Teach your children that prudence is a virtue

I will admit that, having acquired few housekeeping skills in my formative years, I must have been the world’s most inept au pair. Living in Paris during the 1960s changed this dubious distinction. The French family that I worked for was tolerant, if not amused, at my underdeveloped culinary skills and my less than stellar attempts at keeping their apartment immaculate. Rather than giving me walking papers, I was taken under Madame’s wing. She had been kind enough to hire me in the first place, and continued that kindness with lessons on how to be a careful shopper by treating each purchase as if it were solid gold.

Madame knew every shopkeeper and vendor at the local open-air market. She was solicitous about each item and would not bring home a piece of fruit or cheese without first giving it a taste. The family lived in a floor-through apartment near the Champs-Elysées, a space belonging to the matriarch, Madame’s mother, who sat down with the entire family every afternoon for a midday meal. The picture I am painting may sound a little too bucolic, but it’s true. For someone who had never experienced this kind of familial situation before (or since), it certainly made a positive impression.

The discerning attitude of the Parisians was duplicated when I lived in Berlin. Littering was virtually a crime; one was expected to walk on carefully designed paths in parks, never litter, and show care and respect for possessions, both public and private. My European education in the art of living quickly advanced when I began sharing a studio apartment with a roommate. For privacy we hung a faux leopard skin curtain on a clothesline in the middle of the room. I cannot remember the situation being in any way uncomfortable or feeling claustrophobic. One simply could not accumulate many things. This included clothes. With only a small cupboard, what you had you wore again and again. I trimmed my own wardrobe to a black ribbed turtleneck sweater and two pair of tailor-made slacks. That was it for the year.

The tailor who made my pants was a Berliner who spent his nights working at the Old Eden Saloon where I was the hatcheck girl. I have no idea how he was trained, but what I do know is that the pants he made lasted for years. The reason? Quality. My roommate and I searched all over Berlin for the best fabric, and once we were satisfied, we returned to the tailor with our goods. Being involved in the process of production was satisfying, and probably made me enjoy and value the finished product even more.

Given my new-found knowledge of how to care for my possessions, returning to the United States was quite a culture shock, and one that I still have not gotten over. The deep care and appreciation of possessions I had been taught in Europe did not completely disappear, but I too easily fell into the American habit of purchasing without thinking. Shopping for food became something I did for expediency, and I seemed to lose the connection with its purpose of nourishment and the treasures of taste, smell, feel and aesthetic. Although, I never quite fully fell prey to our Fast Food Nation mind set, it was close.

Right now, I am staring at my bedroom dresser, which houses many T-shirts and yoga clothes I have not worn in years. How did I accumulate so much that I rarely, if ever wear? The time has come to bring up the big bags and begin once again to empty out. I am not proud of how I have replaced the good sense I learned in Europe with needless acquisitiveness.

Last year I hired a friend who does organizing to come in and help get my closets in order. She was wonderful, and as more and more clutter went out the door to be donated, I felt better and better about myself. I did not get down to the European model of austerity I had while in Germany, but came pretty darn close. What a joy to have sweaters in my drawers that actually look good on me and are not made for someone 30 years younger. Ditto for the dresses — purchased on impulse and at the urging of a salesperson eager for a commission — that had languished in my closet, never worn and still covered with the plastic they came with.

I cannot think that random acquisition makes anyone happier, and I am relearning the value of simplicity. Recently, several friends returned from a cross-country sojourn in which they carried little more than a backpack. Home again, they spoke of feeling so much lighter, and lacking encumbrance, better enjoyed the trip.

Our own society is built on planned obsolescence of goods. What we buy today is gone tomorrow or relegated to a pile of stuff. In this type of environment it is difficult, and almost impossible to teach children, let alone whole families, to respect and appreciate possessions. These transitional economic times are the perfect opportunity to teach our children and remind us that prudence is a virtue. Not that we need be stingy or self-denying, but that discernment is a good place to be. One place to begin to shift the attitude is through caring for the environment. By caring for one’s small corner, one can actually see tangible results, and reinforce to our children and ourselves what can happen when we value what we have.

Dr. Mae Sakharov is a college counselor and school consultant.