If you saw Joshua Becker’s family on their way to school or church—mom, dad, and two kids—they’d look like a typical American family. And they mostly are. But six years ago, while cleaning their garage on a Saturday morning, a neighbor made an offhanded comment about a lifestyle called “minimalism” that would dramatically change the Beckers’ life. In 2008, the Beckers decided to embrace minimalism, which Joshua describes as “the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of anything that distracts us from it.” These weren’t idealistic untethered 19-year-olds; these were adults with kids, a mortgage, and jobs.
We asked Joshua to fill us in on how this change impacted the family, and how we might learn more about nurturing generosity in our kids.
How did your children first respond to this lifestyle?
My son was 5 and my daughter was 2, so my son knew more about what was going on at the time, and he responded very favorably. . . . We started with our stuff first, but when we got to his things, he was ready and he was on board, loading up the van to take toys to kids who didn’t have any.
What does it look like for your kids today?
My son is now 12, and he is fine if he has a soccer ball, a scooter, and his friends down the street. That is all he needs. My daughter is 8, and she is much more of a collector. She likes dolls and clothes and arts and crafts. So she brings that personality into our family—which gives me the opportunity for patience and grace. I try to remember I was a collector when I was 8 years old, and if it took me 33 years to figure this out, why should I expect her to understand everything at the age of 8? So that helps a lot.
Is there a connection between generosity and rejecting consumerism?
What I find is the removal of materialism and removal of consumerism just allow us to pursue happiness wherever we think we are going to find it. Some people start traveling the world. Some people retire early. Some people build up a huge savings account. I think all of those things are shortsighted.
I believe most people want to be generous. I don’t think I have ever talked to somebody who said, “No, I don’t want to be known as a generous person.” We all want to be generous, but we don’t even realize how the consumerist bent we have within us is the one thing keeping us from becoming what we actually want to be and what we actually want to do with our money and with our lives—which is God’s will here as it is in heaven.
How do we become more generous?
I always encourage families who are beginning the process of minimizing possessions to donate as much as they can—especially if they don’t need the money. Donating goods is always less burdensome than trying to sell them. We donated a lot of maternity and baby things to our local crisis pregnancy center and gave away most of our household items to a local refugee resettlement charity.
Have your kids caught the bug?
This is how we raised them. I am interested to know how they would have turned out if we hadn’t changed. I will say my kids have seen models for them, a lifestyle of less consumerism and more generosity. So, whether they choose to accept it into their lives or not will be up to them, but I think the groundwork has been laid for them to make that choice more easily as they get older.
Is there a room in your house that looks different than other suburban American families?
I don’t think people walk into our house and immediately think, Oh, a minimalist must live here. I think they would walk in and think, Wow, it is really clean and clutter-free in the house. After maybe two, three, or four times when visiting, they might start to notice we don’t have anything on our counters or we don’t have a lot of decorations other than pictures of our family. I think after a while they start to notice some of those things. I don’t think anyone walks in and says, “Where is your chair?” We have people over for dinner, and we have small groups that meet in our house every week. This is a place to live and do what we think God has called us to do with our lives and how he called us to serve him.
Most of the parents I know don’t want to get sucked into the Christmastime consumerism trap, but year after year it happens. Can you stimulate our imaginations about how to give to our kids?
Have a plan going into Christmas, and then stick to it. We give three gifts to our kids at Christmastime: we give them one thing they need, we give them one thing they will want, and we give them one experience. The guiding principles are quality over quantity, needs over wants, and experiences over possessions. And make gift lists whenever possible.
Is the list so they can see it and choose what’s most important?
No, the gift lists are for the grandparents—if you have gift-giving grandparents who want to give a bunch of stuff to the kids—the lists allow you to say, “These are the things we want and need.”
Can you elaborate on each of the three categories you listed?
The gift they want falls into any number of categories: doll, sports gear, video game, and so on. Our kids offer some choices, and we choose the most appropriate. The gift they need is not limited to, but usually revolves around, clothes of some sort: a new jacket, shirt, or shoes. There are plenty of options for the experience gift: zoo memberships, concert tickets, or tickets to sporting events, just to name a few. But lately, we have been buying a gift card for each of our kids to a favorite restaurant. We make sure the gift card is enough to cover the meal for everyone in the family. With it, our kids have the option of taking the entire family out for dinner on any night they choose. Our only rule is “dinner can’t be in the oven.” Other than that, they can pick any night they want to buy dinner for us.
Many parents fear they will have the saddest child on Christmas morning, but I suspect there is still joy in Christmas for these kids.
I think kids respond to the expectations we set for the day. When we talk about Christmas with our kids and are always talking about the gifts under the tree or what Santa is going to bring, then they are always going to be disappointed with what they get. How many times are kids disappointed at Christmas anyway? Like 80–90 percent. They always reach the end and wish there were more gifts.
I don’t necessarily think buying more gifts is the solution to that problem in the first place. I think it is about the expectation we set: our kids know they are going to get three gifts from us, and they have come to expect it and they know what it is going to be. They are okay with it. When they go to their grandparents’ house, they do not know how many gifts they are going to get, and they are disappointed when the gifts run out.
How can parents help their children be more generous?
It’s important to cultivate a culture of serving in your family and home. Serving and giving aren’t about showing up at service projects once a month on Saturday mornings. Serving is a way of life. It is about living in a way that notices need and injustice in our world. It’s the realization that we have the resources—financial, emotional, time—to address those needs, and we find our greatest joy by living our lives for others. This culture can only be set in a family by the adults taking the lead and teaching by example.
Margot Starbuck is a writer, speaker, TCW regular contributor, and author of several books, including her most recent, Not Who I Imagined: Surprised by a Loving God (Baker Books). Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or at MargotStarbuck.com.
Generosity vs. the Gimmes
This slideshow is only available for subscribers.
Please log in or subscribe to view the slideshow.