I was browsing some sale items on Target.com when an advertising slogan caught my eye: “Babies Need Lots of Stuff, Save Now on Big and Small Things.” It reminded of a post I read on Simple Mom a few weeks ago called “What Do Kids Really Need?” Tsh proposed that all children really NEED in life is their physical needs met (however simply), play and love. She was visiting the Philippines with Compassion International at the time and was struck by how much the children appreciate simple gifts because of how little they have, as well as how far the money provided by Compassion International child sponsors can be stretched to provide these children with the basics of living.

This is such juxtaposition to the Target slogan, and the mindset of most Americans. I can’t count the number of people who complain how expensive it is to have children. Yes, it can be. But it doesn’t always have to be. Now I could spend the rest of this post to innumerate the various ways to save money when you are having children, from cloth diapering to breastfeeding to bargain shopping. But you’ve probably heard them all before. I don’t think this is an issue of frugality but an issue of personal philosophy. What do my children need most and how can I provide it? For some people providing a child’s physical needs is as simple as pulling out a credit card or debit card and there is nothing wrong with that. For others it is about saving, slaving and bartering. The real question is, have we bought into the idea that every item that a child wants constitutes a need? (Or worse yet, any item that is advertised as a “must have.”) As a parent, a part of me wants to give my daughter anything and everything. I see adorable outfits and fascinating toys and part of me wants her to have them all. But I know that even if I had the resources to buy her all these things I probably still wouldn’t.

What’s especially poignant about that Target ad slogan is that it admits that most of the stuff we buy for our kids is simply that: stuff. In my own life, I’ve always defined stuff as items which take up space but provide little if any value. Examples: clothing that is never worn, functionless or rarely used single use items, broken or worn out items that are beyond repurposing. Having children seems to be an invitation to fill our lives with even more stuff. I think being a new parent has a way of making many of us feel unprepared and the consumer mentality of our culture preys on that fear. We are offered every possible item for every conceivable “need.” For fear of lacking the perfect item at the crucial time we fill our homes with various baby products in different colors, patterns and styles. But the truth is no matter how much stuff we buy, we will still be unprepared for the awesome responsibility of parenting. Having more stuff won’t make our children feel more loved, and having more toys won’t make their play any better. My daughter will happily play with a pair of rocks and a pine cone, in spite of the fact that our living room offers a selection of fascinating toys of various kinds.

I realize that our world has changed significantly in the last hundred years, so I don’t advocate trying to return to the way life was then, but perhaps we can glean some wisdom from bygone lifestyles. Children had fewer things and were taught to be grateful for what they had. Work was something to take pride in, not something to be avoided. A worthwhile life consisted of faith, family and hard work rather than the acquisition of things. As Tsh defines needs, most of us can provide our children with these things. Love can be given by anyone, play can be produced with simple interactions like games of peek-a-boo and tag. Physical needs are simpler than we realize: clothing appropriate to the weather, healthy food to eat in appropriate quantities, a safe place to live. I know that in many areas of the world, this is a struggle. But for most Americans providing our children’s basic physical needs is much easier than for most of the world. But for those where it isn’t, it has been my experience that an outpouring of love and attention from parents helps make up for fewer physical possessions. The reverse rarely works. No amount of new toys or clothes or trips to McDonald’s will make up for neglect or abuse. Whether they tell you so or not, children would rather be loved than have things.

So as I find myself perusing sale racks looking for good deals, it suddenly doesn’t seem to matter so much. At the end of my day my daughter may not have the most stylish clothes or the most expensive toys, but she has parents who love her, enough food to keep her healthy and a safe place to sleep and I’m very grateful to be able to provide those things to her. Stuff is optional.