Minimalism with Children: Thoughts

We are a family living in an urban setting and we enjoy living where we are. We shop our share at big-box shops, drive daily to school. We watch cartoons. We love plastics. We own and consume our share of things to make our life possible. No, we don't dream of selling our possessions so we can travel the world.

Let's also be clear that I am not a perfect mom. On occasion, I have been known to: babysit or pacify the Tod with iPad, iPhone, toys, fed him junk food, let him cry-it-out, watch him fall from a place that is much higher than his height, cut his fingernails too short that it bleed, knock him to the ground while swinging the door open, do other horrendous things which resulted in the mommy guilt that keeps me awake at night.

In our household, minimalism is about living mindfully in the world that is not perfect, how we attempt to raise a child while we, ourselves, as parents are still struggling and finding our way to achieve the ideals that we have in mind. Growing up is a lifelong journey. And raising children by imperfect parents actually build resilience and character -- Of course, I am not talking about extreme case of parenting or abusive behavior toward children. Human being is extremely resilient. Just think of yourself and your own upbringing, most would say, "I turned out just fine. I turned out more than just fine because now I am a contributing member of the society despite my parents being x, y, z."

I hope my message to fellow parents come across as real -- life with children is often not-Instagram-able. You are tired, dinner is not made, children are not bathed, melt-downs are the norm at the end of the day. My posts in this series are the low-hanging fruits for anyone who would like to live more mindfully with children. Do small things often, as John Gottman would say.

These are my thoughts about minimalism with children. I am by no means an expert -- resources are included below. (I use the term parents and caregivers interchangeably because I realize some children spend the majority of their time with caregivers who are not necessarily their parents).

  • Minimalism and children are inherently compatible because what children need the most is attention and presence from their parents. The most useful parenting advice I've learned to this day is to place the relationship and connection with my child as the first priority. Everything else will fall into place when I follow this advice.
  • Activities and experiences can clutter true connection with children. Just like things, activities can be used as proxy of parents' attention or lack thereof. After-school activities can be taxing and cluttering to the family's dynamic and schedule. And how many of us are familiar with this picture: we go to the playground and witness caregivers siting on the perimeter, waiting and using their hand-held devices instead of actively making connections with each other? (But playground time is my break time! More about "taking a break" for parents and caregivers, below).
    Choosing activities mindfully is as important as limiting tangible things that clutter children space. I remember as a child craving a true moment of connection; a time when an adult listened to me, or just be there for me without any agenda or advice. 
  • Children are more capable than we think -- it is often not our job to entertain them. Children are, by nature, keen observers and curious experimenters. With limits and boundaries in place, children can and will entertain themselves. For example, when a safe play place is set up, babies can play on their own without much interference, eliminating the need for things to entertain them. I learned this valuable lesson from RIE teaching -- lots of parenting blogs are written with RIE philosophy that parents can ideas on how to accomplish this independent play time in different age range. 
  • Parent's own perceptions and attitude about material things matters. Just think for a second: when stuffs or gifts always present during "happy" times such as birthdays or celebrations, children will soon correlate the two together. Ditto with activities or experiences. We all grew up with less-than-perfect parent/s, but parenting a child can turn into a process of re-defining our attitude toward life and healing ourselves.
    Indeed, parenting, just like any other role we assume in our lifetime, can be an avenue for spiritual practice and personal development. One resource I use often is the book Parenting from the Inside Out by Dan Siegel (in fact, any book by Dan Siegel is my favorite). Another resource is online course Parenting as Spiritual Practice by Miriam Mason Martineau or similar (I will talk more about parenting resources in upcoming post).
  • Just like a baby can't skip rolling over before walking, in order to fully understand the cost of ownership, children need to experience ownership. Is it more important to own less things or to pass the lessons of healthy ownership of things? Lessons are often learned when mistakes are made. I prefer to have clutter than to declutter at the expense of valuable lessons of sharing, caring for things, etc. On the other hand, I proactively appeal to my child's developing reasons before bringing things home (such as new freebies, new toys, gifts, etc.). I continually educate myself on what my child is capable or not capable of doing developmentally (any book by Dan Siegel are especially helpful, so are many child development books out there).
  • In order to give, you have to have. Children are, by default, takers. They require so much of our energy and time. Parents who take care of themselves first are parents who can give more fully to their children. And taking care of self does not mean spending days in spas or nail parlors or shopping. To me, it is consciously and continuously doing things that fuel me intellectually and spiritually. To some, this includes pursuing highly rewarding careers and delegating child care to capable caregivers. Refueling can be a family event, too. Do whatever it takes so you can be fully present, the best version of yourself with your children when they are with you. Fuel yourself up so you won't have to steal mini breaks by looking at your phones/devices when you are with your children. 

What are your thoughts about minimalism with children? What resource/s have been helpful for you? What are your low-hanging fruits in achieving a more intentional life with your children? 


momofuku milk bar birthday (cup)cake

The Tod and I have been drooling over cakes from Momofuku Milk Bar; but, judging from the complaints of several baking/cooking blogs out there, Momofuku recipes seem notoriously involved and touchy (recipes can be found here on Milk Bar's own website or on their recipe books).

To our surprise, the birthday cake was incredibly child-friendly. It is easy and quite forgiving, especially baked and measured with an accuracy of a four-year-old, and super, duper, quad-duper sweet (we will include our tweak to tone down the sweetness level). What's not to like?

I think the key to our success is making it in a cupcake instead of the regular cake form (which requires a ton of extra tools we don't want to buy). We follow the following sequence and by the end of the afternoon, we ended up with 2 dozen yummy, yet cloyingly sweet cakes (even with our tweaks):
  1. Make the cake crumb
  2. Make the cake, let it cool down
  3. Make the cake soak (the cakes are individually basted with vanilla-flavored milk, similar to making Tres Leches Cake) and soak the cakes
  4. Make the frosting
  5. Assemble (if there are still some of the above left)
To make it even more child-friendlier, here's a few note about ingredients: 
  • Clear Vanilla Extract. The idea of this cake is to mimic the white boxed cake mix from scratch, so clear vanilla extract is a must, said Christina Tosi herself. And surprisingly, yet another surprise, they are easy to find! Just go to big-box stores like Safeway, Albertsons, Walmart (we found ours just 1/2 a block away at local Safeway) and they often stock McCormick Artificial Vanilla flavoring. Yeah, don't use the organic good stuff, we want the white, artificial, vanillin kind. 
  • Glucose. Nah.. we don't use such thing nor we want to haul across town to buy it. We simply use extra corn syrup that is more readily available. 
  • Citric Acid. What? Is this a chemical experiment? No, we also omit this. Some bloggers use a wee bit of lemon juice to impart the nice, tangy taste to the frosting. You can use that if you like.
  • Grapeseed Oil. Surprisingly more available than we thought. We bought ours bulk from local co-op store, but they are also available at Whole Foods, Safeway, Albertson, QFC, etc. on the salad dressing aisle.

All recipes are from Momofuku Milk Bar's website, our modification explained or in bold face.

Cake Crumb

50 g granulated sugar (1/4 cup)
25 g light brown sugar (1 1/2 tablespoons, tightly packed)
90 g cake flour (3/4 cup)
2 g baking powder (1/2 teaspoon)
1 g kosher salt (1/4 teaspoon) --> we decrease the salt as we decrease the sugar
20 g rainbow sprinkles (2 tablespoons)
40 g grapeseed oil (1/4 cup)
12 g clear vanilla extract (1 tablespoon)

Preheat oven to 300 F. Mix everything together until clumpy -- yes, in fact we dumped everything in the same bowl, both wet and dry ingredients, and mix it with a wooden spoon. Bake clumps in the oven for 15 minutes until crunchy but slightly colored. Cool them down before using.

Birthday (Cup)Cake

The cake + the soak = a very moist, buttery cake. This recipe makes 2 dozen cupcakes

55 g butter, at room temperature (4 tablespoons, 1/2 stick)
60 g vegetable shortening (1/3 cup)
200 g granulated sugar (1 cup)
50 g light brown sugar (3 tablespoons, tightly packed)
3 eggs
110 g buttermilk (1/2 cup)
65 g grapeseed oil (1/3 cup)
8 g clear vanilla extract (2 teaspoons)
245 g cake flour (2 cups)
6 g baking powder (1 1/2 teaspoons)
3 g kosher salt (3/4 teaspoon)
50 g rainbow sprinkles (1/4 cup)
25 g rainbow sprinkles (2 tablespoons) we omit this

Preheat oven to 350 F. 

Combine the butter, shortening, and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream together on medium-high for ... forever (at least 2-5 minutes). Then add eggs one by one, mixing well after each addition. 

On low speed, stream in the buttermilk, oil, and vanilla. Crank up the speed to medium-high and mix for at least 4-6 minutes, until the mixture is practically white, twice the size of your original fluffy butter-and-sugar mixture.... etc. etc. and yes, mix this batter for a long time. Mix it well. Literally, this is the way to entertain a kid in the afternoon. 

On very low speed, add the cake flour, baking powder, salt, and rainbow sprinkles. Mix briefly and scrape the bowl.

Plop batter 2/3-full into prepared muffin tins lined with paper and bake for 20 minutes, rotating half-way. We found better overall cake browning using metal muffin tins than silicone ones -- if you do use silicone muffin tins, line them with foil muffin cups for the same, even browning. Let the cakes cool on the rack while making the soak and frosting below.

Birthday Cake Soak

55 g milk (1/4 cup)
4 g clear vanilla extract (1 teaspoon)

Whisk together the milk and vanilla in a small bowl. Then the cakes are completely cooled, poke a few holes and baste them with the milk soak. Yum....

Birthday Cake Frosting

We make 1 1/2 times of the original recipe, enough to frost 24 cupcakes and a bit extra leftover. The following recipe has been edited to adjust both the amount and the sugar level, sorry for the mish-mash units. Don't be discouraged with all the quirkiness of the ingredients, we omitted a lot but this frosting still tasted buttery smooth (unlike the gritty butter + powder sugar American-style frosting) and delicious!

1 1/2 stick butter, at room temperature (12 tablespoons)
75 g vegetable shortening (1/4 c + 2 tablespoons)
3 oz cream cheese 
25 g glucose (1 tablespoon) --> we omit this
3 T corn syrup 
2 T clear vanilla extract 
200 g confectioners’ sugar (1 1/4 cups) --> we keep this amount the same despite increasing everything else, seriously, it is plenty sweet!
2 g kosher salt (1/2 teaspoon)
.25 g baking powder (pinch) --> we omit this
.25 g citric acid (pinch) --> we omit this

Cream butter, shortening, and cream cheese on medium-high for at least 2 to 3 minutes.

With the mixer on its lowest speed, trickle in the corn syrup and vanilla. Beat on high for 2 to 3 minutes, at least, or until your kid can no longer stand looking at the beating paddle. Don't forget to scrape down the bowl. 

Add the confectioners’ sugar and salt in a few batches, and crank up the mixer again until the frosting is smooth, fluffy, and super white.

Assemble the cake as you wish and enjoy!

Have you tried any Momofuku Milk Bar recipes before?


Found! Sunscreen that feels like a moisturizer: Paula's Choice Calm SPF 30 Mineral Sunscreen

It's true, I am loyal to my beloved Hada Labo sunscreen. The problem is, I never stock-pile (for maximum freshness) and it ships from Japan, which can take as long as a month and a half.

After using up the entire gigantic tube of LRP Anthelios, I decided to shop locally, and Paula's Choice is a local vendor, at least here where I live! I've been truly spoiled. I ordered the sunscreen late evening on Saturday, and it was on my doorstep by Monday afternoon. Talk about pre-drone instant delivery!!

Paula's Choice Calm Redness Relief SPF 30 Mineral Moisturizer is identical to her Skin Recovery SPF 30 Lotion (identical ingredients and price as well -- no particular reason why I bought this version v.s. the Skin Recovery version). It is an all-mineral sunscreen, a combo of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide (Paula is serious about her sunscreens, unlike some physical block that only contains zinc oxide, which is not broad spectrum --> I'm talking to you, The Honest Company!).

When I think about an all-mineral sunscreen, I think of a goopy, white, pasty paste, but not so with this one. It has a whipped-cream texture that glides over the skin, leaving it moist but not oily. The slight white cast rubs down completely to almost nothing. I think even ladies with normal-oily combo skin can enjoy this. In fact, just like a good moisturizer, it makes for a good foundation base, too. It contains minimal silicone that I can use it with silicone-heavy foundation like Armani Maestro without balling up. The only downside is the SPF 30 rating, but I try not to fret: with texture so light, it is a joy to reapply. I can't say enough good things about this, I think it has replaced Elta MD sunscreen for me as a locally resourced sunscreen for the foreseeable future.

This sunscreen is fragrance-free, although it smells a bit like cucumber (it has cucumber extract as one of the ingredients) which dissipates quickly and completely. As an added bonus, the sunscreen is loaded with bonafide anti-oxidants, I can truly skip a moisturizer if I want to.

The complete ingredient list is always available at Paula's Choice website. Have you tried other PC's sunscreen?


Thankful Tuesday: Moving On

Recently I read an article about The Selfish Side of Gratitude by Barbara Ehrenreich (click on the title for link). How can gratitude and selfish be in the same sentence? After all, we all believe that the practice of gratitude is the antidote of selfishness. She made a few good points and I can't help but to feel a bit uneasy.

For as long as I can remember, my deadly sin of choice is envy. It is never about the thing or the experience itself -- it is always about what the other have, or experience, or... (insert the comparison object du jour). Envy reinforces the other-ness, the idea that I am not them and therefore they are not me. My relationships are tinged purple with jealousy and never feel 100% authentic. Can I ever feel genuine happiness over others' success and good fortune? I'm sure I'm not alone; just think about the problems of the world, aren't they variations of "us v.s. them?" This poison is truly deadly.

The need to compare has, apparently, created enough suffering for me and I found a glimmer of hope through gratitude. Therefore, one can argue that my whole gratitude journey is about finding a relief from my own suffering. I also know that it does not matter where one starts in this journey, even if every single entry in the gratitude journal reeks with selfishness like, "I am thankful that I have home/food/car/X, not like others who do not have home/food/car/X," the journey will undoubtedly lead somewhere. If you have been following me, you know that I have been pondering a lot about consuming less and possessing mindfully. Along with this urge, I also feel a quiet knowing that, although I may not have what I want in my lifetime, I will be fine: I may never tick-off every items in my bucket list, or vacation in places I want to, or for my child to have experiences his classmates have, or my family to have the latest cars, or move to a bigger home, etc, etc. And more than just fine, I will thrive.

What Ehrenreich missed is the long term, unexpected gain of practicing gratitude. My journey in gratitude started from selfish reasons but it has shortened the gap between me and the other. I understand how it feels to be thankful to have a home in rainy days, and to have other things that make life less miserable. I understand how it feels to accept a not-so-perfect life situation and at the same time not giving up for better things. I understand how it feels to be in the mental rabbit hole of wanting, brokenness, against-ness and the gratitude when I rediscovered a glimpse of my own wholeness. If these experiences are possible for me, they are possible for everyone.

Gratitude is not all about sharing and giving and thankfulness -- it is also about moving on past my other-ness, "Yeah, I know how that feels. I have been there." You and I, we are more alike than different. Just as my gratitude muscle enables me to look at pretty things sold in stores and not feel the urge to buy them, it helps me to say, "A promotion? Congratulations, I'm so excited for you!" with more ease, joy, authenticity, and less envy and selfishness.

Have you embarked on a journey of gratitude or other spiritual practices? Where have your practices lead you?