As I write this from the playground on a glorious fall day, it’s easy to remember why this advice, received from many sources, is so important. Yet a week ago, in the midst of overwhelm and sleep deprivation, even these simple tasks seemed insurmountable.
Most of us have heard that the “basics” of caring for children are to make sure they are clean, fed, and loved. These simple imperatives can take many forms depending on your family, and normally there are a couple to add based on your priorities and family culture.
Over the last four and a half years, we’ve come to know what works for our family in this stage of having young children. While our priorities certainly won’t match with everyone’s, I think it’s extremely helpful for every family to define their essentials so they have simple solutions to return to in times of difficulty or emphasize at any time to deepen love and connection. With that in mind, I thought I’d share what our family’s “basics” look like.
One of the most bizarre-sounding, yet astoundingly true things I have read is that it’s easier to love a clean baby. I wholeheartedly agree. To the point that when we’re having a grumpy day I’ll often push bathtime up a few hours. There is simply nothing better than a warm, clean baby fresh out of the tub. They seem to feel it too. It’s a physical reset that often resets our moods as well.
A clean home.
Clean for us also means keeping a tidy home. I’ve written a lot about our pursuit of minimalism and its roots in eliminating overwhelm in our young family. When Molly was young, we noticed that when she had a stretch of difficult nights of sleep, straightening her room would normally return her to a peaceful bedtime.
Recently, integrating a nightly whole-family cleanup has greatly reduced our stress of needing to stay on top of every mess during the day. It has also instilled a sense of responsibility and awareness in the girls of participating in caring for our home. We end the night peacefully with Jeff and I free to have a relaxing evening, and we begin each morning on a fresh note.
I’ll be the first to admit that this essential takes many forms for us, especially when we’re traveling. The most basic level is making sure everyone is given opportunities to eat enough during the day.
Beyond that, we find that we all eat better at home. This even includes eating take out instead of at a restaurant. We are able to connect more completely in the comfort and quiet of our home and take our time eating and talking.
Finally, nothing nourishes us better than a homecooked meal, especially if we all have a hand in preparing it. Whether it’s spinning lettuce for a salad to accompany a simple 15 minute soup or cracking eggs for breakfast for dinner, being able to participate in making their food makes the girls much more likely to eat and enjoy it.
It’s no surprise to anyone who’s heard me raving about infant sleep training that this is high on our priority list. I don’t exaggerate when I say that sleep training Molly at eight months saved my sanity in motherhood. It also allowed us to joyfully welcome Emma 10 months later instead of dreading more overwhelm and exhaustion.
Frequent jet lag, sleeping away from home, and changing, growing children make this a near-constant challenge for us. We are grateful that we made teaching good sleep a priority early on for both girls and that we have the education and resources necessary to handle these challenges.
We understand the importance of good sleep for all of us, and we refuse to let bad patterns become permanent.
There are few things that we believe contribute more to our children’s growth and well-being than reading together. We have always had set daily reading times that we heavily supplement when asked.
As minimalists, there are also few areas where we intentionally add more to our lives. Children’s literature is by far the most significant. From childhood favorites like the Chronicles of Narnia, Beatrix Potter, and Mother Goose to Shel Silverstein’s powerful and engaging literature and poetry. From modern classics like Harry Potter to ancient myths and fairy tales tied to the places we travel. From tales of artists and museums to chronicles of great scientists, mathematicians, explorers, naturalists and astronauts. Reading and sharing these stories is one of our favorite ways to share the beauty of the world with our children.
One of the things I appreciate most from my own childhood was the enormous amount of time my siblings and I spent outside, largely unmonitored and unplanned. Some of my happiest memories are collecting caterpillars and acorns and grinding old bricks into powder to make pretend spices.
With our own children, we’ve found that getting outside is not only essential for our sanity but helps us all thrive. Imaginations run wild, independence is strengthened, and they learn to play peacefully together with no intervention from us. They are free to be loud, to run, jump, yell, and roll around on the ground in fits of laughter. There is nowhere they play better.
This also takes many forms for us. It ranges from something as simple as taking a crying infant outside for a change of scenery that resets their senses to circumventing the globe as a family.
Our goal is to intentionally promote and encourage all of us to make time for adventure. To push us outside of our comfort zones often to promote growth. To instill a sense of awe and wonder for the world rather than a fear of the unknown.
For us, prayer is essential to slowing down, re-engaging, and recapturing our focus. There are times of the year when we have a set routine like lighting the wreath and hanging Jesse tree ornaments during Advent or daily mass during Lent. There are also times of the year when the routine looks like simple bedtime prayers, a Bible or Saint story to end the day, or a recitation of the rosary played in the background during breakfast or on a long drive.
The wonderful thing about focusing on the basics is not that every single one of them is accomplished well or even at all every day or week. Instead, when we begin to feel ourselves slipping into bad routines or tense relationships, we can return to this list to see what areas have been lacking.
Adding more outdoor time and an early bedtime after a day or week of errands or appointments almost always puts us back in balance. After a trip or several nights of eating out, something as simple as making grilled cheese together for dinner can ease our stress.
Knowing that we thrive best when we prioritize these basics for our family also eliminates the stress of not doing enough as parents. Rather than searching for something new to add to our routine every time we’re faced with a new challenge, we focus on the same few things over and over and try to eliminate anything that doesn’t support them.