Possession #1


The story of the Jamestown colony in Virginia goes like this, as far as I can remember from law school. The first settlers wanted to build a Utopia where all property was held in common. They set up one big farm that they all worked together, and planned to share the harvest out between everybody. Or rather, the free folks hoped their indentured servants would do all the work for them, but they didn’t.

The first year, they nearly starved. When sharing property in a group, it’s all too easy to assume other people will do your share. When a new governor divided the land into plots for each household, and a person’s own pantry was affected by how hard they weeded and hoed, Jamestown became a thriving community.

And so goes a classic defence of private property.

Russia and China haven’t made communism a very attractive system, but the West isn’t a brilliant advertisement for consumeristic capitalism either. We all have Too Much Stuff. We don’t look after it. We are selfish with it. We take it for granted. We think stuff will make us happy.

What I’m getting round to saying is that I’m torn about how to interact with SBJ as he grows, when it comes to property.

My mother delights in telling the story of the first time playgroup was held at our house when I was a toddler. I spent the entire morning retrieving my toys, one by one, from each of the other kids.

I wondered briefly, while pregnant, whether we could abolish personal ownership in the family – it’s not SBJ’s teddy or bike, it’s the family’s. A bit like in a convent… But that’s not only fallacious (does he have his own underpants, or are they ‘ours’?), it’s naively avoiding the issue. He lives in a world of private property and needs to get lots of practice in being generous and responsible. So I guess I’ll have to grit my teeth and call it a teachable moment when I first see him snatch, or hear the dreaded exclamation: ‘That’s MINE!’


Obviously, our best hope is to get over this consumeristic obsession with stuff ourselves, and model a different way of interacting with resources and possessions. But one thing I noticed as a pastor is that you think that your tacit behaviour is more self-explanatory than it actually is. You can’t always rely on silent modelling (sounds like a challenge on Top Model…).

So I’ve been collecting ideas from other people about what kind of overt family practices we can build to reign in the stuff and encourage gratitude. Here are some things I’m wondering about trying:

  • One in, one out. Whenever we acquire a new possession – I guess especially toys and discretionary things? – we give one away.
  • Go through possessions in December and find nice things to donate and give as Christmas presents – not just junk we’re throwing out.
  • Or the other way around: start with people we know who have needs and thoughtfully give away stuff that will make a difference to them.
  • I loved Running On Empty, a River Phoenix movie from the 1990s. The family in it had a rule for birthday presents: they had to be found or made, not bought.
  • Secondhand sites like Trade Me, EBay and Freecycle might be good techy outlets as kids start getting into being online.
  • Use the Toy Library and the other kind. Though the thought of keeping track of every game and puzzle piece borrowed from the library fills me with dread. Good thing I have Pinterest to help me be a domestic goddess!
  • Develop some mad skillz at fixing stuff. I possess none of these at all at this moment. Perhaps SBJ and I can learn to sew at the same time.
  • Taking photos of things to liberate us from having to keep things we don’t need or use or love, or keep every piece of potential nostalgia, like kindy artwork.


I’m really keen to hear your ideas on this stuff. What do you observe in kids and families, and what are some good ideas you know of or practice? Parenthood in this case is just an excuse to be far more intentional about disentangling ourselves from consumerism. Help me out!

There are strands here of sustainability, simple living, stewardship of the earth, a la Genesis 1, slow parenting, domestic goddesshood, whole food living and general subversion of cultural norms. I’m keen for the moment to just stick to the issue of our relationship to possessing things – or we’ll be here all year!

If this stuff interests you, do check out the amazing animation, The Story of Stuff. It might change your life! I’d love to hear your comments.

[The top image is Jamestown Fort in Virginia (U.S.), c. 1608 (Credit: MPI/Hulton Archive/Getty Images); the second is from The Story of Stuff.]

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25 comments on “Possession #1”

  1. Judith Knight Reply

    I like your thoughts on this, but it also sounds like you’re struggling to find a way forward that you are totally happy with as yet? I wonder if you have already pinned down what your values are as a family, and then you could base your actions/behaviours on those, and test ideas against the values, instead of thinking of things you could do and then see if they fit? (Does that make sense?).

    So, for instance, you may have a value of *helping* those in need – so then you think about how best you can do that – with stuff, money or time (usually), also making food for others :-). In terms of possessions – children just learn that ‘that is mine’ one way or another – it seems to be fairly inbuilt! So, then you start to think about having a value that is about sharing and taking turns – about *fairness*. You might have another value that is about *generosity* – so I’m looking at pocket money with my 4 year old now (just starting school) and thinking about a suggestion a friend had to invite him to divide up his pocket money into three piles: save, give away and spend – and leave it up to him how to divide it. Equally generosity and wanting to give people really nice, special presents might not necessarily gel with a value of ‘mend and make do’?! So one might have to come out higher up in the value chain.

    I find it so helpful to have thought about my own values, and our family values – it helps you see where you differ from your other half, and it helps to think about the fit of our behaviours as a family. One that we don’t quite have, but which I’d like to adopt from one of the pastors of our church is ‘people over things’, ie people matter more than things (especially TV, video games etc) – so you need to give them your due attention and respect. But now I digress…! I hope that helps, and if you want any more random thoughts on values, I have a handout that I wrote and have used to teach on family values and help people think their values through. πŸ™‚

    My last thought was that almost 2 years ago when I went to Kenya, I found it so hard to think about Christmas on my return – and that year I did very few Christmas presents and explained to people why. Last year I had got over my reverse culture shock more or less, but decided that the vast majority of people that we knew really didn’t ‘need’ anything at all, so I made their prezzies – fudge, biscuits, flavoured oil, felt flower brooches/hair bands (can be glued or sewn! πŸ˜‰ – they were mostly things which could simply be appreciated and (ironically?) consumed, without occupying more space in people’s already overcrowded homes. I really like things like World Vision or Oxfam gifts, where the gifts go to those who really need them, but I’m not always convinced that the recipients have been equally happy, particularly family! Love Jx

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Thanks for all those well-considered thoughts, Judith!

      I think we’re pretty clear on our values, just thinking now about how to transmit them. I like your ‘people over things’ example – it’s one thing to have that kind of value, it’s another to have a phrase that you use all the time in the family when making decisions, referring each other to the common values, out loud. I think articulating things is really helpful to cement the value in.

      Lots of great, helpful examples, thank you!

    • Tim Bulkeley Reply

      Judith: Your comment, “Equally generosity and wanting to give people really nice, special presents might not necessarily gel with a value of β€˜mend and make do’?! ” I think gets an answer lower down where you wrote about making presents… What matters most to a receiver should not be the money cost, but the real cost, and how well the present “fits” them.

  2. Tim Bulkeley Reply

    One of the keys is being thankful (meeting people with a lot less helps that) another is sharing (meeting people with a lot less helps with that).

    I can’t see the one in one out idea working or helping, it’s apples and 10mm countersunk screws (not apples and oranges). Besides if generosity and thankfulness are keys the sheer number of things is not the issue anyway…

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Yes, agreed, on the thankfulness point. Have you had particular family thankfulness practices (on top of the relationships and experiences)?

      I think the one-in-one-out idea is attractive when thinking about the culture of ‘enough’ that we have trouble with in the West. If, on 24 December, my kids possess ‘enough’ toys, then an overt practice of clearing some out before Christmas (for example) gives us an opportunity to talk about the idea of having ‘enough’ and not endlessly needing and acquiring more stuff through life. I think it’s a symbolic thing as much as a practical one. I’ll let you know if we try it!

      • Tim Bulkeley Reply

        Do πŸ™‚ Though I suspect it in itself could become merely a new for old consumerism, I think repairing, reusing and renovating are better approaches than “getting rid”. They are also much more counter-cultural as well. Our culture says, there’s a new X out, it’s smaller and better than your old X, get rid of the old one and buy (or get given) a new one…

        • not a wild hera Reply

          Yes, point taken, and as a practice, it’s only one that supports all the other more substantial ones (like reusing, repairing etc).

          I guess I’m a bit terrified of the mountain of toys kiwi kids tend to accumulate (often without their parents ever buying a thing), and so I find this attractive for that reason too! But I definitely don’t want to foster the ‘upgrade’ mentality you’re describing. Will keep thinking!

          And I think it’ll be really important to be open with the whanau about what categories of gifts would be most useful when they want to give SBJ something. So far he’s mostly been given clothes and books, which is fab, and very much appreciated!

          Also, living out of suitcases has been very good for us as we figure this stuff out.

  3. Tim Bulkeley Reply

    On thankfulness: I think practicing it oneself is the most important kids learn more from what we do. One “practice” B had was to ask: “What did you like best?” after significant events, visits etc. that helps focus on things to be thankful for, but it used to annoy some of the kids…

  4. Alex Reply

    Gosh, this one made me cringe as I read it! It made me think with horror of my two running round your house last month declaring ownership of various items and squabbling over them… I like to think Judith is right and this is part of an in-built instinct, and not an indictment of my parenting! πŸ™‚ I also know from observing them that they are (believe it or not) getting better at sharing, particularly with each other, but also with other children as they grow.

    I know we have too much stuff for them (and us!) in our house. A lot of their toys is stuff I probably wouldn’t have chosen for myself, but I’m starting to realise that I can’t dictate to the n-th degree what people buy my children. And actually, I wouldn’t want to – some of M’s best (meaning most fun and educational) toys have been things I didn’t even know existed. It’s nice that people want to give my children things. And it’s nice that my children get excited about receiving things. So long as that doesn’t become the only thing that matters to them about birthdays and Christmas, then I think they’ll be ok. When asked what his favourite thing about his birthday was, M replied it was having his friends at his party and that they all had (very cheap, cardboard) birthday hats to wear. I hadn’t predicted that response, but it’ll do me fine. I don’t imagine he’ll always reply in that manner, but I can hope.

    In terms of practical things we do, we try to encourage M to sit and play with or look at or otherwise appreciate each gift as he opens it, rather than just tearing through the pile. As he learns to write, we will get him to help write his thank you letters. And we did do a sort out before birthday season kicked in and donated some of the toys he has enjoyed playing with to a local nursery so they can use them now. (I have to confess, though, that most of the sorting out of toys etc is done by me at the moment – I will involve both M and his sister as they get older, but I’m not sure even M really understands at the moment.) We are trying to encourage them to take care of their things, but that’s a long battle with a daughter who seems to enjoy tearing pages in books at the moment…

    Sorry: this isn’t particularly well thought out or insightful stuff. I think your other commenters have answered your questions better. All I would add is that I think the story your mum tells is instructive – you clearly went through the usual toddler phase of ownership and it hasn’t prevented you from growing into a thoughtful, caring generous person, so there’s hope for my children yet!

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Alex, your children are DELIGHTFUL! Don’t you dare cringe!

      Good thoughts about birthday presents, thank you. And yes, I think most of what we’re all talking about will kick in much later on when kids are more aware of things.

      • Alex Reply

        πŸ˜‰ Thank you. Your sister makes a very good point below, which I shall try to hang onto (rather than cringing!)

        It also made me think that – to a degree – there is no harm in children learning which things are “theirs” and which belong to other people. I expect my two to grow up pretty much sharing their toys – and they seem to be settling into that by default, at the moment – but there is still space for a prize possession or two. I think it’s ok for some “things” to matter and be important. When M went to nursery, apparently he cottoned on very quickly to which toys held particular significance for other children, and would redistribute accordingly when others were crying and needed something to hug. Equally, his little sister learnt very quickly that M’s bear is his and his only, and almost never picks it up unless to pass it back to M. Personally, I like that.

        • not a wild hera Reply

          Yes, I think I’m with you on that.

          In one of the Little House books there’s a scene where a visiting baby takes a shine to Laura’s beloved (and only) doll and tries to take it home with her. When Laura protests, Ma tells her off for being selfish and gives the doll away to the visitor. It’s horrifying! Ma later apologises when she realises it was a bigger deal than she’d thought (she thought Laura would have outgrown it), and the visitor drops it on the ground on the way out so it’s found later on – phew!

          I don’t feel like going that far! It certainly seems to be normal human behaviour to treasure objects, and there must be a place for that, if we can catch the pendulum swing back a bit.

          And yes, isn’t Lydie wise!

  5. Lydia Reply

    Lots of thoughts on this but I’ll leave just one. The “mine!” stage could be seen as the wonderful stage in SBJ’s development where he realises he is his own little person, that he has a will, and he learns to exercise it. I don’t think it’s something to try to avoid or mitigate, but it’s how he will gradually learn to feel his feet on the ground, know, and be himself. Don’t discourage that!

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Excellent, thanks, Lyd. A very good reminder – I think I’ve even said that to other parents but hadn’t remembered it in my own worries! Keep up the good advice πŸ™‚

  6. Rochelle Reply

    We certainly find this a challenge – especially as until recently ours have been the only grandchildren on both sides. We’re also faced with children at different toy stages… have yet to resolve this, especially as big girl is quite a hoarder, so read this with interest πŸ˜‰

  7. Frank Reply

    We were just talking about this the other day! People have had good ideas so far.
    I was thinking of doing a kind of toy library with friends if you wanted to join – I don’t find the library here has the kind of toys I want for Lachie, and I’ve lost things already!
    The other things we do are: only have a few toys out at a time, and regularly donate toys to others. For his birthday, I asked for no presents, but donations for refugee services. This way people still felt like they were giving something! We did get some presents, and that was great, because those people had really thought about them, rather than getting the – crap it’s his birthday today what shall we buy kind of presents.
    We did think last night that the 1 for 1 deal might make them hate birthdays, knowing they’ll need to get rid of stuff.

    • Frank Reply

      Another thing I’d like to do is ask for experience presents – eg trip to the zoo or something.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      The friends’ toy library sounds great. We’ve found, living the transient life this year, that SBJ gets new toys everywhere we go, just by visiting different people, and we don’t have to OWN any of them! Just swapping something cool each week with whoever you’re having coffee with would keep up the interest, wouldn’t it.

  8. Angela Reply

    All very interesting T. While far from my current focus on surviving, it’s something to think over more one day. Yes I like what Lydia said, and yes, perhaps he will only learn to share his stuff after he has learnt that it belongs to him. This question (like so many others you are likely to raise here!) is about how to manage in a less than ideal workd, where the norm that happens around is so different to what we would like to see. So unless you raise your children in, I don’t know… some kind of hippy-commune surrounded only by those who do things exactly like you… compromises have to be made, or at least a lot more thought has to go in to it.

    The thoughts I have had on this topic prior to reading your post are, 1. I encourage family members to pool their money for birthdays/Christmas and buy a larger item that is going to be really useful – an item that I have suggested. 2. A regular look through toy baskets etc to decide what is no longer needed and pass them on is a good idea. Perhaps an alternative to the one-in, one-out idea, though I have no problem with that as long as it’s not all about upgrading, which of course it woldn’t be for you, as discussed at length above! Perhaps if toys no longer fit in to the designated space, then some have gotta go. 3. I am terrified by birthday parties and all the gifts that come with them. So far we have only had family parties, but the time will come when other kids join us. I would like to say ‘no presents’ but people ignore that + I don’t want to make my kids feel bad/different etc. I would love it if all the people coming put in $2 each and bought one present between them. But how to persuade all those around you to do the same thing…? Changing the world is *so* hard. *Sigh.*

    • not a wild hera Reply

      So many good thoughts, A!

      For Baby Gareth’s first birthday, J and J’s invitations suggested three ideas for a present: a kiss, a high five, the name of a book to get from the library with his new library card. I thought that was a great way of saying ‘no presents’ in a way that might be respected!

  9. Georgie Reply

    I just passed on all the too-small clothing from my daughters that we were keeping just-in-case to other little people. I feel liberated!

    We haven’t bought a lot of toys, but have been given more than enough. It is hard to purge when they keep being re-used in new and creative ways after a period of being ignored.

    The thing I have most trouble with is the “treasure” (aka junk – bits of ribbon, scraps of paper, even the odd rock or stick or cone) and crafty stuff that my girls are so attatched to. I periodically purge some when no-one is looking but invariably some discarded item will be requested some weeks or months down the line, to which I reply with a vague “I haven’t seen that for a while, maybe we need to tidy your room . . .” I’d love to have less stuff and a tidier house, but for now I’m telling myself that I’m providing a rich learning environment for my children and encouraging their creativity πŸ™‚

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