Why Doing Less for Your Kids Means More

Why Doing Less for Your Kids Means More

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Mary Heffernan, Founder of Five Marys Farms.

“Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it.” —Stephen Hawking 

In our suburban life, before leaving behind the busy life we’d built in Silicon Valley to become cattle ranchers with our four young daughters, I didn’t expect much of the girls.

We filled their sippy cups and made their snacks for them. I set out projects or created activities for them to do to keep them occupied and entertained. Their laundry was usually picked up off of the floor for them, washed, folded, and put back in their closets. Of course they were expected to pick up their toys and clear their plates and do some easy tasks to help occasionally, but they didn’t really help with anything substantial or learn to do things on their own. 

I think people innately want to care for their children’s every need and express their love by being caretakers. I did too. But, I was robbing them of the opportunity to learn to do these things for themselves and experiencing the satisfaction that comes with being self-sufficient and independent. 

When we moved to the country, everything changed.

By necessity, I couldn’t cater to their every need—I didn’t have time! I quickly realized only when they had to step up to the plate, that my kids could actually do all of these things themselves. Every kid is capable of tasks that you might not expect. So raise your expectations! Besides the fact that the chores are getting done, they feel so proud and accomplished of what they’ve done, especially when it’s truly helpful and contributes to the family or community.

One of the first shifts I noticed on this topic was when the girls started seeing needs on their own and filling them. Every year we have a group of ‘bottle babies.’ Bottle babies are baby lambs that need to be fed from a bottle (this can happen for various reasons). The girls started setting their alarms and waking up early to make bottles for the lambs and feeding them. We didn’t ask them to do this—they just started seeing it needed to be done, and doing it! 

I remember reading somewhere that instead of telling children we are proud of them, we should ask them if they are proud of themselves. I think that is important to remember—we want them to do things for their own self-satisfaction more than to make someone else happy or proud of them. 

I love the benefits that we get from living now in close quarters and I know the girls will have such great memories from when they were young, all bunked together in our little home.

With that said, part of setting up your kids for success while doing chores is creating spaces that you all will be able to manage without becoming totally overwhelmed with stuff. We can’t ask our kids to do chores that we wouldn’t do ourselves. So one of my favorite ways to make a small living space more manageable is to organize our house by seasons. Pull your clothes out that you aren’t wearing that season and store them somewhere else (garage, shed, storage container, storage facility nearby, etc.). Owning less makes managing a small (and large) space easier for everyone. 

While it’s important to create environments that set your kids up for success, it’s also important to allow natural consequences to take their course.

When my kids were younger, people often used to ask how I let them make dinner without using the stove… we do let them use the stove! The girls understand that the pots and pans are hot and it’s a big responsibility to use and they are cautious and respectful of the risk. If they grab a hot pan without an oven mitt once, they will burn their hand and not do it again. We’ve all done it! There are mistakes you learn from once and don’t make again. It might take giving up some of your control and letting them use tools outside of your comfort zone, but balancing safety and letting them learn to use these tools is usually worth it in the end. 

My husband, Brian, and I are firm believers in balancing a life of work and play, and we want our kids to practice that too. Not all days are a long list of chores or responsibilities. Some days it’s just ‘put your backpack on and go play outside in the sunshine!’

I am passionate about creating a lifestyle that allows my kids to be capable, independent individuals who enjoy working and also getting outside and dirty in nature.

You don’t need a bunch of technology, a lot of space, or a room full of stuff to practice that. Just keep it simple, model your own creativity and capability, and allow space for your kids to do the same! 

I remember one of my favorite memories from childhood—and it was so simple. Before I was 8 years old, my family lived in a house up on a canyon. We had a lot of freedom to go explore the canyon (it was in the days when your mom would just tell you to be home before dark!) We would rally up some of the neighbor kids, pack snacks in a backpack, and be gone all day. That freedom to explore, build a fort with sticks, pack our own food… that was so formative for me.

We had a great mom to let us do that despite the price she made for our outdoor memories… we would come back with poison oak every single time! But, she never told us ‘No, you can’t go play outside because you’ll get poison oak.’ She would strip our clothes, do the laundry, and get us into the shower. She knew that time outside was worth it for us. 

I make it a point to do the same for my girls. I want them to be together outside, because when you’re outside you have the opportunity to use your imagination, creativity, and problem-solving skills. No matter where you live, there is always some sort of nature around you.

We live in the country, so it’s pretty easy for us. But, even when you live in the city, there are public pools and public parks. Even laying down on the sidewalk and making shapes out of clouds are something that kids remember! 

Let them do this alone sometimes too. I actually think it’s important that I’m not there facilitating their play all of the time. It allows them the opportunity to build relationships with each other and problem-solve on their own, before running to me or their dad.

I remember reading somewhere that the best thing you can do when raising kids is to create a strong family culture within your own family, and the way you do that is to create family traditions—knowing that there are small things that are important to you as a family. 

If being outdoors is something you want to be more proactive about—create those traditions outside! They definitely don’t need to be going to Hawaii every year for vacation. It’s the little things that they remember.

Every year, the day after Thanksgiving, we go on a family hike to get a Christmas tree. Every Easter, we go outside and do an ‘egg drop’ challenge (when you decorate and package up your egg and drop it outside from a ladder, window, or tree.) Little traditions that don’t need to cost a lot of money or take up a lot of time. You definitely need to tweak your expectations—your kids won’t come back clean! They might have unruly hair, bug bites, scratches, and dirty clothes. But, let me tell you… getting outside is always worth it.


Mary Heffernan and her husband, Brian, left behind the busy life they’d built in Silicon Valley to become cattle ranchers with their four young daughters–all named Mary. Together they own and operate Five Marys Farms. Mary’s new book, The Hands-On Ranch Book: How to Tie a Knot, Start a Garden, Saddle a Horse, and Everything Else People Used to Know How to Do will be released on September 26. It is available for pre-order now.

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