Ep 54: Making Room for More with Minimalism

Episode Summary

Christine Koh, author of Minimalist Parenting, reveals how to get more out of your family life by doing LESS. She says “minimalism” isn’t about getting rid of apps and toilet paper, it’s about making room for the stuff that helps your family thrive while cutting back on everything else.

Show NotesWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Do you ever look back on a week and feel like you’re spending 90% of your family time doing stuff you don’t really love? Isn’t parenting supposed to be rewarding and inspiring at least 50% of the time? Why does it so often seem exhausting and overwhelming?

Christine Koh knows all about this feeling. This lady does a lot every day. She runs five businesses, hosts a podcast, works as a freelance writer, and speaks around the country! On top of that, she is raising a family and trying to be a good wife and member of her community. 

A minimalist mindset has helped her keep everything in balance and she breaks down exactly how she does it all in her practical and humorous book Minimalist Parenting. As she explained to me this week on the podcast, minimalism isn’t just about having less stuff or living without toilet paper, it’s a mentality that will allow you to make more room for the things you actually want to be doing in your family life and your professional life. 

She shared some really insightful hacks with me during our interview, including:

  • how to use the simple but effective “More and Less List”
  • Christine’s philosophy about teens getting jobs
  • tips for cleaning out your teen’s (and your own) “stuff”
  • ways to mitigate an over-abundance of stuff in the first place
  • a lesson on traveling with your teen

Set your family up to thrive by making more room in your lives for the things that are truly important to you, both in your home and on your calendar. By engaging in the minimalist practices Christine explains on this episode, you and your teenagers will be forced to re-examine your deepest values and decide what you truly want to stand for.

Bonus: Clean-Out Tips from a Minimalist Parent 

A few things you can implement with your teen:

  • Resist upsizing. Never buy more storage space (e.g. an extra set of drawers).  If something doesn’t fit, get rid of something else! When your teen runs out of closet space for their shoes and clothes, it’s time to give away some old stuff!
  • For the myriad art projects: give every kid/teen a box in the basement to put their favorite pieces in. When it’s full, it’s up to your teen to decide what they want to keep in the box.
  • Some items do conjure up special memories and it can be hard to part with them. A few things you can do are make a display out of the items – whether it’s framing a newspaper clipping or putting some knickknacks in a shadow box or making a quilt out of old t-shirts. If it really is special, find a way to bring it out into the open! 
  • Have a “quarantine” area. If your teen or another family member is having an awful time parting with something but they don’t have a place for it, designate it to “live” in a special quarantined area for four to six months. If no one has thought about it or used it in that time, that’s permission to get rid of it. But remember, the rule applies to your stuff too!
  • Be proactive: Join a local “Buy Nothing” group or similar organization on Facebook. If there’s not one in your area, you can easily start a swap group on Facebook for the street in your neighborhood. Encourage your teen to join! Instead of buying new things, group members are encouraged to offer up items they no longer use (prom dresses, toys, boxes of Mac and cheese they bought in bulk and ended up not liking, tools, yard games) all for free.

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Stop Nagging Your Teen and Focus on Progress Instead:

Does it ever feel like your teenager is dragging their feet on a project when they should really just be getting started? As Christine explained during our interview, it can help improve your teen’s motivation if you help them focus on ways in which they’ve already made some progress (even if it’s very minimal). To take advantage of this psychology, grab a piece of paper and write down two things your teenager has been dragging their feet on. Below each of these, write down what progress your teen has already made. Even just thinking about the project or telling you about it counts! Try to come up with at least 3 things that your teen has already done for each of the two projects you wrote down. Next time you have the urge to nag your teenager about one of these things, try focusing on what they’ve already done instead. Give them a compliment and say you’re proud of the work they’ve done so far. Be specific about exactly what “work” you mean.

2.  Rethinking Values: Getting Specific:

(Members Only)

3.  Get More of What You Want (and Less of What You Don’t) From Your Teenager:

(Members Only)

4.  Connect and Make Memories with a Special Parent-Teen Trip:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I just think a great place to start is how I found out about you was from your book, Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less. I thought it was just such an interesting concept for a parenting book to take the minimalist approach to parenting. And so I was really curious, what was it that kind of propelled you into saying, hey, we need a book on minimalist parenting?

Christine: Well, like many things, I get ideas on airplanes. I had been at a conference where I had been talking about this do less approach to life. Let’s be honest, I’m somebody who does a lot. Right now I have five businesses I touch every day. I love projects. I love doing things. I know it’s a lot. It’s pretty extra.

Christine: So to back up, I used to be a music and brain neuroscientist. I left academia in 2007, and I had started my blog, Boston Mama’s in 2006. Because I kind of felt like there was a hole in the sort of lifestyle editorial space in Boston. And I had a lot of moments in parenting where I just felt like, why is this so hard? Why is there so much pressure? Why are there so many shoulds? And anytime I wrote about something related to that, I would get almost all of these, “Oh my gosh, I’m feeling that too,” these kind of whispers from other people, also questioning.

Christine: And so, I had met Asha Dornfest, my coauthor, she’s also my podcast cohost and we have sort of similar philosophies, and she had done the same thing or was experiencing the same thing. Where any time she talked about marching to the beat of your own drum as a parent and really standing up for the values that you believe in, people would respond to it. And so I said, let’s write this book together. I bought the domain already. Let’s just do it.

Andy: Values is like kind of one of the cornerstones of what we teach here at Talking to Teens. And I think it’s one of just like the most important ways that you can actually influence a teenager because, once they get to the teenage years, it gets hard to, influence their smaller daily activities. But maybe, there is kind of an opportunity to impart some values and hopefully you’ve been already imparting values. I like this kind of discussion that you have in here about breaking down your values and getting in touch with those little more. Could you talk about how you develop this and why it’s so upfront? I mean, page three of your book here.

Christine: I just want to give a moment to say that I completely feel for parental overwhelm and even the idea of when somebody says, “Tune into your values.” I mean, that can be a little intimidating. I think one just because it’s big. And then two, because when there is so much noise about what your values should be or what you should be caring about, it’s really challenging.

Christine: The reason that Asha and I are so keyed into values as you are is, with any family system, you have to have this foundation on which to stack all of these details and all of these things. And so, that foundation will be a lot stronger if you can just figure out even at a baseline, where you’re at.

Christine: So I’ll just give you a quick example, because that sounds very abstract. Right now the parenting culture and certainly for teenagers, especially with the idea of college pressure and being evaluated and all that is to just, do more activities, sign up for all the things, do all the things, at the risk of like the whole system breaking down.

Christine: For some families that is perfectly fine. They love being busy. They like being on the go. Maybe they don’t like being at home that much, whatever. But I have seen personally for our family too, but for lots of families, some people, and some kids need a ton of downtime and cannot function. They can’t do their homework, they can’t do other things if they’re just too saturated with people and activities and things. And so if you are in that boat and you identify that quiet space sleep, that those are like key part of your value system and part of what’s really important to you to function as a human being, everything is kind of sitting on top of that stuff.

Christine: That’s why we’re so into that. And it’s hard to resist. I’ll say very clearly, it’s hard put your stake in the ground and say, “No, we’re going to just do one activity a season,” when everybody else around you is running from thing to thing to thing.

Andy: Sure. Says the woman who runs, how many, five companies.

Christine: Yeah. For me, having different projects and being like in this sort of dynamic workspace, that is something I love. So that works for me. But for my husband, that is a nightmare for him. He is not into that. So, we have to be really clear on that and how I can stop at the end of the day and just be present. And actually that is something I’ve worked on a lot and our family system works a lot better.

Andy: Also, it strikes me that there’s a value of kind of knowing yourself and that you could foster a family value of the importance of being true to yourself and the importance of that. Especially with teenagers, because I think that’s the time of your life when you’re really trying to figure out who the heck am I, and what do I want to stand for? Knowing that you come from a household where it’s okay to be either way and you’re going to be accepted, I think is huge.

Andy: So can you talk about the more and less list, and why would you create one of these as a parent and what would be the benefit of doing that and how the heck would you do it?

Christine: I love the more or less list. I have to give Asha credit for that. That is her, but it’s so simple. So, a couple things. One, the more and less list is just as simple as it sounds. It is literally whether you’re doing it on a scrap of paper, in a journal or in a Google doc, make two columns, just draw a line down the center. And on one side is more and on the other side is less. The idea is to really-

Andy: Okay, I can handle that.

Christine: You can handle that. I mean, it’s pretty simple, but the idea is to just really be free with your thoughts. Turn off the inner critic. Nobody has to see this list except for you and to jot down what you want more of in life and what you want less. I mean, for a lot of people it’s less running around, it’s less stress, it’s more fun, more travel, more time to myself, any of those things.

Christine: And turning off the inner critic is a really big part of this and not overthinking it too much because the idea is to just get down those thoughts, because once you have those down on paper, then the next step would be okay, how do we figure out? And this is the big part of minimalist parenting is, how do we figure out how to edit your life? And that’s actually our podcast name now, in order to get rid of some of that stuff that’s unnecessary that you really can get rid of on that less list. And then how do you carve out instead the room for the good stuff, the stuff you want more of.

Andy: It strikes me that that’s kind of … The name minimalist parenting is almost a little misleading because the whole reason to strip out the unnecessary stuff from your life is to make room for what is really important to you. And to kind of, I guess, get down to the essence of what you want to be doing with your time. And so it’s just the more and less list is just such a visual easy way to see, like you say, what kind of edits you want to start making to your life. And then you can start kind of planning that out.

Christine: Yeah. And the interesting thing, and I’m glad you brought that up about the title, because it’s funny, a lot of the times we start out when we’re telling people about minimalist parenting, we start out with what it’s not. So we’re kind of like, so it’s not like we love toilet paper. It’s not like we hate stuff. But the point is to identify wherever your level of crazy is, and then find ways to take it down a notch, or two or 12.

Christine: The other thing that I love about the more or less list and just list making and thinking about what lights you up and what’s dragging you down in general is that, sometimes, and I experienced this just last summer when I was struggling with some stuff. Sometimes that exercise helps you realize that the stuff that you want more of is right in reach. It’s actually right there. So part of it is like, I just need to devote a little more intention to this. Or, I’m actually doing that thing already. Life is actually okay. And it’s not as big a dumpster fire as I thought.

Christine: I think that’s part of the exercise that I really love. And I think it can be a little comforting to people to realize that they can make change and they have the power to do that.

Andy: There’s like research that I really liked that shows when you feel that you’re already part of the way there you’re much more likely to take action. Like when you give someone you know those little punch cards, like when you get your 10th coffee is free. And so if you give someone one of those and there’s just 10 and none of them are punched, versus if you give someone and there’s 12 and you punch the first two for them, they’re more likely to fill up the card when you give them the 12 and you punch the first two because they feel like, hey, I’m already on my way a little bit. Even though it’s still the exact same thing. You still have to get 10 coffees in order to get a free one or whatever the deal is.

Andy: But it kind of strikes me that the more or less listed is kind of having that same effect, like you say, because it’s just like, hey, I’m already kind of doing these things. What do I just want to do more of and what do I just want to do a little bit less of. And it’s kind of less overwhelming than being like, oh, I need to just overhaul everything. You’re already doing it. You already started.

Christine: For sure. We frame it in terms of baby steps all the time, taking those little steps. Because, it is overwhelming and it can’t just put like overhaul my life. Or making the task too big. Or, even if it’s like clean the playroom, you got to start small and break it down because you’re more likely to tackle it if you can tackle a little steps and feel like you’re actually making progress.

Christine: I love the punch card. I’m going to envision that. Because it’s such a good example.

Andy: I just feel that, and I feel that way in my life a lot. Like, oh man, if I can just kind of in my head somehow convince myself that I’ve started, create the word document. Even if it’s blank, save it somewhere or have it open on my thing. It’s like, okay, I’ve started this project. It’s a subtle little Jedi mind trick a little bit. But for me, it makes me feel like I’m on my way.

Andy: Okay. Another part of the book that I really connected with was when you talk about nostalgia. Because having a family becomes like a black hole of stuff. It’s like every year there’s like more and more stuff and it’s all priceless and one of a kind and how do you choose what to get rid of and what to keep, and you feel like a bad person almost sometimes, getting rid of certain things. Like, I can’t get rid of this. It’s like, well, that thing, Oh yeah, I remember that.

Andy: But you guys have some really cool tips in here. And so I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about how you avoid the nostalgia stall out.

Christine: The stall out is real and it is a long time thing. Or across the ages, I was just talking yesterday to a friend and we were kind of commiserating about the challenge of moving your parents. If your parents are moving and I was telling this person that I had to help my in laws move, but I literally uttered the words, “You don’t need this rusty can have rusty nails that’s also filled with mouse poop.” It’s time to just let it go.

Christine: But with kids stuff, I think there are a couple challenges. There’s like the level of parent nostalgia about whatever the thing is in question, as you said. Everything feels like a masterpiece. Then, there’s also the layer of what kind of kid you have. It’s going to be more or less challenging depending on that.

Christine: So for example, I have two daughters. My older daughter has always been very nostalgic. Even if it’s a thing that she hasn’t been using, she attaches meaning to it based on the person who gave it to her. So I’ll say, “I think it’s time to get rid of this because you have not used it ever.” And she’ll say, “But so-and-so gave it to me, and that has meaning. And what if she asks me about it?” I’m like, “Yeah. Okay. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Christine: Whereas my other kid, we’ll do a cabinet clean out or something and she’ll be like, “Get rid of that. Get rid of that.” She doesn’t care. She just doesn’t care as much. I think, there are a few like tactics one could take, I think that have been helpful. I think in the book Asha describes the idea of having sort of a … I don’t think she calls it quarantine, but putting stuff in a bag or a bin, stowing it somewhere. And if nobody has mentioned it or asked for it in six months or something, there’s some statute of limitations that then you can get rid of it.

Christine: I have found, I think limiting space is also crucial. Like the endless artwork that comes home from school, each of my kids has one large cardboard box in the basement, which holds many, many years of things. But my thing is basically like, okay, if you fill up this box, then you got to get rid of something from the box. This is all the space you get. And that has worked shockingly well.

Christine: I actually am a fan of decluttering some of that stuff with your kids, because then it avoids the you threw it out and you didn’t tell me situation, which is real if you have kids that have elephant memories. And also because with my kids, I’ve used it as a way to pay it forward and think about other kids. So it’ll be like in framing it in terms of donation. Let’s get rid of these games or these puzzles or whatever. There are other kids that we could donate it to and then they could have fun. And when you frame it like it’s also teaching the values of empathy, sort of looping back to that and opening up space.

Christine: So we tend to also do this before the holidays and before a birthday. Those are good landmarks to make room and make space since they know there’s probably other stuff coming in and that I think can make it a little easier for kids too. It is hard. It’s hard for them to let go of stuff.

Andy: Absolutely. It’s hard for anybody. And they say, neurons that fire together wire together. And I feel like sometimes, an item does just remind you of the time or the thing or the great memory or whatever it was, and getting rid of it or throwing it away makes you feel like you’re getting rid of a piece of that or you’re going to lose kind of part of that warm, fuzzy feeling or something like that.

Andy: I love the idea of limiting the space and you could do that for all kinds of different categories of things. My dad always used to say, it’s like what they teach you in chemistry, the properties of a gas is, it expands to fill the size of whatever can you put it in. I feel that way with stuff. That however much space you allow it to fill, it just kind of magically seems to just expand to fill the container.

Christine: I know. I’m so anti up-sizing. That’s America, let’s upsize it. I just feel like the bigger your house, the more space you have, the more storage you build, all this stuff, you’re just going to fill it up. Even with my kids, actually, it’s interesting. If you walk into my home, and it’s mostly because clutter makes me super anxious and we don’t have like a perfectly tidy home or anything. But if you walk in, you actually won’t see toys all over the place, because we have one corner bench cabinet in the living area where toys go in and then each of my girls has a cabinet, it looks like a sideboard, but it’s a big sort of dining room cabinet. And they each have their own cabinet. If they fill it up, then they got to empty stuff out of it. And that’s it. And it works shockingly well. We’ve never expanded to make more room because it just more junk accumulates that way.

Andy: You have a chapter that I found really interesting in here about money management and how to teach kids about money management. And I was really interested to get your take on this, especially specifically for teenagers.

Christine: Oh yeah. I’m big into money management. I’m not particularly a savvy … I don’t consider myself one of these people who knows all about investments or whatever. But I just mean at a basic level that one of the craziest things to me is that kids and teens do not get financial literacy education in school. I find that to be the most bananas thing in the world.

Andy: Zero.

Christine: Zero. It is crazy. So my top line recommendation just for any parents is that, I think have kids do chores, not for money, but just because they’re part of a family system. That’s a question I get a lot. Two, I think it’s really important to give them an allowance, which is actually money for them to experiment with.

Christine: Because, you go into target, your kid asks you for a million things. This is what happens to all of us. It is much easier and they will be prime to make decisions and think things through and experiment and maybe have something break if you say, “Yeah, you could use your allowance for that. How much do you have in your allowance?”

Christine: Giving them the chance to actually experiment. And some kids, if you’ve got a super … Like my older one is very, “I will put 30% in the college account and I will put 30% in this.” You might have a kid like that, you might not. It just gives them a chance to experiment and potentially fail with their money too, and have something that doesn’t work out. And that’s fine.

Christine: And then the third one, which is particularly relevant for teens is to make them work.

About Christine Koh

A former music and brain scientist, Christine now works as a writer, speaker, designer, and consultant. She is the founder and editor of the award-winning blog Boston Mamas, the graphic designer behind Posh Peacock, co-author of Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More By Doing Less, and a digital strategist at The Mission List. Christine has been featured in the New York Times, Redbook, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, Parents Magazine, National Public Radio, ABC News, and other fine media outlets. She lives in the Boston area with her husband Jonathan and daughters Laurel and Violet.

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