Parenting And The Diderot Effect


In 1765, Denis Diderot was a French pauper who was unable to afford the dowry for his daughter’s wedding despite being the co-founder and author of Encyclopédie, a comprehensive and popular encyclopedia for its day.

Fortunately for Diderot, Empress Catherine the Great of Russia was a fan of his works. When she heard of his financial misfortunes, she offered to purchase his personal library for the equivalent of approximately $50,000 in modern US currency.

The Scarlet Robe

Needless to say, Diderot was then able to cover the dowry for his daughter and a significant amount of funds were left over freeing him up to buy whatever he pleased. One of his most notable purchases was a new scarlet robe.

His new scarlet robe he thought was so beautiful in fact that he felt the need to replace all of his other ordinary belongings with equally matched ones because otherwise, the robe made them look shabby.

The Diderot Effect

It is called the Diderot Effect, and it is a real phenomenon. It states that obtaining a new possession often creates a spiral of consumption.

Signed the 5-year-old up for tee-ball for $160? Okay great, it comes with a hat and a jersey. But now he needs a new glove ($16.00) and a bat ($29.99) for practice. Don’t forget new special rubber cleats ($30.00), baseball socks ($9.99) and pants ($12.99) and a bat bag to carry it all ($19.99).


Not only does this behavior have a significant impact on the wallets of parents, but the overall ability to live with the sheer number of possessions one accumulates over the course of a lifetime. When we were young and just married, we brought a lot of possessions into our relationship. But 10 years into being parents to 4 beautiful kids, I am drowning in All. The. Things.

The Accumulation

The slow and steady accumulation of things is not actively balanced with a natural discarding of things. To quote James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, “Life has a natural tendency to become filled with more. We are rarely looking to downgrade, to simplify, to eliminate, to reduce. Our natural inclination is always to accumulate, to add, to upgrade and to build upon.”

Well, not any more. Something has to give.

I am over here listening to books on minimalism, trying to rationalize why we have 700 sippy cups, and if my husband and kids would notice if all of a sudden we didn’t. Meanwhile my husband unloads bags of “supplies” from Walmart of things “we need.” It is a never ending cycle and it has to stop.

We recently got a new puppy. And while I adore him, we also got a new collar, leash, kennel, stuffed squeaky pheasant, kong, chew rope etc.

Choosing Minimalism

I want to freak out and burn the house down so we can start over from scratch (I am kidding about the arson). But I know I have to deal with it. And I have learned that the only area I can really affect is my own. My possessions, my clothes, my habits for keeping things. I have had to live by example before, I can do it again. My first step was to pare my wardrobe down to a “capsule wardrobe” and a few keepsakes. But now it is time to plan a systematic approach to the other areas of my life. That Fantasy Self that was going to be an Etsy Shop owner? She should probably go first. That messy pandemic created “work from home office?” It should get thinned out.

Nipping the Diderot Effect in the bud is key to maintaining happiness and financial security. Don’t let one new purchase make you feel like you are not or you don’t have “enough.” It is enough and you are enough.

So am I.

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Rachel is a native Coloradoan, though originally from the Western Slope. She followed her husband Chris to his hometown of Colorado Springs after having met in engineering school at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO. Together they have four beautiful children, Tommy (2011), Tazzy (2014), Zach (2015) and Zinny (2018). Having a young and active family keeps Rachel on her toes trying to find ways to keep the ship sailing while still meeting all the demands of motherhood. Though Rachel loves her most important role as Mommy most, she also works full time outside the home as a Water Resources Engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. This role helps keep her life centered, bouncing from detailed and complex discussions relating to Colorado Water Law with her husband ( a mechanical engineer) to daycare and preschool drop off and pick up schedules, while being constantly interrupted by the equally complex musings of her 4 year.