Simplicity Parenting in a World that Asks Too Much
"There is an undeclared war on childhood,” says Kim John Payne, psychologist, founder of the Simplicity Parenting movement, and author of Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. When Payne was in university, he worked and lived in a group home for gang-rescued and violent youth, and later worked with refugees from war zones. At a lecture given by one of the early researchers into trauma response (what would become known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)), the speaker described symptoms of combat veterans: controlling behaviours, over-active fight-or-flight response, difficulty with new things, obsessive patterns of behaviour, an inability to dress appropriately for the environment (e.g. when it was cold, they wore t-shirts), and an inability to properly taste food (thus seeking high stimulation foods that were extra-spicy or MSG-enhanced). “I was struck by how he was describing the kids in my group home.” Later, Payne established a practice where even more surprisingly, though his clientele consisted of mainstream children apparently living comfortable western lives, kids were appearing at his door looking much like PTSD victims. To his alarm he realized, “There was nothing ‘post’ about it in these kids; it was ongoing.” The constant layering of too much on top of too much became too difficult to process; a phenomenon Payne calls a cumulative stress reaction. “The highly stressed, fast-paced, too-much, too-sexy, too-young, has become the new normal. It forces kids into a stressed zone.”
Parenting in a too-much world
Parenting has never been more difficult, despite the fact that we have much more information about child development at our disposal according to Dr. Gordon Neufeld, psychologist and founder of the Neufeld Institute, and author of Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers.
What makes a child easier to parent? Neufeld answers: It’s a child who follows our lead, listens and attends to us, entrusts themselves to us, takes their cues from us, seeks our assistance, and likes our company. Good parenting is not a result of parental skill, or even love, according to Neufeld, rather the ease of parenting is predicated on the love of a child for the parent, which is achieved through relationship and the parent taking the lead with intention.
Much of today’s best parenting advice, from psychologists, such as Neufeld and Payne, to medical authors Dr. William Sears and Martha Sears RN, shares the same message: healthy child-parent relationships are the result of healthy attachment. How do we create those healthy attachments? There are different flavours, but the meat is pretty much the same: prioritize the relationship between you and your child over all things, activities, and all forms of clutter.
Simplifying the not-so-simple
“Take the lead in creating the culture of [your] family,” says Dayna Davis, a Neufeld instructor and public school teacher in my little West Coast community. She has seen this work in the classroom over her 30 years of teaching, in her Waldorf training with its emphasis on child development, and in her own life as a parent. Becoming a Neufeld instructor gave her the science and the language to make sense of what she instinctively did in her classroom, which is “giving a generous invitation for our children to exist in our presence.” She sees her job as making sure that every child entering her classroom feels that she delights in their presence, and she calls on parents to do the same.
The big mistake she sees parents and teachers making is assuming that young children are mini-adults. “We want them to grow up to be independent and have their own minds,” but she emphasizes they don't start that way. We give children too many choices that they aren’t developmentally ready to judiciously make, like bedtimes, foods, and screen time. “Too many decisions and too much choice overloads and overwhelms [the young child],” says Davis. In this stressed state it becomes harder for them to form healthy attachments, which in turn undermines their ability to develop these very skills of independence as they grow.
It’s great advice; it’s just not always easy to remember in the moment. I find myself asking questions that I know undermine my role as the leader in the family and railroads simplicity: “What do you want for breakfast?” “Do you want to have a playdate after school?” “Would you like to take this dance class?” When I know instead I should be saying, “Today is Monday: that means we are having eggs for breakfast. Would you like your egg fried or scrambled?”
The most practical parenting advice I’ve ever gotten was from my friend Maureen Gainer Reilly, who said to me, “Imagine you had six kids, would you still do that?” With a background as a professional organizer and coming from a big family herself, she knows how to breathe simplicity into life in a way that is truly practical. As a mother of four who runs her own business, she still finds time to volunteer in her Chicago community, church, and at her children’s school.
When I met Gainer Reilly she lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago that she shared with three of her children and her husband. She ran a tight ship. Bedtime was strictly enforced: all three of her children were asleep in the same room by 7:00 p.m. Her cupboards were labelled (“So that anyone can help me unload the dishwasher or put away the dishes.”), her children’s toys fit into three boxes (the less they have, the more they play with the toys they do have, and the easier it is for them to clean up), and the week’s schedule was on the kitchen wall where everyone could see it.
She acknowledges that simplifying is an active process that isn’t actually that simple. Yet, what is clear when you sit at her dining room table with children buzzing around and everything in its place is that it creates a sense of ease in what could be a chaotic environment. “Just as you control what your kids eat and the amount of TV they watch, I control their experiences, and I don’t say yes to everything.” She says that she and her husband limit extracurriculars, and “On the weekends, it is family time. There needs to be down time, time to read, hang-out, be bored, make cookies.” With anything, she says, “It’s important to ask: is this really necessary?” In Neufeld’s words, Gainer Reilly is successfully “in the lead” in her family. Payne might say that she’s done the work of creating less for her children: less stuff, less stress, less overwhelming information.
These tenets are also especially important when you are blessed with “quirky” or sensitive kids. Payne says it’s his working hypothesis that “All kids are quirky.” It’s a theory that resonates with me. In my observations of the many parents and children in my life, there is the finest of lines between a “normal” child and one with some sort of diagnosis, such as “anxious” or “on the spectrum”. “If we add accumulative stress to that [quirky child], that quirk becomes problematic and may even become a disorder,” says Payne. He and his many Simplicity Parenting coaches and parenting educators have experienced that while on one hand the irritated quirk can become a disorder; the soothed quirk becomes a gift. Soothing behaviours include rhythm, safety, a life that doesn’t overwhelm that child, no screens or low screen time, a lot of downtime, and a lot of nature. Payne says, “When the child’s fight-or-flight tendencies calm down, what makes the disorder a gift is a sense of timing. Now they can do things in the right time, in the right place, with the right pace, and at the right volume.” I have experienced less-is-more to be true in my life, having been similarly blessed with a very sensitive first child.
Parenting against the grain
Parents are more alone than they have ever been in their role as caregivers. “We used to have organized religion and other institutions,” that supported and guided parents in their role as leaders of their family, says Davis. “Obey your parents,” the bible says. It wasn’t just the church, it was nosy neighbours and grandmas that lived next door and teachers who exemplified the expected role of adults in family life. I’ve often felt how much easier it would be in my own life if I, like Anne of Green Gables when she had her children, could just be the parent that held and loved and sympathized with my child against the harsh realities of the world. But I must also be the dispenser of chores, the gatekeeper to entertainment, and the holder of the wallet in a world of endless and ubiquitous possibilities. It’s exhausting and heartbreaking to say no so often. And as Gainer Reilly notes: “It’s hard to buck the culture and not do what everyone else is doing, whether you are a teenager in high school or a 35-year-old mother”.
As parents we think: if we just give them all those things we didn’t have when we were young then they’ll be better prepared for life. We put them in music lessons, organized sports, tutoring programs, and summer camps to have experiences, to make friends, to get ahead. These aren’t negative things in and of themselves. But these plans interfere with the ability to give children the freedom of down time. According to Payne, stepping away from intense scheduling and activity and letting unscheduled time happen is what children need in order to engage in deeply creative play, to experience boredom, and to ultimately become self-motivated. In this way, simplicity (or attachment) parenting is a future-looking thing, preparing children to be curious, resilient, and flexible to the changing world around them. Davis also affirms that down time allows for deep play, and it is “in deep play that the sympathetic nervous systems rests,” allowing children the time to work through their trauma.
The desire to do better than our parents, keep up with everyone else, or “win” at parenting can create stumbling blocks. Perfection isn’t the goal of parenting, nor should the emphasis be on rearing “perfect” children. Our role as parents is simply to be there for our children. According to Davis, when kids feel that their needs, emotional, physical, and otherwise, are taken care of, they are free to explore the emergent energy or passion, for learning, activities, and for life. “What’s going to give [our children] the ability to find their passion in life is to let them be someone who doesn’t have to work for love.”
If you got a parenting do-over
If I could do it all over again, I’d have started with way less stuff. I received a lot of hand-me-downs and thoughtful presents and I kept them all. It’s lovely to have beautiful, handmade things but too much of a good thing is still too much. I’d have started practicing routine before I had children. Nowadays, my favourite acts of simplifying have been to create a weekly meal schedule (I like to keep this pretty standard such as Monday dinner is always a rice dish and Tuesdays is always something taco-related); creating days for down-time (such as Gainer Reilly’s family-only weekends); and taking the time to celebrate seasonal festivities.
I wouldn’t do those baby swim classes, mama and me yoga, or biking classes. I wouldn’t do the preschool piano camp or the 90 minute, thrice weekly preschool. I wouldn’t have held those crazy birthdays where we invited 100 people and donated time and resources to a cause. In other words, I would have followed Gainer Reilly’s advice and acted like I had six children. Or, as Davis says: “Rather than going outward to fill up the child, go deep like a well.” Being bored is a blessing that’s a precursor to creativity. The same holds true for a family: a family that has time together can learn to play, make music, tell stories, bake, and create together. And even the parents are happier.
Finally, I’d have dealt with my own media habits earlier. By removing unnecessary media influences, distancing myself from distractions, and choosing to become a more intentional media consumer, I’ve noticed a slow unwinding in myself as a result. I realized that being anxious took up time and that I feel more free now to research the issues that really matter and be involved with the select areas where I feel I can have influence.
For me, trying to be a “simpler” parent has been hard work. I want to be a person who is grateful, loving, and creative. I want to be strongly attached to my children, husband, and family. I want to have time for my family, myself, and my community. It has meant hard choices: saying no to jobs, quitting boards, leaving places that I have loved, moving, disconnecting, and admitting that I was wrong: a lot.
I used to wince when my kids spread stuff from one end of the house to the other while playing and say: “Maybe if I just let them watch TV.” But why? Letting go of impossible expectations means my children can still lose themselves in imaginative play and help with chores, and can wait patiently with nothing for entertainment for hours. There are still days though when one of them will say, “You should be called The Bad Mama instead of The Green Mama,” or I’ll lose my temper, or I’ll forget all of my parenting life-hacks and I’ll go to bed with back pain and a headache.
But it’s all worth it, because the real reward is that in making a conscious effort at simplifying their world and giving them the space to be themselves by removing excess demands, I like my children. And what is more delicious than getting to spend a lifetime with someone you both love and like?
Steps to simplicity parenting
To help cut through the clutter, Payne has devised an accessible set of principles to guide parents into habits that support a more secure and tranquil lifestyle:
Payne’s Four Pillars of Simplicity Parenting
- Simplify the environment. Declutter your home, your car, your children’s bedrooms. Gainer Reilly reiterates that spaces without clutter engender more play, just as they create better work spaces for adults.
- Simplify and strengthen rhythm. Establish healthy rhythms around mealtime, bedtime, and exercise. Establishing predictable transitions between activities is another great place to start. The simpler the routine and the fewer variations, the easier it is to establish.
- Simplify schedules. This allows you to “Bring moments of being into all the doing.” Be realistic about what you can get done in a day and schedule in free time for the entire family. And remember that the more sensitive the child, the fewer things that can be done in a day.
- Filter out overwhelming information. “Reduce the influence of adult concerns, media and consumerism on children and families to increase resilience, social, and emotional intelligence.” It’s never too early: an unborn baby’s sympathetic nervous system begins in utero.
Simplicity parenting hacks
- When your child says: “I hate you”, say: “I love you enough for both of us.”
- Send the message that nothing will ever break your relationship. Dayna Davis describes it as creating a bridge to help re-establish connection in the aftermath of a conflict. “I know we both got angry and said some things, but just so you know we are still okay and I am still really looking forward to our dinner together tonight.”
- Ask: is it essential? Will it bring us closer as a family or will we just trip over it in the middle of the night? Would I do it (or buy it) if I had six children?
- Read to your children every day. If it’s been a really rough day, put your kids in bed early and read to them for a very long time.
- Have your own restorative practice. If you never take regular moments for yourself, you won’t have anything left for your family.
- Dial back the choices. Allow them to feel in control by offering smaller choices within what’s already been decided (by you). “You get to take one after-school activity, would you like it to be dance or guitar?”
- Don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of what’s really good. Go easier on yourself as a “good enough” parent who is more likely to be available, write a book, and enjoy her friendships. This is a model for a child who is more likely to enter adulthood with the ability to say “no” when appropriate and “yes!” to life.