For me, life as a parent feels like a constant tug-of-war against a world of “too much.” At Christmas, our tree is smothered by a glut of presents from family and friends, transforming my children into glassy-eyed assembly line workers with their hands at the ready, calling out “Next.” Plastic toys collect dust in my basement while my children contentedly play upstairs with blankets and cardboard boxes. My freezer is chock full with surplus Easter chocolate. I convince myself that I will someday use it for baking because I feel too guilty about throwing it all away. At Halloween, generous neighbours dole out candy by the handfuls, leaving me with the unpopular task of finding tricks to make the treats disappear. My children’s closets are stacked with bins of clothes that they never wear because, despite my best attempts, they are creatures of habit who cycle through the same four pairs of pants and three shirts week after week. It is easy to get pulled across the center line by the power of “excess.” I have to remind myself to ask often, “How much and what do my children really need?”

And I’m not just talking about stuff.

I resist the pressure of numerous play dates with the rationalization that my children already spend 80 per cent of their time with their friends when they are at school. I limit extracurricular activities, because I believe in protecting my children’s unstructured space and family time, but also because, with four children, there is only so much time and money. We don’t watch TV. We use our cell phone only when we travel. We have sugar only on Tuesdays and weekends. And all the while, I question myself, “What I am doing to my children?” It seems like every kid and their dog get sugary treats in their lunch boxes, have iPads or are involved in Brownies or soccer. Everyone, that is, except my children.

I should feel confident and secure with my choices as a parent but instead I am plagued by doubts, apprehension, and the fear that my children will grow to be outcasts, socially awkward Luddites with sugar tremours.
I want my children to be happy but I often have to stop and deconstruct what “happy” really means—to them and to me. I am grateful for the bounty in my life but the superfluity makes me feel nauseated. I fear that my children will grow up with a sense of entitlement. Beyond this, keeping up with societal and peer pressure and certain levels of expectation exerts an awful lot of undue guilt and stress on me. I remember my parents driving across Calgary one Christmas Eve on icy roads and in -25˚F weather, utterly desperate to find an Optimus Prime Transformer for my brother. I recall the anxiety of that night, worried and frightened about whether my parents would make it back home. I can’t imagine how they were likely feeling. What would have been the worst to happen if they had simply decided “No”? Why is it such a hard word to say?

Everything in moderation seems like a wise mantra to live by. Moderation leads to lives that are not deprived, but that are balanced, responsible and sustainable. It buffers us from being constantly overwhelmed and the angst of excess, and it assures us that we have enough. It also protects us from being vulnerable to addictive pulls. Over the Christmas and summer holidays when I was old enough to stay at home alone while my parents worked, I watched afternoon soap operas. It was a marathon, except with no cardio benefits. I started with “Days of Our Lives” at 1 p.m. and ended with “The Young and The Restless” at 5 p.m. I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t call it fun. It was a way of numbing my boredom and, in fact, it left me feeling even more lethargic and unmotivated. It was an addiction. In hindsight, I recognize that moderation might have led to some reasonable boundaries as well as some equilibrium in terms of outside time and exercise.

I try to see moderation not as a battle between good and bad or right and wrong which leaves me feeling guilty, but more as a bridge between well-intentioned virtues—for example, promoting appreciation and thankfulness for life’s pleasures while inspiring self-regulation and self-discipline.

So what does moderation look like in our home?

• While we don’t have TV, we do have a VCR. Every Tuesday after school is “Special Video Day,” and Saturday night is “Family Movie Night.” We look forward to these days and make them extra special by making the den cozy, perhaps lighting a fire, dimming the lights and, best of all, indulging in salted buttery popcorn.

• I allow my seven-year-old limited slots of time for “Starfall,” a fun and free online reading program. My other children are too young and, though they protest, they will get their chance.

• Every week, when it comes to grocery shopping, each of my children gets to make one healthy request. For example, depending on the season, my son will inevitably choose corn on the cob, my eldest, raspberries, and my middle, peaches. Also, if they are my one grocery shopping helper for that day, they can choose a special treat to be shared with the rest of the family—sometimes it is YOP yogurt drinks, chocolate milk, a chocolate bar to split or even Foot-Long Fruit Roll-Ups.

• After a conversation with her health-conscious aunt, my eldest formed the “No Sugar Club.” As a family we have agreed to reserve our sugar consumption for Tuesdays and weekends (there are other exceptions such as special occasions and when company is visiting!). We exercise much restraint and self-discipline for the rest of the week, under the scrupulous watch of my daughter, but come those days, particularly Saturdays and Sundays, we enjoy waffles with tons of maple syrup, nibbling on leftover Halloween candy and flipping through recipe books for decadent desserts that we can prepare together for our evening meal.

While my children do receive presents of toys and clothes, we try when we can to give them “experience gifts,” for example, tickets to go see the Nutcracker or a special birthday weekend in Victoria.

With my efforts, my hope is that my children see the “stuff” not in isolation but within the context of rituals, traditions, family and meaningful connections.

I wish I had it completely figured out, but I don’t think I’m there yet. Last month, as we deliberated my son’s Christmas present, my husband, in all seriousness, suggested, “Why don’t we give him a large cardboard refrigerator box?” I know my son would be absolutely thrilled so why couldn’t I do it?

My children are fortunate. They live in a wealthy and educated country, on a unique island that provides them with rich life experiences and in a family that shows absolutely no moderation when it comes to love. What else could they possibly need?

Janine Fernandes-Hayden is an educator, trained Virtues Project facilitator, and Salt Spring Island mum of four children. She hosts a parent and kids radio show called “The Beanstalk” on Salt Spring Island airwaves at CFSI 107.9 FM.