It's not easy to raise a family without distractions. All those bright, loud -- and often expensive -- diversions, whether they are our screens or other stuff, add up to one big sensory storm. Little wonder that the quest to simplify our life supports a whole industry, with a dazzling array of ways to organize.
Sure, you could shop for more storage containers and baskets (and add them to that pile in the garage). Or you might cut the mental and physical clutter, and gain space for what's important, this way: Hammer out a few "family principles," each with its own payoff. These few guidelines have helped my husband and me fine-tune our focus on our shared goals since our daughter was born eight years ago. Because every family is unique, this isn't meant to be a hard-and-fast guide -- just some field notes from one mom's experiment. Consider them a good place to start.
Principle: Make rules.Payoff: Live the values you want.
In a perfect world, what would your home life look like? What video games would be banned? Would your kids clear their dishes from the table? Would their rooms be uncluttered and tidy? Well, it's your lucky day! You are the adult in the house and you get to call the shots. If you don't think your 7-year-old is ready for pierced ears, that's the end of it. If you long for a meal without interruptions, make it happen. Prefer evening family reading time to staring at screens? Insist on it. You may have to tolerate some griping, resistance, and even anger, so that's why it's important to focus rules on something significant, something big in impact though small in design -- something that will inspire you to keep going when the troops don't fall in line.
Principle: Give up something. Payoff: Gain something.
I love clothes, and my family does too. So when we needed to save money for a trip to Italy, I had the idea that going on a clothes fast would help us put away some extra cash. We all agreed. Our pledge: For most of the year -- between Labor Day and Memorial Day -- we wouldn't buy any clothes, with the one release valve being thrift stores in case of emergency. (I had a black-tie event to attend and scored a red-carpet-worthy dress for a mere 70 bucks. But after that one "splurge," I went right back on the wagon.) While it was pretty great to see our vacation fund grow (we came up with an estimated savings and put it in the bank each month), even more satisfying for me is to watch my daughter Azalea's desire for material things wane. The girl has almost entirely stopped asking for stuff, and not just clothes. Who can really say what goes on in the mind of an 8-year-old, but I have a hunch that her interest in material things is something she learns at home, like everything else. It's not that she doesn't get jazzed by the idea of something new to play with or wear, but she's broken the habit of expecting that she's going to get everything she wants.
Principle: Don't hang on to what you don't use. Payoff: Gratitude
We've all had the hair-pulling experience of trying to find that permission slip on the day it's due, right as the bus pulls up and the clock is ticking, and then we trip over a random assortment of plastic stuff. That should be enough motivation for us to start liberating last year's school cereal-box project, the printouts of recipes we never made, and the toys our kids never touch. But there is an even better reason to go on a stuff-cleanse. The poet Emily Dickinson wrote, "The things that never can come back, are several," and aren't we fortunate? Once that jelly-stained doll is out the door, she will never come back. Chances are, she won't be missed. And if she is, what a wonderful opportunity to lovingly support our kids as they confront something so basic in their lives as human beings. Nothing lasts. And that's okay. We can enjoy the bounty that we have. After my last stuff-purge, Azalea actually said, "Hey, I can see my room!" and had so much fun with what she had left, she never looked back.
Principle: Keep your eyes on your own paper. Payoff: Satisfaction
This little trick has less to do with what we do or buy and is more of an internal shift that can really quiet the drama in your head. Consider all the times you felt pretty good about your work, your home, your cooking, your kids, your body -- only to be hijacked by seeing someone who you think has a better home, body, and so on. Not only might this envious feeling drive us mad with insecurity, but we may actually take steps to make our X a little more like her X. (It's bad enough when we compete with others over material possessions, but when we compare our kids that way, look out!) And so, the best way to be satisfied with what we have is to stop comparing. When I notice myself glancing sideways in that familiar way, I remind myself that people are not just some pieces of a puzzle we long for, but whole, imperfect things in and of themselves. Judging ourselves against other family members and friends is crazy-making and really complicates our life.
The last thing any mom needs is a longer to-do list. So approach this streamlined set of principles one step at a time. Take it slow. And always: Keep it simple.
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Parents magazine.