Why Many Adult Children Just Don't Want Their Parents' Stuff
There is a psychology built on what each generation considers important.
Posted January 5, 2021 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
Stuff. No matter how valuable, how beautiful, how family-historic, or how meaningful some of our “stuff” is, most millennials don’t want it. To them, a set of china, crystal, sterling flatware, our grandmother’s tea service, or that cherished dining set with the matching hutch are things they not only politely refuse to take on, but will also have to deal with getting rid of when we’re gone.
It’s interesting to think first about why we, as boomers, put so much value on it, and then turn around and wonder why our kids don’t. In my mind, there is a psychology built on what each generation considers important, making it easier to judge one another instead of understanding the reasoning. Women in my age range tsk-tsk at how their children’s generation would readily haul off their parents’ valuables to a thrift store after they’re gone instead of displaying it, treasuring it, and telling the stories behind it to the next generation.
But I get it. I really do.
My war-generation parents loved to share their belongings with grace. They threw formal cocktail parties and had elaborate dinners with elegantly-set tables on lovely furniture, leaving nothing to chance — with attention paid right down to the last butter knife, wine decanter, coffee cup and saucer, and dessert plate sitting on a nearby breakfront, poised to be placed on the table the moment the main course was finished.
Our house was spotless, with all beds made to perfection (just in case a guest wanted a tour). And no, my family was not wealthy. They were formed from the stereotypical single-income, middle- class that no longer exists — the one that took great took pride in owning at least one car, taking yearly 2-week vacations, and entertaining their friends and family at any time of year. Frugality was a learned art for them. Lights were turned off when not in use. Saturday was “bath” night. Rubber bands were collected, foil was washed and re-used, and mothers regularly lost their voices yelling out windows to get their kids home by dark.
Planning a dinner party was not for the purposes of showing off; it was, rather, for “treating” their guests, and most of the time there was an unspoken sense of reciprocation that went along with it. I would hear the "company" say, “It’s our turn to have you over next!” as the lipsticked wives donned their perfumed coats and white gloves to head out the door after an evening of alcohol, bad jokes, dinner, music, and laughter.
Enter the boomers — their now-grown kids. The ones told not to touch the hors d'oeuvres or dessert and sent to bed early so "adulting" could take place. While deeply appreciating what our parents’ generation handed us as well as their wartime or immigrant sacrifices, we may have begun our married lives trying to emulate our entertaining parents with the best of intentions. But by the time we grew up, things had changed. Boomer moms were more educated and career-oriented, having more options than any generation of women before them. Having the kind of "lifestyle" we sought required two incomes. No longer were there weeks on end to prepare for a fancy night of entertaining. Those were reserved for holidays only. Our own kids noticed sets of dishes, crystal, and flatware were brought out only rarely, knowing the rest of the year they took up recesses in closets, cabinets, and labeled boxes.
As a young adult, I came to the conclusion that I no longer needed to try to be my own saintly mother — even worse — I knew could never come close to the kind of domestically-proud woman she was anyway. While she gazed lovingly at the lit-up contents of her china cabinet, I wondered why we had to have a department store window in our dining room — a place that was simply kept dusted all the time and rarely used as she got older.
And when I got into my 50s, long after Mom was gone, I sold my own china cabinet. My dinnerware all got shoved into a cabinet underneath our stairs — accessible but no longer featured. While I enjoy entertaining, I stopped using my china and silver (wedding gifts from long, long ago) and began opting for the fun Crate & Barrel stuff with Pier 1 linens. Guests seemed more at ease with less dressy place settings, and I was gung-ho to make them feel comfortable, as they arrived in casual clothing greeted by their hosts sporting the same look.
Now? I am still hanging on to a few items I truly love, but recently I snapped smartphone photos of the objects or collections I am willing to let go of, asking my daughter about her level of interest in any of it. “I already have an obscene amount of STUFF,” she told me. And while I know she cherishes a few odds and ends from my mom (a pair of mid-century modern loveseats, for instance), there is really nothing of mine she wants. Millennials tend to be minimalists. Formal dining rooms are not a requirement. And they’re happy to use their everyday plates to serve their “hang-out” guests.
Chicago Tribune’s Denise Crosby, writing about succeeding generations, says, “Auctioneers and appraisers, junk haulers and moving companies all seem to be echoing the same thing: The market is flooded with baby boomer rejects. And they cite a number of reasons our kids are turning down the possessions we so generously offer to them. They rent rather than own, live in smaller spaces, collect more digital than physical items, and tend to put their money toward experiences rather than things.”
I made the decision, therefore, to sell some of my things and use the money for our next big trip, whenever the world is ready to let us travel again. There are sites like eBay, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplaces, and tons of silver and china-buying venues happy to share in the profit.
While I once thought of passing down things to my daughter, I realized that all I would be doing at this point is burdening her with a collection of things she will either need to find a home for or bequeath to a thrift store. And I feel no resentment about it whatsoever, because what she values is not the physical things that I possess. She values who I am. And, someday — who I was. So I regularly contribute chapters to my own life memoir (as much of it as I can recall) so that she and any future generations might know something about me they never have been otherwise privy to. It is my gift to her. Somehow, I know that is more valuable than a crystal goblet.
Facebook image: Elena Elisseeva/Shutterstock