"My backpack isn't as pretty as the other girls' backpacks," my 4 year old daughter finally managed to pour out through tears last fall after preschool.
Alice has a darling Herschel Supply Co. backpack we gave her the year before. Royal blue with big, bright poppy red polka dots. She was elated when we gave it to her. She insisted on carrying it with her everywhere, fully equipped with coloring book, crayons, and any other odds and ends she deemed necessary to life.
Shame was never something she associated with the things we gave her. Then we started preschool. Alice was around a peer set. No one teased or bullied her, but a natural observer, Alice noted that the other little girls' backpacks were pink and purple and sparkly - hers just wasn't.
Being minimalists in the American culture of materialism can be hard. While my husband and I own it, helping our kids to catch our vision and share our values can be tricky, especially when confronted with media messaging and peers.
When I see ads, I know what they want from me. I'm cognizant enough to know why advertising exists, what a company wants me to buy, how it affects my spending habits. My 4 year old, however, doesn't stand on the three decades of life experience I have. She can't filter the way we do.
While we've taken some measures to curb her consumerism exposure (e.g. not shopping the toy aisles, choosing programming sans commercials on Netflix or Amazon Prime) we can't eradicate every materialistic influencer from her life, nor is that entirely necessary.
At preschool, she is part of a class. A peer set. Those peers wear certain things and talk certain ways. She can't help but to adopt some of these things - behaviors, mannerisms, nonverbal communication cues. That's one place of many that she learns how to live - to share, to deal with conflict, to empathize, to be in relationships. It's good and healthy. But this past year, too, we've run into the scenarios above where the way our world works conflicts with our family philosophy of less is more.
Discontentment reared its ugly head again this Spring as we were putting our boots on for a puddle-jumping walk. "Mama, I don't wanna wear these boots!" Alice cried while sulking away. Gently, I dug deeper, mama-intuition telling me it was more than what it seemed. After several soft questions, Alice told me: "They're not as pretty as the other girls' boots."
Crushed. Heartbroken. My little Alice was succumbing to the thief of joy: discontentment. No one had told her that her boots weren't pretty, but again, she was being robbed of happiness by comparing.
To be fair to Alice, we buy her duck boots from the boy section at GAP. They're durable and waterproof and everything their girl boots are not. They are also brown and black. Decidedly not her idea of "little girl boots." But knowing that appearances can affect us, I happily swap in hot pink shoelaces for the brown ones they come with. I know, I know, they are not sequined and bedazzled and they actually keep the weather out, but it's a compromise we've made to enjoy quality over looks.
I then sat down next to her and explained another big reason we by them:
"Sweetheart, do you see Milo? He's putting on the boots you wore last year. I took the pink laces out and put the brown ones back in, and now he gets to wear them. Do you see?"
Alice watched Milo sitting in front of us, shoving his feet inside of her new-to-him boots, smile on his face, excited to splash outside.
The cloud lifted from her face and she put her boots on, this time with excitement instead of shame.
These are good experiences. We encounter issues. We talk about them. We work them out. We grow stronger. We own our values. We press on.
It aches and stings that Alice has to feel her way through these things at the ripe age of four, but she's owning it now. She's starting to get it as it relates to her and why we live this life. Why we use cloth napkins, cloth diapers, shop secondhand, compost and garden. We want to be good stewards of what we have and enjoy life to the max, and we do that by living sustainably and living with less.
For Christmas we bought her a backpack, one she got to help pick out. And while we meet in the middle in some places, there are others where Alice is already standing next to us.
Last December, my parents took Alice and Milo to see Santa. When it was time to sit on his lap, Santa asked Alice the inevitable: "What do you want for Christmas this year?" After pondering a moment, Alice finally managed this: "I think I'd like a medium-sized toy from the North Pole." That was it. A medium-sized toy from the North Pole. Didn't care what. Just that. She didn't even know what toys existed or that she might be missing out. She was happy with what she had and trusted Santa to bring her something nice.
Clearly something good is starting to catch on here. Contentment is ours for the taking right this minute. Living and loving the minimalist life can be challenging in a world of materialism and entitlement, but it's worth it, and I'm so relieved that it won't take my kids three decades of learning the hard way to figure it out.