Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne with Lisa M. Ross (Ballantine Books, 2009)
This review was interrupted so that I could write the Things Dr. Spock Won't Tell You post, simply so I could reference it here. When I get around to updating my list of favorite childrearing books, Simplicity Parenting will be there.
Insert here the usual disclaimer: I don't agree with all the author says. But there is so much of value here; I'd recommend it to all parents and parents-to-be. Grandparents, too, and even those without children in their lives. Because the book is as much about simplicity as it is about parenting.
I won't be able to do justice to the content of the book—and I sent it back to the library in part because I knew that if I had it I'd take too much time trying to do just that. But I'll attempt a one-line summary: There are incalculable advantages to a child's well-being to be found in simplicity, rhythm, and clutter-free living.
Most of the ideas in the book are not new to me. Perhaps one reason I like it so much is that it resonates well with theories I'd already encountered (and appreciated) over the last thirty-odd years. Simplicity Parenting connects the dots, and its strength lies in its comprehensiveness, its gentle encouragment, and above all in its practical suggestions. No matter how hurried, harried, stressed, and cluttered your world is, Kim John Payne convinces you that the benefits of simplicity are possible, taken in small steps and beginning exactly where you are.
When I return a book to the library with the review not yet written, you get more quotations, because I have to transcribe them all, not knowing which I will want for the review. And once they've been typed ... generally they get included.
First, the table of contents:
- Why Simplify?
- Soul Fever
- Filtering Out the Adult World
- Simplicity Parenting to Go
In terms of areas to change I usually see two categories: what is important, and what is doable. What seems the most important is usually not; what is most doable is the place to begin. If you do enough that is doable, you will get to the important, and your motivation will be fueled by your success. [emphasis mine]
The above are probably my absolute favorite lines in the book; if there's a mantra to protect the overwhelmed from paralyzing depression, this is it.
Simplification is a process; a pebble dropped in the waters of a family’s daily life. It inspires changes that expand throughout the home, touching each member of the family and their relationships.
It takes time to reduce, to say “no thanks” and mean it, to the distractions and excesses that have overwhelmed our daily lives. And changing a family’s direction isn’t easy, especially when life feels like a cyclone. … The process of simplification—a shifting of a family’s core axis—is usually driven by a parent’s simple desire to protect the ease and wonder of their children’s early years. I’ve seen the wisdom of starting small, of beginning with the possible, relishing the results, and allowing success to then fuel the process. I’ve found that what works best is to simplify the child’s life first: to declutter their overloaded rooms, diets, and schedules, and to increase the rhythm and regularity of the home.
There is a period of adjustment to a more rhythmic, less frenzied lifestyle, which will be longer the older your kids are. … Your quiet unwillingness to back down will help ease this transition toward a new and usually appreciated family norm.
More effective discipline is invariably an outgrowth of the simplification process.
More often than not, the author's first recommendation to the parents who come to him for help (one of his many hats is that of family counselor) is to radically reduce the number of toys available to the child. He recommends first getting rid of everything that is broken, missing important pieces, unloved, or otherwise not a "good toy." He gives examples of what makes a toy good, and does allow one exception: If it was given by a person who will likely notice and be offended by its absence, tuck it away somewhere and bring it out when the person comes to visit. I see some wisdom in this strategy, but two faults: (1) I should think most gift-givers would like to know if a gift is unwelcome, so as not to continue wasting time and money on something that is seen as a burden, and (2) eventually one of the children will say something like, "I'm glad you're here Grandma; we only get to play with X when you come to visit." Chances are that even after radical reduction, a modern child will still have more toys than Payne recommends; these go into a "toy library" and are brought out on a one-in, one-out basis. The same procedure is applied to books.
Our purpose here [in drastically reducing the number of books readily available to a child at any given time] is not to discourage reading, but to allow the child to really concentrate on, and revel in, whatever they are reading (or doing) at any given time.
Parents are often surprised by the power of less as it relates to everyday choices. We live in a country and era that equate “choice” with “freedom.” Yet for young children, “freedom of choice” about every small detail in their day—everything they eat, wear, or do—can be a paralyzing burden.
Only with less can a child learn what it is that they do like, and what speaks to them. When their expectations are always met—even anticipated—their will is left flaccid and weak.
Yes, yes, I know; that's a painful sentence, especially since it could have been fixed simply by casting the whole thing in the plural.
This or that remarkable new toy will not make your child more creative, socially adept, or smarter, despite all the claims its manufacturer makes. … If you feel pressured as a parent to buy a toy because you fear that without it your child will “fall behind” or not “measure up” to other kids his or her age, chances are it is not a toy you want to buy. I’m not suggesting that such a toy might be harmful; I’m suggesting that thinking about toys in this way can be.
Although on the surface the book comes across as negative about "educational toys," I think the author and I are not so far apart on this as it appears at first. It’s true that when I consider toys one of my first concerns is always its educational value. All toys teach. The question is, what are they teaching? I’m fairly certain Payne would not approve of the PowerPoint shows I make for our grandkids; after all, they’re basically high-tech flash cards, and flash cards are for crazy parents who want to make their kids into baby valedictorians, right? Well, no. I see these shows as much more as homemade books that are not only educational but fun, and if they’re not as good as reading with a grandchild in my lap, they’re the best I can do when the closest grandkids are over 1000 miles away. They also work great when repeated reading requests have completely worn out my voice…. But whether or not Payne would buy that argument, we certainly agree on a preference for simple toys that encourage creativity, over noisy, flashing electronics, even if to me the issue is primarily one of educational value.
I think it is important that, whenever possible, what a child touches be real. A plastic hammer has no solidity, no weight or heft in the hands of a five-year-old. Even small versions of real tools are preferable to such blatantly false imitations. Granted, a child must be taught how to use real tools, and monitored for a time. But with such play comes the bonus of genuine involvement and mastery. A small worktable or bench [or kitchen counter!], preferably right alongside the larger one used by Mom or Dad, can involve a child to lesser and greater degrees over many years.
By keeping [toy storage] low—at a child’s level—and movable (that is, in baskets or carts that can be pulled out), you are inviting a child’s participation in cleanup. If the bin or toy chest is unmovable, a child will usually clean up … one … item … at … a … time. First they’ll bring this one over to dump in the bin, then they’ll go back for this very interesting one, which really needs to be looked at more carefully, because really, when it is connected with this one over here.… The child is fully involved again, but not in cleaning up. If the basket can be slid to the child, then he or she can use both hands to tidy up staying right there, engaged, until the task is done.
By displaying and playing from one basket at a time, a child is better able to focus while playing, and to clean up. Upending huge bins of toys sometimes seems like a bonanza, a luxury of possibilities. In daily life terms, however, doing so just creates, and re-creates, chaos. Areas of clutter around the house tend to be hot spots for difficulties with transitions and discipline. The forces of time and space naturally collide where there is too little time and too much stuff. Kids tend to spin out in response to too many things, making cleanup and transitions even more problematic.
How many toys can your child (depending on their age) put away, by themselves, in five minutes? Let that be your guide. Reinforce the notion by storing most toys out of view and by saying, when necessary: “That’s enough toys out now.”
Kids don’t need many toys to play, or any particular one. What they need most of all is unstructured time.
Time, the rhythms of daily life, and "decluttering" family activities are the focus of a goodly section of the book. What struck me immediately—which will surprise not one of my readers—is that, in all the author's suggestions for redeeming a family's time, the eight hours or so given over each day to school is never questioned. When we made the decision to abandon that rat race, time figured in many of our "Fifty Reasons for Homeschooling," and almost a quarter-century later, I'd give it even more prominence.
Time, which can seem like an unpredictable tyrant, pulling and pushing a child through the day, is tamed and tied down with family dinners, reading before bed, with chores and unscheduled play, and the “compass kisses” (north, south, east, and west) bestowed before they head out the door. Only with regularity can the joy of the unexpected and the luxury of the unplanned find a place in the home, too. [emphasis mine]
Life today for most families is characterized more by randomness and improvisation than rhythm. Tuesday wash day? Cookies and milk after school? Sunday roast beef dinner? … Whenever I ask a mother or father to describe for me a “typical day” in their home, nine times out of ten they begin by saying there is no “typical.”
Increasing the rhythm of your home life is one of the most powerful ways of simplifying your children’s lives. … It will also simplify—not complicate—yours. And it can be done.
Rhythm calms and secures children, grounding them in the earth of family so they can branch out and grow. The implication of rhythms is that there is an “author” behind how we do things as a family. Parental authority is strengthened by rhythms; and “authority” is established that is gentle and understandable. “This is what we do” also says, “There is order here, and safety.”
For parents, the advantages of rhythm are equally pronounced. Rhythm carves the necessary channels for discipline, making it more intrinsic than imposed. Where well-established rhythms exist, there is much less parental verbiage, less effort, and fewer problems around transitions.
Parents also suffer the effects of a chaotic, arrhythmic home life. When life is a series of improvisations and emergencies, each day different from the next, children don’t know if they’re coming or going. As parents, at least you know. You know that you are coming and going at the same time, crazy busy, and no matter how adept you may be at “multitasking,” you feel stressed by it all. Beaten down, mentally and physically. Yes, rhythm makes children feel more secure. Absolutely. But a sense of rhythm makes adults calmer, too, and less plagued by parental craziness. With consistent structures in place, you’ll feel less like a Border collie, constantly nipping at your children’s heels.
When we open up our child’s schedules, we make room for anticipation. Just as it’s hard to cherish a toy that’s buried in the middle of a pile, it is hard to anticipate something when we’re always busy, or when we’re trying to do everything now.
One of the simplest, purest forms of stability or predictability in daily life is politeness. It is a level of communication and interaction that can be counted on, that builds trust. When you ask me for something, you say “please”; when I respond to your request, you say “thank you,” and I say “you’re welcome.” What could be more predictable? In the flow of the day’s words, noises, shouts, and various utterances, this polite exchange stands out for children like a nursery rhyme, secure and familiar. It is also a code. In its regularity, politeness affirms and reaffirms our connection; the way we treat each other.
Some people may feel that politeness, especially for young children, is a form of blind obedience, or enforced conformity. I take a different view. Politeness is one of the simplest ways to establish a base beat of predictability in the home. … Politeness practiced in the home is a very basic, simple way to give children deep feelings of safety.
A third area of major concern is too much adult information, whether from the media or from careless adult conversation. (I would add, from other children who have been exposed to TMAI.)
Banning the television … while the kids are very young is the most controversial of my recommendations for simplifying screens. I have seen firsthand how remarkably effective it can be in honoring the tremendous growth and creativity of early childhood, as well as its simpler, slower pace. My experience has left me no doubt that for most families, the benefits of this step far outweigh its difficulty. I would also recommend that children under seven not spend their time on computers, video games, or handheld electronic devices.
Obviously, I would not agree with the all-out ban-till-seven rule. But my support of some "screen time" comes with the requirement that the quantity be a very small percentage of the child's play time, and the subject something that is better accomplished with the electronic device than without. (As an example, a video can provide theater performances to children who would otherwise, for reasons of expense or attention span, miss out. In our case, it was Gilbert & Sullivan.) It goes without saying that the adults in the family should be good models in this regard.
I am suggesting … that parents consciously say no thanks to media overexposure [for themselves]. Limit or cut your use of those media that alarm rather than inform. It can make a dramatic difference in your emotional life, and the emotional climate of your home, when you refuse to allow your fear to be provoked, stoked, and incited several times a day. … [Many] parents today are better “informed” than their parents were, but they’re also much more nervous. Their emotional well-being is being eroded by media that, if allowed, can easily saturate their lives. Media that exploit our deepest, most primal urge to protect our children. Yet, as parents, we need to be more than just our desire to protect, no matter how noble and important that is. We need to live with confidence, to parent with a sense of strength and openness, and perhaps most of all, a sense of humor.
[A]dult anxieties and concerns should not be the atmosphere, a haze of too much information, that [our children] breathe. Children need to know that theirs is a good world. They need to feel that, sheltered by those they love, they are where they should be. They have a place, in a time and a world of hope and promise.
[W]hat children mainly hear, in your wash of words, is the current of emotion running through them. And what they understand, more than the details, or any words we could possibly use are our actions. When we speak of others with respect—whether it’s our mother, bus driver, the president, or the man at the checkout stand—no explanations or distinctions are necessary.
Do you love the times you live in? We project a general sense of optimism to children when we talk less (with them) about things they may not understand and definitely have no pwer to affect. The details are often lost on them, but the way we move in the world determines their view. We may not be crazy about this or that politician, or the politics in our workplace, but as adults we know things change. We know we have the recourse of our actions and our vote.
When we talk less, we convey a sense of confidence and competence in the world, a world where people strive to be just. There’s less need to explain, expound, justify, clarify, or qualify—and our meaning is clearer—when we pay more attention (as children do) to the tone of our words and our actions. When I remind myself about ‘talking less,” I sometimes think of the character Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. In the midst of a difficult, even scary situation, it was his calm and consistent manner more than his words that spoke to his children. Such security is priceless. It is a solid foundation. It helps a child through those dark nights when, in your ham costume, you can’t see clearly.
One of the best filters I know for talking less has been attributed to [many sources]. … It’s easier to remember than to put into practice. I find this filter works wonders for parents, wherever and whenever they remember to use it, in helping them speak less, and more consciously:
Before you say something, ask yourself these three questions: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?
I don’t take necessary to mean that everything we say has to be instructive, or have some larger educational or inspirational purpose. Instead, I take necessary to mean “more important than silence.” What enables us to read a word is the white space all around it, and without some intervening quiet we couldn’t hear a thing. Silence is important, especially in a noisy family in a noisy world. And noise is self-perpetuating, so if your kids grow accustomed to a “noisy norm” they will always try to create and maintain that level of clamor. [Now that's a scary thought.]
And a few more quotations, on random topics:
Requests may seem like “gentler” forms of communication [than straightforward instructions], but with so many of them they’re very easy to ignore, and their uniformity makes it hard for a child to know what’s really important. They invite response, but not really, so the overall effect is one of background noise. “So Ben, what do you think? Wanna get ready for bed now? Brush your teeth, buddy, okay?” [versus] “Bedtime, Ben. You know what to do.”
[Journalist Sharon Begley] describes how neurologists have been astounded by the measurable, replicable effects of meditation practice on the mind and brain. Their brain scan evidence showed that the neural activity of highly trained monks was “off the charts” (in relation to standard measures and in relation to the neural activity of more novice monks), even when they were not meditating. The areas of the brain where such emotional complexities as maternal love and empathy are believed to be centered (caudate and right insula), and feelings of joy and happiness (left prefrontal cortex), were actually anatomically enlarged, structurally altered by virtue of the monks’ lives and their meditation practices.
Kids are not monks who can meditate for hours a day, but they do the equivalent when they are involved in play, in deep, uninterrupted play.
Alas, the author does not provide a reference for this. It makes sense—not only for children at play but for anyone allowed to work with intense focus, and without interruption, at an interesting and pleasurable activity. But I’d like to see some documentation.
The long process toward a baby’s first steps is driven by her desire to see and experience more of the world. From turning her head to the side, to pushing up on her elbows while lying on her belly, and eventually to rolling over, each phase requires repetitive trial and error, and great effort. … [H]uman development takes time, even if most infants manage it within a year and a half or so. It requires many hours of “floor time,” of stretching, scooching, and crawling about.
There has been a dramatic rise in “sensory integration” therapy in the past ten years, which strives to build neural connections and pathways that were not established naturally through these early childhood activities. In our hurry to have our children walk or in our anxiousness to serve them, we may cause them to skip stages essential for neural development.
The developmental purpose of adolescence’s polarities is a zig-zaggedy path toward self-regulation. We now know the brain is still developing during these years, particularly those sections that are critical for judgment and reason.
The book mentions several times the “normal” instability and contrariness of teenagers, and certainly we hear the same refrain in the news: Teens can't be expected to control themselves; that part of the brain isn't well-formed yet. Teens can't be expected to think logically, react politely, or even to get out of bed on time, because that's just the way they're wired. What I want to know is, if these brain differences are real, what is cause, and what is effect? In the past, teens did adult work and took on adult responsibilities. Many of my ancestors were married in their teen years, and raised successful families. Children were crowned kings, and though they had regents who held the real power, the monarchs often took matters into their own hands at sixteen or so. David Farragut commanded a ship at age 12. Is it possible that brains develop faster when more is expected of them?
A wonderful counterbalance to “entertaining” children is to involve them in a task, in the “work” of family life. Home is the environment a child will know best, and they need to affect their environment through their own efforts. As small beings they can feel like inferior, passive observers of all that happens around them. A sense of industry—of busyness and purpose—counteracts feelings of overwhelm. … Children who grow up as little doers, making Christmas breakfast and participating in the chores of daily life, will already have an inner gesture, a posture toward competency, activity, and autonomy.
Stories affect the way children learn to narrate their own lives, and influence the stories they will tell themselves. Einstein once said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” It is all there, in fairy tales: truth, beauty, goodness, struggles and second chances, mistakes, conflicts, promises, and magic; archetypal lessons for a lifetime.
Finally, the last word:
Is there a step in the process of simplification that seems absolutely doable, something you know is possible now, in your own home? This is your starting point, the trailhead of your path toward the larger changes you envision. Once you have a clear image of this task—what you need to do and what your daily life will look like when it is done—get started. Step into that picture. … Begin.
There's almost nothing in Simplicity Parenting for which I can't see some application in my own life, grandmother that I am. I hope to incorporate several of its ideas in my Foundations 2013 program. Indeed, some are there already, for as I said at the beginning of this post, the book is not so much new as it is comprehensive, inspirational, and practical.