Among the overcrowded field of parenting books, once in a while, a book comes along that reads like a breath of fresh air.
Such is the case with “Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids” by Kim John Payne (Ballantine Books, 2010).
The watch cry against the overscheduled child is a common riff these days. Most parents acknowledge that life is too busy. Payne describes the phenomenon that’s been happening over the past 20-30 years as “too much stuff, too many choices and too little time.”
The antidote, Payne writes, is to go back to the foundation of family life. What were our original hopes and dreams?
When we first envisioned family life, surely it didn’t include mad dashes out the door to the school bus, a bedroom littered with toys and a calendar crammed with activities.
More likely, we imagined picnics, play dough, dancing to music in the kitchen, marshmallows over the fire, books by lamplight and shadow puppets on the wall. We envisioned laughter and silliness.
The goal of the book, Payne writes, is to guide us back to that vision, to understand the souls of our children, and to make our homes and families places of refuge and calm. We can do this in four ways.
1. Simplify the environment
Most children have too many things: too many books, toys, movies and stuffed animals. The number of items crammed in a child’s bedroom makes it not only chaotic but also challenging for a child to make choices.
Children need space for creativity of thought and play, which can be stifled by too much. Here, Payne draws from his experience as a Waldorf educator: Keep toys simple. Focus on the ones that allow for the most imaginative play, such as blocks and dress-up clothes, while eschewing toys that blink, beep and control the play. Cut the number of toys by half, then half again.
This is a strategy I can endorse wholeheartedly. I wrote several weeks back about simplifying our kids’ bedrooms through the KonMari method. Two months later, we have no regrets.
We removed all the toys and knickknacks from our boys’ bedrooms, including desks and under-the-bed bins. We also got rid of about half their clothes. The result has been drastic. My kids sleep better. They read more since all they have in their room is a single bookshelf. And it takes them only five minutes to tidy their room.
2. Define the family rhythm
Payne acknowledges that families are busier than they’ve ever been and that that’s not going to change. The key is to establish a framework that allows for pauses, for breath.
Much of this can be done with consistency and repetition, two things kids thrive on. (Ask any parent who’s had to read “Goodnight Moon” 300 nights in a row.) Consistency and rhythm allow kids to feel that bedrock of security even when other areas of life might be chaotic.
Among the ideas Payne lists are: family dinner, which becomes a time of shared discussion; a weekly Sunday meeting to plan out what is going to happen in the upcoming week; and a consistent bedtime routine with stories and songs.
Families can adopt other rituals that ground them: Saturday morning pancakes, Sunday strolls along the lake and shared meal prep.
Research has shown that these rituals not only provide consistency but also ground kids in the family faith and practices. Rituals such as family scripture study, prayer and a weekly family night all build upon this idea of family rhythm.
Payne talks about the importance of pause, those quiet spaces of breath. “Relationships are often built in the intervals, the spaces between activities, when nothing much is going on,” he writes.
I’ve found my kids always ask me the most soul-searching questions right as we’re headed out the door. I’ve changed from being aggravated to realizing what they’re trying to tell me: “Slow down, Mom. I need you to listen.”
These moments of listening become more crucial as children get older. A car ride between activities can be a time to turn off the radio and let silence lead to discussion. Inviting a child into the kitchen to cut up lettuce for dinner can become an avenue for him to open up about his day at school.
3. Simplifying schedules
Several years back, I met a mother of five children who told me her strategy for simplifying schedules: No one was allowed to do an activity until they were 10 years old.
At the time, I thought this idea was a little radical, but now I see the wisdom in her choice. She allows her kids to grow their interests before jumping into sports, art or music lessons. And she isn’t just protecting her children from overscheduling; she is protecting herself.
This is the exact opposite of what most Western parents do. As soon as children babble their first words, we have them dribbling balls, plunking notes on the piano and taking enrichment art lessons so they can find their “thing.”
While all of these are wonderful choices, the scheduling of young children takes its toll on families. In fact, the more I look around at busy families, the more I conclude that the children are fine. It’s the parents I worry about.
Payne likens our schedules to crop rotation. The more we try to dump on to a single field, expecting greater yield and output, the more we deplete the soil of our lives.
It’s a good analogy because it acknowledges the necessary ebbs and flows of family life. If you have four kids who love soccer, spring might be a busy time for your family. But it might also mean pulling back in the offseason by saying no to basketball or swimming. If two nights of the week are crammed full of activities, it might mean leaving other nights open for free play.
The idea of a Sabbath may seem delightfully antiquated in today’s 24/7 schedule. But Payne asserts that our families still need a day of rest, a distraction-free time to come together as a family.
4. Filtering out the adult world
I am a freelance journalist, and my husband is a journalism professor. While we don’t watch TV news, we are avid consumers of NPR, The New York Times and several news magazines. Because our business is the news, we talk about it. A lot.
So of all the areas in the book, this one resonated with me the most.
Awareness of world events is not bad for children, but as Payne points out, our kids are getting too much too young.
While we may think we’re educating our children, what we’re really doing is heaping a whole host of unsolvable problems on them. I remember as a child being distraught by the destruction of the rainforest. What could I do about it? Well, I recycled. I adopted a dolphin and lectured my mom about using paper plates, but really I had no control over the rainforests. As Payne writes, “Media saturation characterizes our era, but it needn’t flood our kids’ childhoods.”
I’ve become especially aware of this during this caustic election cycle (which now seems to span two years). My kids love to talk politics and watch the debates, which is fine for my teenagers, but I don’t need to rope my 6-year-old into discussions about Trump vs. Clinton.
As Payne writes, “Children need to know that they have a place in a good world, and a future of promise.” How do we know what to share? Payne says we should use this barometer of measurement for family discussion: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?
Payne said he wrote “Simplicity Parenting” because parents came to him over and over with this question: Something is wrong with my child; what can I do to help him or her?
Before we rush to therapies and medication, he sees the structure of family life as the No. 1 place to begin.
“As parents, we’re the architects of our family’s daily lives,” he writes.
It’s time to ask ourselves: What are we trying to build? Is it what we had in mind? Are we making intentional choices every day to reach that end goal?
As parents, we’re building something remarkable and entirely unique.
It’s hard and beautiful work, but it need not be complicated.
Tiffany Gee Lewis runs the website Raise the Boys at raisetheboys.com, dedicated to rearing creative, kind, courageous and competent boys. Follow it on Instagram and Twitter at raisetheboys. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org