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Why Buying More Stuff Isn’t Going To Help You Be a Perfect Parent


This is the first piece in a series of posts for my Summer Parenting Book Club For Parents Who Don’t Join Book Clubs And Who Hate Most Parenting Books.

School of Smock Summer Book Club

The two books that I’ll be writing about are One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One by Lauren Sandler and Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us by Christine Gross-Loh.

I wrote today’s post after reading the chapter in Parenting Without Borders called “Buy Buy Baby:  Why Are We Drowning in Stuff?”

For the next month I’ll be writing — hopefully along with some other bloggers — one post per week about each book.  You can read along, or don’t read at all.  Both books raise so many issues that are fascinating to write and think about.  I’ll also be giving away copies of each book for readers:  Enter the giveaway by commenting about any post.  I want to hear your comments, and maybe you’ll get a great book out of it!

For me, it all started with the stroller.

When I first found out that I was pregnant, the most visible sign that I was about to enter a new world of babies that I saw around my neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts was the tricked out, hipster stroller.  They were everywhere.  In the park, in Trader’s Joe’s, in the library.  Where had all these strollers come from?  Bugaboos, Uppas, Stokkes.

For an urban mom, I decided that the perfect urban stroller was an essential.  This would be my primary form of transportation with the baby on Cambridge’s cobblestone sidewalks and during its snowy winters.  Then I saw the prices.  These strollers cost more than my first car!  How could I justify that kind of expense? And even if I could, how would I determine which stroller would work best for us?

My first park walk with new baby in my fantastic stroller
My first park walk with new baby (and old dog) in my fantastic stroller

So I did what any self-respecting 21st century expecting mom would do: go to the internet. And consulted lists and websites, such as Lucie’s List.  A few friends also recommended the book, Baby Bargains.

giraffe (Photo credit: nemuneko.jc)

As my waistline expanded during my pregnancy, so did my list of “essentials” that were absolutely necessary to purchase for the baby.   Repeating the pattern that started with shopping for a stroller, I realized that I knew nothing about what babies needed — or at least what most big box baby retailers were telling me that he needed.

Suddenly, my list of critical items now included bouncy seats, swings, audio and video baby monitors, five  different types of baby carriers, wipes warmers, Diaper Genies, shopping cart covers, organic sheet sets, white noise machines, several types of swaddling blankets, stroller buntings, nursing clothing, a teething giraffe, diaper bags, a bassinet and co-sleeper, two types of nursing pillows.  Pages and pages of stuff.

I’m not normally much of a shopper.  I hate clothes shopping.  I don’t spend any time browsing for home decor items.  I’m not into kitchen accessories.  I don’t even like buying shoes.  I’ve always known that I don’t need the newest or fanciest things to be happy.  (As a doctoral student in sociology in the 1990s, one of my academic heroines was Juliet Schor, who has written about the commercialization of childhood and American consumerism eloquently for decades.)

So why did I become a compulsive comparison shopper once I became pregnant and then after my son was born?   It’s simple:  Because I was afraid that this stuff might really matter.  Maybe one thing on my list would make parenthood a little easier and my baby a little happier, a little healthier, and little smarter.  What if this one particular white noise machine would make the difference between a well-rested baby and one who was not?  What if an Ergo baby carrier would make my son more content during the day while we ran errands?  What if he cried all the time and the only thing that would make him stop was a swing with soft padded seats or even a bouncy seat?  What if he got sick from the germs on a shopping cart?

Until I started reading Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us, I hadn’t recently thought of my brief period of crazy baby consumerism as an American trait.  I confess:  I bought the baby flashcards (would they help my son learn to recognize nouns faster?); I bought an entire play room of flashing and musical toys (would they stimulate his desire for play?); I bought push toys, ride-on toys, and walkers (wasn’t he a bit slow to start walking independently?)  But, I reasoned, weren’t the parents in Japan, in Finland, in France, doing the same thing?

Somewhere around the time my son turned 14 or 15 months, I got bored with all the baby stuff. (Not coincidentally, this was when I went back to working on my dissertation for most of my days.)

My son prefers boxes to flashing toys.
My son prefers boxes to plastic toys.

My reasons were  partially selfish because keeping up on all the latest toys and clothes and gizmos was too time-consuming and boring for me.

It also turns out that I was wrong about other cultures doing the same things I was.  And I was wrong that all this stuff was going to help my son and his development.  As Gross-Loh describes, other cultures have figured out that buying lots of stuff for your kids is not even good for kids in the first place.  By the time that American kids grow old enough to articulate their own wants, they grow used to getting more, more, more stuff.  They have long lists of toys and possessions that they want (or feel that they need).

But other cultures, such as Japan, described in more detail in the book, have found ways to acquire less stuff, appreciate what they have, and get kids to occupy themselves contentedly with creative, everyday items.

Kids are not born with the desire for the newest game, this season’s doll, or the best bike. As Gross-Loh explains, “Kids learn to get hooked on the novelty of acquiring things when this is what they’re used to.  They’re not born addicted to constant acquisition.”  In short, they learn from us.

The thing about American parenting is that there are so many choices, from our parenting styles to our car seat to formula brands.  For me, it’s hard to turn that drive off because there’s always the fear that I’m not doing it right — which brand, which style is the best for my son?  I’m learning to turn it off, slowly, one shopping trip at at time. (And, yes, I did buy my extravagent UppaBaby Vista stroller.  Used, from Craigslist, for less than half the retail price.  It’s fantastic and that thing has clocked so many miles that the wheel treads are almost gone.)

Have you found yourself questioning how much you buy for your kids?  How have your spending habits changed when you had a family?



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  1. Having lived abroad, I already had a keen sense of how much, indeed, consumerism is an American trait. I tried very hard not to buy a lot of random stuff (although, wow, my list was pretty long, anyway). The thing is… people GIVE you random stuff. H has so many toys and just loves playing with a few of them plus the box my sparkling water comes in. I continue to try to fight the paradigm… even from my husband, who is a bit of a consumerist himself. (Although more for his own “needs” and less for the baby’s! Heh.)
    Deb @ Urban Moo Cow recently posted…Just Another Day in ParadiseMy Profile

  2. Oh, all the time I question it! Especially now when my kids see every commercial and ask, “Mommy, can WE get a Stuffie?” {oh, the irony, get a toy to stuff more of your toys in!!!}. I teach Anthropology, and we watch documentaries of cultures where all kids have is a bow and arrow, or bamboo leaves to play with….

    I also use this photo essay in one of my Anthropology lessons, of kids from around the world with their most prized possessions – have you seen it? Pretty amazing:

    I’m also reading Jared Diamond’s, The World Until Yesterday, and he talks about the difference between American children, who have all of these premade, store-bought toys, and children from “traditional” societies who use creativity and ingenuity to actually make their own toys. Great pics in that book as well.

    My book just arrived last week. I’m eager to read and post about it!!
    Sarah @ LeftBrainBuddha recently posted…Breathe + Smile: Monday Mindfulness and GratitudeMy Profile

  3. 5feet9 says:

    We’re Indian, and moved to Switzerland 4 months after our baby was born in the US. The fact that we were going to move made us realllly careful about not getting much stuff for the baby and that’s more or less now a habit since the boy pretty much learned to entertain himself with whatever was around and a few staple favorites. I try as far as possible to only buy used things (except onesies and pjs, since he needs SO MANY), and occassionally succumb to ultra cuteness. No baby monitor yet, though we keep thinking about getting one.. but for now, we can tell from his calls (he’s 16 months) if he’s standing or having some trouble. And I still feel like there’s too much baby stuff because my husband and I grew up without store bought toys or too many clothes and turned out fine and the baby seems to have soooo many things and is frankly uninterested in them (especially the giraffe and his many stuffed animals).

      • Katie says:

        I can’t stand stuffed animals. But… my daughter loves them and plays with her collection almost daily. In fact, really the only toys she uses are her dolls and stuffed animals. These are a popular gift so I’ve only bought 2 or 3 over the past few years.

  4. This whole post really resonated with me, but especially this: “Kids learn to get hooked on the novelty of acquiring things when this is what they’re used to. They’re not born addicted to constant acquisition.” YES. That is so sad, and so true. We struggle with this a lot in our house, and we are always reminding our daughter to be “grateful not greedy”, but I feel these words fall short. And do we always model that principle ourselves?

    (I have to go back and read this not-book-club post. What a fantastic idea!)
    Stephanie Sprenger recently posted…Bedtime Stall Tactics, As Taught By My ToddlerMy Profile

  5. Roshni says:

    the main reason why other cultures don’t have so many toys etc is because most of those families don’t have the means or space to buy so much! I’m sure with the growth of the upper middle class in many of these cultures now, those families are now making the same mistake and buying oodles of stuff that their babies won’t need or use!
    Roshni recently posted…Play times can teach life’s lessonsMy Profile

  6. Momma, PhD says:

    I didn’t really succumb to this. Other than the car seat and some clothes, everything we got for our daughter was either second hand or hand me downs. Everything from breast pumps to clothes to pack n’ play- all second hand. My prevailing cheapness overwhelmed any desire to have ‘the best’ or whatever for my kid- she wouldn’t know if she was pooping on a new outfit or one that had been previously pooped on.

    Now she’s 3.5 and definitely aware of buying stuff at the store. We try not to do much of that- we already get an overwhelming number of gifts at birthdays and holidays (especially now that she has a little brother and whenever people get something for him, they get something for her too).
    Momma, PhD recently posted…Dissertation Length: I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yoursMy Profile

  7. Jessica,

    so glad I found this blog! I’m the author of Mean Moms Rule, and as you might guess from the title (it’s also my blog’s name), I’m not a buy, buy, buy mom. You might be interested in this piece I wrote some time back for Babble.


    I LOVE Christine’s book (disclosure: she and I are writer friends, and I did a Q/a with her on my blog last week).

    Nice to “meet” you!

    Denise, aka the Mean Mom
    Denise Schipani recently posted…Are You “Living Through” Your Children?My Profile

  8. Kimberly says:

    I was going to suggest buying the super expensive stuff over Craigslist or at a resale shop. And in so many ways, too many toys stifle the imagination. I always let my child play with things from whatever room we were in. In the kitchen, it was pots, pans, bowls and spoons. In the living room, it was pillows blankets, and a few safe knick knacks. The only things I felt were a necessity were a changing pad, crib, swing, front and backpack, umbrella stroller and carseat.She even hated being read to until she was about 15 months.

  9. Mommyproof says:

    Thanks so much for writing this and for pointing me to this book. I will now add it to the list of books I really want to read but don’t have time for and will subsequently feel guilty about. (Ha! Kidding 🙂 Seriously, though, I am fascinated by this topic!! I find myself buying all KINDS of “stuff” for my kid — even though I’ve gone through exactly what you express here (feeling I needed it, then realizing that I was bored with all of it, etc). I still buy stuff, mostly in the hopes it will keep my kid occupied and help him learn to play on his own (but I’d love to read more about how other cultures do it– I really do want to instill in my kid a great imagination that can only be encourage with an empty box, like in your photo!) I’ve also really started to appreciate used gear. I’ve gotten toys from friends whose kids have outgrown them, and that’s a great feeling. I’m also all about Craigslist for strollers, etc… Thanks for this — I look forward to reading more of these posts!

  10. Rachel says:

    I just went a nature preserve with my daughter today. People were sitting on the grass with their kids. Each one had a “device” to occupy the child. It made me feel sad.

    • Jessica says:

      Parents’ and kids’ relationship to technology is a whole other thing. Maybe related in some ways. It makes me sad too. We took my son to the zoo last night, and my husband took him on the carousel. While I was trying to take a picture of them with my iphone, I realized that most of the other parents and adults who were standing around watching the carousel weren’t even making an attempt to look at their kids on the ride. They were playing with their phones, just like me!
      Jessica recently posted…Why Buying More Stuff Isn’t Going To Help You Be a Perfect ParentMy Profile

  11. Kimberly says:

    Do you find this more of a “Keeping up with the Jones” type mentality?
    For me, I wanted my baby to have the best…and I’m not a materialistic person. He needed the stroller. He needed the dream catcher thing that played a movie and massaged his back and farted out a rainbow or some other crap like that.
    I was lucky that my mom gave my head a shake. I was trying to make my kids stuff as flashy as he was going to be.
    I often wonder how earlier generations did it with such limited choices and the means to even afford it..and I think “hey they did it”
    Kimberly recently posted…Neon PinkMy Profile

  12. Katie says:

    Great post! I’ve found that a great way to avoid purchasing much of this stuff is to live in a smaller home. We’re in the city – 2 bedroom condo with very limited storage, which makes it very easy for me to say no to new purchases and to send things we’re not using on to their next home.
    My mind is blown when I visit friends in the ‘burbs who have an entire basement full of toys – whoa!

  13. I really love this write-up. We are on our first child – she’s now 3 – and I can probably count on two hands what I’ve bought for her. Yet we are overrun with too many toys and stuff that she does not actually play with. No more! We are having our first yard sale this weekend actually and trying to get rid of not just kid’s stuff but our own. I am a minimalist and decided that our next kid does not “need” even half of what we have. We love second-hand too and I even encourage the grandparents, aunts, etc that if they must buy for my daughter, to buy there.
    Kiera @easytravelmom recently posted…Traveling while BreastfeedingMy Profile

  14. Katia says:

    Parenting without borders sounds like a fascinating read and I completely agree with you. I haven’t read about this but at one point I intuitively felt that I was overwhelming my toddler (that’s back when my son was a toddler) by providing too much choice. We have in our living room a big woven basket full of books and it’s just bursting at the seams. I feel uneasy every time I look at it and I try to keep the books circulating between the different shelves in the different rooms and to the choice to a minimum. The more toys he gets the less special the previous ones are and I’m afraid we’ve already conditioned him to expect more toys. I am totally going to read that book!
    Katia recently posted…Why I Won’t Be Getting a Pet Anytime SoonMy Profile

  15. This was the perfect post for me to read today as my son starts almost every sentence with, “Can I have …” or “Will you get me …” And you’re right, it’s just the novelty of having something new. At Science of Parenthood, we even did an illustration on this called Inverse Toy Acquisition: The time it takes for a toy to be discarded is inversely proportional to the amount of whining and pleading you endured before you bought it. Need to exercise my veto power more. Just say NO! Thanks Jessica for a great post!
    Norine of Science of Parenthood recently posted…Lunch Box Remainder PrincipleMy Profile

  16. Jen says:

    Great post Dr Smock! There is an awesome book called Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne. I read it a few years ago, it is one whole book on the importance, psychologically, of de-cluttering your child’s life. It talks about how given a child too many choices effects their ability to make any, and also about the value of boredom. Also so many other things. It was hard for me to let go of all the stuff initially, but now my favorite thing to do is get rid of stuff!!! Thanks for sharing this great book!
    Jen recently posted…Why Read A Parenting Book When You Can Just Watch The Brady’s?My Profile

  17. Nina says:

    You’re preaching to the choir with ME! With each child I have become more and more of a minimalist. But oy– I was such a freak at the beginning. If I can have the time I spent worrying about which stroller to buy and THEN which double one to get a few years later I would add a year back to my life. At least.
    Nina recently posted…Getting People to Read Your BlogMy Profile

    • Jessica says:

      My neighbor had her fourth child when my son was a baby, and I remember being so confused about her “preparation” strategies for the new baby. She literally bought nothing — and didn’t keep much of anything from her previous baby several years earlier — and refused everything that I tried to let her borrow (swings, bouncy seats, clothing). She got a baby carrier, and that’s it. Very, very smart.
      Jessica recently posted…It’s My SITS Day! Welcome to School of Smock!My Profile

  18. Kerry says:

    With my first baby, we definitely went through those moments of thinking we needed all of this stuff when really all we needed was a safe spot for him to sleep, some burp cloths, a car seat, basic stroller. I had lots of hand-me downs for babies 2 and 3. But we still wrestle with the “stuff” debate as they all get older. They definitely have lots of wants, and then there are things I’d like them to have, experiences I want to give them. Parenthood is expensive, so we just keep evaluating what is needed, the few big delights and the experiences. The experiences are definitely what I’d like to invest in the most.
    Kerry recently posted…Does it Pay to Always be the “Rules Girl”My Profile

  19. “It’s simple: Because I was afraid that this stuff might really matter. ”

    As first time moms we want, more than almost anything, to be prepared for whatever our baby might really, really need. We just don’t have a clue what that will be so we stock up. You will face this urge again, just as we did, and that is many years in your future when you are helping your recently-graduated high school senior get ready for her college dorm room. You will want your child to be prepared for anything that might help her when you are no longer nearby to deliver them to her. Great post!
    grownandflown recently posted…Sally Koslow Writes the Book on ReinventionMy Profile

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