Last week I took Leo, my eight-month-old son, on a play date and we decided to give his friend Cameron’s Exersaucer a trial run. Watching that huge smile as he pedaled his feet and banged on the plastic piano keys, I felt a not unfamiliar pang of guilt.
Leo doesn’t have an Exersaucer. Or a Jumperoo. He doesn’t have portable spoons and snack jars or a Peapod tent for napping on the road. He doesn’t even have a nursery. He sleeps in a crib an arm’s length from my bed and his changing table consists of a hand towel spread across the foot of that same bed.
Partly by choice and partly by necessity, I’m raising my son in a very minimalist style. I’m a single mother, temporarily residing in an apartment in my parents’ basement. We don’t have much space or money, so he doesn’t have much stuff. I’m also a firm believer in doing all I can to fight the “you are what you own” messages that flood our kids the second they walk out the front door.
In part I’m proud to invest him with non-materialistic values. But at times I feel guilty too. I’m not entirely convinced that never having a slate of developmental toys, a library full of books or a fancy birthday party won’t actually hurt him in some way. What if in my efforts to pare down, I neglect to provide Leo with some crucial item that really would make him a happier, more successful, more well-rounded kid?
When I browse through the Pottery Barn Kids catalogue or spot a Bugaboo on the street, I feel pretty confident. Leo will turn out just fine without those things. But the border between want and need isn’t always so clear. Earlier this summer, Leo and I took a trip to the East Coast and stayed for a couple of weeks with friends, intellectuals who share my minimalist parenting philosophy. Toys hadn’t consumed their apartment, but it did contain stack upon teetering stack of children’s books in four languages.
“We don’t spend on clothes or toys,” my friend explained. “But we do buy books. We’re language people, and we feel like that’s a critical part of education.”
Again the wash of guilt. I’m a language person too. Will reading Leo the same ten board books we inherited from a friend somehow stymie him intellectually? My friends’ two-year-old daughter is indeed breathtakingly precocious, bilingual and already working on language number three. I came home from that trip twenty dollars poorer for having invested in a pair of French children’s books that so far Leo’s only tried to eat.