Teaching our children minimalism

Obviously we do not force an austere, monkish existence on our children. Yet, we still think it is important to instill in them certain values: a wariness of consumerism, sustainable thinking, recognizing joy in objects. I can give you three examples of how we have been teaching these lessons:

1. The Rock Collection

3 year olds are very curious little bipeds, just learning to exercise their ingrained skills of gathering. While taking walks to the park or beach, our littlest hominin would stop every few steps to inspect the surrounding geology and select a sample. She would bring all sorts of rocks home, with no discernible rhyme nor reason — just whatever struck her fancy in the moment. We decided to introduce some regulatory measures: she is allowed to have a maximum of 20 items in her rock collection; to get a new one, you have to get rid of an old one. The key is to have her take stock of her collection before going on a rockhounding excursion, to make space before getting a new sample, rather than just bringing home any old rock from any old walk and making a decision to keep later. Prioritization and planning for the future are some nice lessons here.

2. The Paper Tray

Paper tray

From rocks to trees. My older daughter is in school and brings home reams and reams of paper creations. She is a budding artist with some impressive Star Wars portraiture skills. Digital photography makes it a lot easier to capture the memories without having to deal with physical storage, but we instituted a limit on what she could keep by giving her a 2 inch high paper tray. Periodically she goes through the contents in an act of “life editing.” We leave the decision of what to keep and what to cull entirely up to her. The key question of course is: what sparks joy?

3. The Christmas Cull


Make room. That is a concept little ones easily understand. Last year, before Xmas, my wife sat the kids down and told them that before Santa brings any new toys we have to make room. The girls had to take stock, determine which were their favourites, and give some of their unused toys to other kids. It was pretty successful and not painful at all.

These three stories are examples of how to teach little ones that more isn’t better, how to identify valuable possessions, and how to say “good-bye” and “thank you for your service” to other possessions. A pretty good basis for full-on minimalism in the future, if they so choose.

Our Japanese mansion

In 2008, in preparation for our first child, we moved to the biggest apartment we ever lived in in Japan. It had the glorious name Chunichi Mansion Chiyoda. And it certainly was a “mansion” as far as we were concerned. We had a living room/dining room, a bedroom, a room for the baby and I even had an office! In Japan this is known as a 3LDK (3 room, living room, dining room, kitchen). Below is a short video walkthrough on the day we left it (hence why there is no furniture). This will give you a sense of the size.

The layout is slightly different, but here is a comparable floor map (just swap the tatami mat room on the western side with the “Western” room on the right):


Now, what is the actual size of this mansion? It was about 57m² which is roughly 613ft². What an efficient use of space! We felt like we had tons of room. I barely used my office (it turned into basically a storage room), and we hosted parties and guests stayed over often.

Currently in Canada we live in a 2 bedroom house that is more than 1000ft². We already don’t use the living room, which takes up a quarter of the house. We could easily move into a 600ft² space again — if there were any that were built with such space efficiency as in Japan. I wish I could transplant my Japanese mansion here.

Downsizing is freedom

Txt from my brother: Hey you wanna stop using your last name in your radio interviews I'm getting people texting me about why my brother wants to live in a closet

When my brother sent this text, I realized that I skip over the reasons for downsizing too blithely. People are missing the point. One doesn’t live small just for the sake of living small. This is not merely an expression of claustrophilia… it is a means towards an end. Let us explore one of the reasons by asking a simple question:

Why do you work?

The “average” Canadian’s monthly expenses probably include: 1) payments towards the mortgage; 2) car payments; 3) a smartphone contract; and 4) student loans. Debt, debt, debt, and debt. Add all those together and you get a pretty high barrier to economic freedom. In 2015 household debt in Canada rose to 171%, the highest ever.

Working simply to service debt is far too common; our economic system is biased towards this outcome. The only way to break free is to stack up so many economic resources that you can simply step over the wall to freedom. This usually ends up taking up most of your life, dooming the best years to the proverbial “rat race.” But there is another way: you could refuse to stack up your prison walls in the first place.

Downsizing is a means to economic freedom

Graham Hill, in his TED Talk Less Stuff, More Happiness mentions that by buying an apartment just 180ft² smaller he saved $200,000. Last week I pointed out that just owning a car costs $10K a year. Those types of numbers go pretty far in having a happy life. Having never owned a car I have probably saved something like $300,000 over the past 20 years of my driving life. Sure it was inconvenient a few times, but thanks to the economic freedom I have traveled from Japan to Iran, from southern Thailand to the border of Tajikistan.

By downsizing — cutting out debt and minimizing your expenses — you are lowering the barriers to economic freedom. Thinking about minimalism gives you the opportunity to find out what your actual minimal economic baseline is, rather than accepting the “received wisdom” of what our finance-driven culture says it should be.

Once you have determined what your true baseline is, you can start to more effectively plan your work-life balance. You will have more time to write that novel, more time to volunteer, more time to spend with your family and do all the things that you love. Plus you will feel good for all the positive environmental and social effects of downsizing.

Downsizing is not a contest about who can live in the smallest closet — it is a methodology for taking back control of your life. It is simply a means to an end, and that end is freedom.

Nice coverage of tech issues at the local level

Kelowna Capital News Tech Talk special

Kudos to Kelowna Capital News, one of our local newspapers, for running a special on technology last week. Tech is one of the dominant problems in the global zeitgeist, and it is not often that a local paper will put the resources into exploring such an issue in a local context. The Tech Talk package dubbed “Mainframe Communication” (!) is not super hard-hitting, which is understandable since it is geared toward a more general audience, but despite it’s name I think it shows an extraordinary level of awareness. I look forward to more coverage like this.

Included are articles on education, local politics, and employment with some pieces on the legal and social ramifications of unfettered tech. To read it online, check out this piece on Kelowna’s tech economy and see links to all the other articles in the package in the footer of that article.

Driving me to downsize

During my interview with Chris Walker on CBC Daybreak South yesterday, I struggled a bit to explain the single motivating spark for our downsizing mission of the past couple of years. I rambled a bit about the empowerment of gardening, but luckily did not get into the maker movement or ethical computing or other such obscure topics. All of those were certainly contributing factors but were more like minimalist tinder — the actual spark was when we joined OGO Carshare.

I have been a huge supporter of OGO since the beginning. We use it for our weekly grocery trips, for visiting my parents in Armstrong, and for running errands. It is the only vehicle we have. Here is me at the launch:

ogo carshare launch announcement

Why was this move so incendiary? Well, Kelowna has a very strong car culture, and everyone thinks you cannot make it here without a car. Furthermore, we have two kids (6 and 4, see below), and everyone thinks you cannot make it here with kids and without a car.

My kids as cute propaganda devices for Ogo Carshare.
My kids as cute propaganda devices for Ogo Carshare.

People said we couldn’t do it. In fact, I didn’t think we could do it. We decided to test it for the summer, and look into buying a car in the winter. But you know what? Winter came and we didn’t get a car. Another summer came and then another winter… nearly three years later we are still carless and happy.

The key here is by questioning one aspect about how we lived, and turning that wisdom on its head, we started questioning others. This, I think, was the spark that ignited the tinder inspiring us to fire so many of our belongings and move towards a more sustainable life.

Downsizing insight: The cost of owning a car in 2015 is estimated at $10,456 a year. Read more →


It is tiny houses all the way down…

People have been asking me about my downsizing, amazed that we would get rid of all our books, clothes and empty our living room of all the furniture. Their eyes get even bigger when I say we are looking to go from the 1000sq ft. home we are in now to something around 700. But that is nothing! It is still HUGE by comparison. Check out some of these inspiring people:

Gary Chang uses moving walls to turn his 344 sq ft. one room apartment into 24 rooms:

Alysha St.Germain moved into a tiny house (8 ft by 22ft) with her two kids

IKEA has been working on designing for small spaces. Check out this multi-function living room redesign:

From this you can see why my “small” house (by North American standards), with its two bedrooms, living room, kitchen and dining room, has hundreds of unnecessary square footage.

We moved back and forth between Canada and Japan half a dozen times in the past decade. We thought we were pretty lean in the “stuff” department already… alas! A dozen trips to goodwill last year proved me wrong. We have been downsizing our stuff in preparation for downsizing our space. We are still in the early stages of this journey.


Library of books I never read — Fired!

Closet full of clothes I never wear — Fired!

Old couch and coffee tables taking up space in the living room — Fired!

Living room — Fired!

Credit card debt — Fired!

We’ve been downsizing. Over the past couple of years we have been removing ourselves from the systems of debt and consumerism and working towards living more sustainably. This has proven to be a long process, where one must question every part of one’s life. We are not anywhere near done yet, but we have been building momentum.
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