly enjoy.
Being a minimalist doesn't require that you deprive your children and yourselves the joy of owning things. It focuses on discovering which things really do bring you pleasure, instead of indulging in all things to the point of excess and annoyance.
If I only buy those things for my kids that I know they'll really treasure, then they take better care of them, and they play with them more often, for longer periods of time. These make perfect seasonal gifts.
3. Focus on Giving
It's fun to receive gifts, and it's fun to give a gift to someone, especially when you know it's something they'll really enjoy and use.
I personally have a difficult time purchasing presents for others (parents, grandparents, siblings), if I just see it as another 'thing' to clutter up their life. Do they really need another 'dust collector', even if it's from Mexico?
But if I find something that I know they'll truly use or enjoy (even food), then it's a joy for me to share with them.
This is the principle I want to teach to my kids. I want them to find joy in giving appropriately to others, and to recognize that even though they receive 'less', it's actually more - more in the pleasure it will bring, more in the appreciation it will elicit.
Giving and receiving are enjoyable activities. Our goal isn't to eliminate those activities in the name of minimalism, but to enhance them and make them even more meaningful by owning less stuff.
It's an irony I know, but try it. It really works.
What are your plans for gift giving this holiday season?
Here's what other family travelers have to say:
The Nomadic Family - Poverty for Christmas
New Life on the Road - Dear Mr Santa Claus Whats For Christmas
With 2 Kids In Tow, It's Backpacking We Go: Dear Santa, For This Christmas We Wish...
Living Outside of the Box - The Best Christmas Presents
Bohemian Travelers- Gift giving while living a simpler life
Family Travel Bucket List - Feliz Navidad Without All the Stuff
Livin On The Road - What Our Kids Think About Christmas on the Road:
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