What is Enough? Teaching Your Children the Concept of Enough

by Suzita on September 22, 2011

I’ve been thinking about the idea of “enough.”  Whether it’s a material item (shoes) or a non-material one (free time), how do you know when you have enough of something? Enough seems to reside at the sweet spot between needing more and wanting more.  It’s a calm, settled, balanced place.  Enough is a place where one easily feels gratitude and appreciation.  At this sweet spot, we have access to the bigger picture and can gain perspective.  When we stop at enough, the excess energy we would have used to secure more, becomes available for bringing creativity and ingenuity into our lives.

From what I can tell, unlike curiosity or the drive to play, awareness of “enough” is not a natural state throughout childhood.  I remember very early on being assured my babies would drink as much breast milk as they needed, and indeed they did.  After this point, however, it seemed risky to let the child set all the guidelines.  Eating specialist Ellyn Satter’s advice of shared responsibility worked well at our family’s dinner table.  She says it is the parent’s job to put out a meal of healthy food, but the child’s responsibility to choose which and how much of the food to eat.

Eating is the activity where it’s easiest for me to practice the concept of enough.  The Japanese use the term “hara hachi bu” which means eat until you are eight parts (80%) full.  I like this idea (unless I’m really hungry).  The concept of enough is intertwined within hara hachi bu.  If you know there is enough to go around, that there is enough for you, you’ll experience that calm, settled, balanced feeling while eating.  Hara hachi bu requires an internal focus on the messages of one’s body, rather than an external focus on factors such as the amount of food left on your plate or a waiter’s suggestions.

I assume the Japanese incorporate the idea of hara hachi bu into other areas of their lives as well.  This is more challenging for me and I’ve noticed, my kids.  How do we know when we are 80% full of pants, kitchen gadgets, iPad applications, or video games?  And realistically we should probably start with knowing when we are 100% full before pulling back to the trickier notion of 80%.  Help please!

When my son, Daniel, was eight his favorite toys were Bionicles, those scary-faced Lego brand plastic figures.  Daniel loved his first Bionicle the way some kids love a cherished stuffed animal.  He brought it everywhere.  He smiled warmly upon it and hugged it when he woke up in the morning.  I, myself, cringed every time I saw its angry scowl, oversized weaponry, and lobster claw hands.  I warned Daniel that not all his friends, especially those outside the male persuasion, would adore Bionicles like he did. 

Soon, Daniel was rather rapidly accumulating Bionicles.  His favorite way to add to his collection was having us help him browse eBay for low-priced, previously-owned Bionicles.  He was able to afford these on his own after saving his allowance for maybe three weeks.  I guess you could say that during this time, Daniel was figuring out how many Bionicles were “enough”.  Not an easy task.  In the end, he peaked at twelve.  I’m assuming that, because he peaked there, twelve was actually past his place of enough.  After another few years, the glow faded and Daniel began to sell his Bionicles on eBay, probably to other children learning the lesson of how many are enough.

Our son Stephen has loved books for many years.  He rarely meets a book that isn’t worth picking up and leafing through.  And books are easy to acquire.  We live biking distance from a well-stocked used bookstore.  Stephen’s room, though, is small.  Nevertheless, for a while he collected and assembled large piles of books “to read next”.  During that time Todd and I would weave our way around stacks of upcoming reads to tuck Stephen into bed.

Eventually I think Stephen realized the numerous book piles were beginning to oppress him.  He found himself in a place quite a bit past enough.  These days Stephen keeps on hand two or three books to read next.  He also saves certain beloved book series in his room to read again and again.  And, being a geography guy, Stephen always has a plethora of atlases within reach.  It’s not as if his bedroom is empty, but Stephen has found his enough sweet spot, at least when it comes to books.  International soccer jerseys are another issue!

Our daughter, Annie, is a very social human. I know humans are by definition social beings, but this does not accurately describe Annie.  If she had to choose between a new toy and a play date, the play date would win 95% of the time.  Her capacity for social contact is simply greater than most.  Extreme extraversion.  Many personality theories posit, by the way, that over time we all tend to move toward the opposite side of our personality extremes.  This suggests Annie will meet her inner introvert for the first time around college.

Still, for the past few years Annie has been learning that not every person has such a grand capacity for social time.  She is gradually comprehending that her friends will need play time to end before she does.  Annie has also been practicing and learning to enjoy being alone.  Yes, for some kids this is a skill to be learned.  Annie will probably continue to struggle with the lesson of how much social contact is enough for a while.  She has improved her understanding of enough as she’s watched her friends.  She sees when they surpass their sweet spot of enough during a play date and melt down upon reaching the too-much point.  And Annie is learning that to be a friend is not to push someone past their personal level of enough.

The book Your Money or Your Life introduces the concept of enough from a variety of perspectives.  In one section the authors discuss the Fulfillment Curve which graphs the relationship between the amount of money we spend and our experience of fulfillment.

Stephen’s drawing of the Fulfillment Curve

Authors Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin summarize:

There is an interesting place on this graph – its peak.  Part of the secret of life, it would seem, comes from identifying for yourself the point of maximum fulfillment.  There is a name for this peak of the Fulfillment Curve, and it provides the basis for transforming your relationship with money.  It’s a word we use every day, yet we are practically incapable of recognizing it when it’s staring us in the face.  The word is “enough”.  At the peak of the Fulfillment Curve we have enough.  Enough for our survival.  Enough comforts.  And even enough little “luxuries”.

The wisdom of this lesson runs wide and deep.  The first image that came to mind when I read about the fulfillment curve was chocolate covered almonds, pretty much my favorite treat on the planet.  I’ve known for a while that the first (and honestly second) chocolate covered almonds always taste the best, so much better than the 20th.  The first two are my peak on the fulfillment curve, my place of enough.

Or at least that’s what I’m working toward…

For now chocolate covered almonds can’t enter my home in quantities greater than two.  With this food there is no such thing as hara hachi bu for me, as of yet.  I’ll be better off starting my practice of hara hachi bu with root vegetables.

How do you know when you’ve reached the place of enough?  How do you teach your kids this lesson?  Leave a comment below!


Update:  I’m writing a bit less frequently on Play. Fight. Repeat. because I am beginning work on a larger project, a parenting book covering many themes from this blog.  You’ll continue to hear from me throughout this new undertaking, though.  Your comments on Play. Fight. Repeat. are now more valuable than ever in helping me to clarify what subjects readers are thinking about, struggling with, and want more on.

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