6 Steps to Minimalist Parenting

by Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest

6 Steps to Minimalist Parenting

Could you enjoy family life more by doing less? An exerpt from the new book Minimalist Parenting challenges parents to cut through the clutter of more, and edit your activities and belongings down to the stuff that's truly important.

The first step toward Minimalist Parenting is to embrace a new mind-set that challenges the modern parenting prescription of more. As you reframe your unique constraints and assumptions, you'll begin to understand how your life, once minimalized, can take on a shape you envision and create. What follows are the attitude shifts and perspective changes that will help you pull it off. 

Make Room for Remarkable

If we're talking about compass points, this one is true north. When you get rid of the stuff you don't love, there's more room for the stuff you do love. A simple statement on the face of it, but incredibly powerful when applied to your life. 

A million things want your attention. The birthday gifts that need buying, the plans that need making, the after-school programs that need arranging, just to name a few. One of the benefits of modern parenting is the sheer amount of choice available in just about every aspect of family life.

But the more choices, decisions, and stuff you must wade through, the more remote your remarkable life becomes. Have you ever spent fifteen minutes at the drugstore staring at the array of cold medicines, wondering which will best help your feverish, bedridden kid? Which is the right one? Fifteen minutes may not sound like much, but when you add up all the time and attention lost managing the barrage of choices thrown at you each day, each month…it adds up fast. More than that, the mental clutter that results casts a shadow over everything.

As one who tends toward over-research, it has taken me a long time to let go of my need to investigate everything. I've learned to shorten my search for the best answer and to just go with what's most likely to do the job. The time and mental space I've freed up feels like oxygen for my brain.

Minimalist Parenting is about editing. Your time and attention are too precious to be nibbled away by everything that would thoughtlessly take a bite. You're panning for gold, swirling your life around to reveal the gleaming nuggets and letting the silt and debris wash away. When you edit out the unnecessary–whether these are physical items, activities, expectations, or maybe even a few people–you make room for remarkable.

The goal is actually quite simple: keep or add the stuff that increases the joy, meaning, and connection in your life, and reduce or get rid of the stuff that doesn't.

It's not exactly revolutionary to suggest that reducing clutter in one's life increases one's happiness. But unlike decluttering your house, decluttering your life can be a lot murkier. How do you know which things to keep and which to toss?

1. Know Yourself

When we encourage you to focus on joy, we're not talking about a flash of momentary happiness. We're talking about living in alignment with your deeply held values. When you make decisions based on your values (as opposed to what all the external voices in your life are telling you to do), something inside goes zing. Not always immediately, and not always obviously, but it zings nonetheless.

Therefore, to figure out how to edit your life, you must first identify your unique set of values. Values is a lofty word–begging for Capitalization Due To Importance–but in reality your values are probably pretty humble and approachable. Simply stated: your values are the things you believe, deep down.

Some of your values come straight from your upbringing (for better or worse). We all come from somewhere, and accepting that a big chunk of ourselves is bound up in our family culture is an important part of becoming a grown-up. For example, perhaps you-like us-have frugal tendencies instilled in you by the cultures of your parents. Or perhaps your glamorous mother passed on her exquisite taste in fashion and design. Or maybe you grew up playing in the woods, so you consider time outdoors to be a priority for your kids.

Other values may be in direct opposition to those of your family of origin. If yours was a cold, formal household, you may consider emotional warmth and laughter to be cornerstones of your parenting. If your parents withheld treats, you may believe in your kids' right to a bucket full of Halloween candy.

The good news is you can cherry-pick the best of what you grew up with. (It may take some therapy to get there, but you can do it.) Take some time to zero in on your unique values. Everyone's values are different so there are no wrong answers. No one will judge you on saintliness or profundity. Ask yourself:

  • What am I grateful my parents taught me?
  • What do I want to do differently from my parents?
  • What do I want my family to represent?
  • What do I care about? (If it's easier to use the process of elimination, then ask, What don't I care about?)
  • What do I want my kids to take with them as they go out into the world?
  • What roles do I want to play as a spouse/partner, professional, and/or part of whatever village or community I've created for my family?

Zeroing in on your values is an ongoing process, so don't worry if your answers feel incomplete. Keep a notebook handy and scribble down relevant insights as they pop up. The most important thing you can do now is begin the excavation process. As you reveal the edges of your values, keep chiseling away and the bigger picture will emerge over time. 

2. Know Your Family

While you're considering your values, it's important to recognize that your family members come with their own unique blueprints and a spirit and a constitution that may be different from yours. What if you and your partner crave adventure and excitement, but your kid is a homebody? You may feel at home surrounded by your books, but your partner is constantly trying to get you to go to social events. One kid may happily accompany you on errands while the other requires more control over his daily routine. (That's the one screaming in the airplane seat behind you.)

I wouldn't call my husband, Rael, and I opposites, because we hold so many basic values in common. But our day-to-day styles–how we operate in our daily lives–are very different. I'm fundamentally social, preferring to do things in a group or a community. He draws energy from quiet time at home and alone. I'm an intuitive decision maker who resists holding myself to a tight structure, which means my homemaking skills are…still emerging. He finds peace in routine and proceeds through his day systematically (and his office is spotless).

We've had to work on accepting each other's innate styles and on finding common ground so that we could create a unified family culture and consistently parent our kids. At the same time, we try to acknowledge each other's individual strengths and quirks…they attracted us to each other in the first place. It's a long-term process we revisit constantly as circumstances, goals, kids (and we) change. Consider the following questions about each person in your family:

  • If I were to describe my partner/kid using a single word, what would it be?
  • In what ways are we similar?
  • In what ways are we really, really different?
  • My partner/kid is happiest when s/he is __________.
  • What activities does s/he most enjoy?

We're not suggesting you throw your dreams in the trash because of differences in family temperament. The key is to navigate toward a life that allows family members space and permission to be themselves while providing opportunities to stretch and learn something new. After all, even homebodies (especially homebodies, perhaps) need encouragement and opportunity to step over the threshold into the big, exciting world.

You're bound to run into roadblocks, especially in families with several different temperaments. Remember, too, you're still getting to know your kids, especially if they're young. Plus, they're constantly changing and so are youÑso even your best answers are educated guesses and may be completely off base six months from now. That's okay. Just note your discoveries (the notebook!) and keep them in mind as you proceed.

3. Trust Your Decisions

You're getting in touch with what makes you and your family members tick…go you! You're driving the bus, and now it's time to give that internal voice of yours–the one that quietly knows way–the steering wheel.

Meet your inner bus driver. Your inner bus driver is your gut feeling, your internal sense of what's right and wrong. We each have an inner bus driver, but we don't always listen to or trust her. Sometimes we're so distracted by the noise and pressure around us, we can't even hear our inner bus drivers. 

No longer. Your inner bus driver knows which way to go. All you need to do is listen. What (or whom) might you want to steer around? All the voices that keep telling you your opinions don't count. Parenting experts, lifestyle gurus, and marketers. Well-meaning relatives. Glossy magazine spreads. Outdated messages from your childhood. Your insecurities about the seemingly put together parents of your kids' friends. The narrow definitions of right inherent in the culture of modern parenting.

It's also time to embrace the role you and your partner play as leaders of your family. Today's parenting culture leans heavily toward recognizing each child's individuality and adjusting accordingly. In our hearts we believe this is a good thing, but parents must lead the way, guiding behavior and setting limits in the process.

So plunge a flag into the ground, stand tall, and claim this life as yours! It's not always easy to trust yourself when you feel utterly bewildered and the external voices sound so sure of themselves. It's even harder to resist comparing yourself to other parents who seem to have it all figured out, especially when your kid is screaming in the middle of the cereal aisle. But you know yourself and your kids even if it doesn't always feel like it, and it's your life to live. You owe it to yourself and your family to give your inner bus driver as much authority as the cacophony of voices around you. That bus driver knows more than you think.

4. Optimize Your Information Comfort Zone

We all have different ways we process options and make decisions. As you learn to trust your inner bus driver, identify your information comfort zone–the way you prefer to absorb and act on information–and tweak it to free up time and mental clarity and to reduce the mind-sucking tendency to dither. The following are some common decision-making styles and strategies for minimalizing each.

You Engage in Extensive Research
When faced with a decision or purchase, do you research every option available even though you can identify one or two promising choices pretty quickly? (Warning: former Type-A confession ahead.) When I was deciding on baby gear for my first child, Laurel, I wanted to find the absolute best (read: perfect) option for each purchase. For example, when it was time to buy a crib, I read Consumer Reports reviews, visited local stores to peruse the options and poll the staff for their opinions, scoured multiple reviews online, and read baby gear review blogs. I tracked my findings in a spreadsheet and did a thorough analysis of pros and cons before making a decision. Despite my exhaustive research, with each purchase, I was continually nagged by the fact that there was always at least one thing that wasn't perfect.

The crux of the scenario lies in the last sentence: there was always at least one thing that wasn't perfect. If you're a researcher, you'll save a lot of time and energy by stopping the search at, say, three items with positive reviews from reliable sources. It's natural to want only the best for your child–simply broaden your definition from a binary best/not best choice to one of several good options.

Another approach is to simply choose the shopping method that's most fun and stick to whatever choices are available. Voltaire hit the nail on the head: Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

You Defer to Professional Authority
No one wants to be that parent who speed dials the pediatrician at the first sign of a cold. But no matter how much advice one gets from books, the Internet, or friends, some people just feel more comfortable talking to the doctor.

If that describes you, there's no need to feel sheepish or ashamed. One of the keys of Minimalist Parenting is to know yourself, which means starting at your own baseline without judgment. We'll always encourage you to have faith in your inner bus driver, but if it helps speed a decision, save yourself the stress and consult with an expert sooner rather than later. It's not a sign of defeat if you don't know what's going on or if you feel better making decisions as part of a team. Just remember: you hold the steering wheel. You're driving the bus.

You Feel Most Comfortable Following the Crowd
We've heard more than one parent compare the decision-making process around purchases and activities to high school. Peer pressure and insecurity often come into play, even when it's unintentional. If you're feeling unsure about your choices, it's natural to look around you to see what everyone else is doing. The problem is that everyone else isn't living your life or raising your kid. 

Talk to friends about how they're handling various parenting choices and challenges, but then pause, check in with your inner bus driver, then make the decision that feels right for your family based on your values and your family's collective temperament.

5. Course Correction Beats Perfection

With the stakes so high (these are your children we're talking about), there's never been more pressure to be sure you're making the right choices. About everything. What if you make the wrong choice? Will you doom your kid to a life of mediocrity, or, at the very least, years of therapy?

First, we'd like to suggest that if you're reading this book in the first place you've already built a foundation based on good choices. You're loving and conscientious and are doing the best you can for your kid. Your child has the enormous gifts of love, education, and basic needs covered. Certainly, not every day is perfect, but the best intentions are there–which go a long way toward helping the pieces fall into place, even when you can't predict or control each one.

Second, not only does each decision you make lead to an array of possible outcomes–all of which add experience and color to your life–most of the time, you get do-overs. You don't need to worry about being right every time because you can change course. And who knows? As you recalculate the route to your destination, you may happen across an even more amazing adventure.

It's important to acknowledge that, as we make choices, there are bound to be hard times and disappointments. Some will be the result of our choices, and others will be beyond our control. Our natural tendency as parents is to want to protect our kids from pain at all costs, but the truth is that each difficult experience has a lesson to teach, possibly even a gift to impart.

It's not wishy-washy to adjust your parenting approach as you and your kids grow. It shows that you're open to the bigness of the world and the changing needs of your family. You're humble and brave enough to learn as you go.

As you reduce the total number of decisions and choices in your life, try to dial down the intensity on the ones that remain. Each time you're faced with a choice, briefly investigate your options, check in with your inner bus driver to figure out which option feels most right (few options are all right), then go for it. You can always make adjustments as your ideas, kids, and circumstances change.

6. We're in This Together

Many parents labor under the illusion that more equals safer when it comes to their kids' future security. With all the pressure to give our kids a leg up on a successful adulthood, it's easy to lose sight of the important fact that we're all on the same team.

Part of the modern tendency toward overparenting seems to be driven by a fear of scarcity, whether it relates to material goods or spots at day care or enrollment in the best school. We don't buy it. We believe there's enough to go around. Sure, there's only one valedictorian and one first-chair violin. But the idea that your child's future success hinges on such a detail is an illusion.

We love our children so desperately that it's too frightening to accept that their futures are, in part, a result of circumstance. Their best chance for a happy adulthood lies in discovering and nurturing their strengths, cultivating flexibility in the face of obstacles, and developing the tools to forge lasting relationships. Following a minimalized, less cluttered path is the most direct route there.

You can choose to do less. You can choose to be present. And that's incredibly exciting. You can make things happen now. With your newly minimalized mind-set in place, you're ready to minimalize the rest of your life!

Excerpted with permission from MINIMALIST PARENTING: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less by Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest (Bibliomotion, March 2013).


Christine Koh, mother of two young daughters, is a music and brain scientist turned writer, editor, designer and consultant. Christine is the founder and editor of Boston Mamas and writes the column Minimalist Mama. Asha Dornfest, mother of two, is the fonder and editor of Parent Hacks. She also writes The Accidental Expert at, and was one of the original panelists in the popular video series Momversation.