Book Review: Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne with Lisa M. Ross
"If, as a society, we are embracing speed, it is partially because we are swimming in anxiety. Fed this concern and that worry, we're running as fast as we can to avoid problems and sidestep danger. We address parenting with the same anxious gaze, rushing from this "enrichment opportunity" to that, sensing hidden germs and new hazards, all while doing our level best to provide our children with every advantage now known or soon to be invented. This book is not about hidden dangers, quick fixes, or limited-time opportunities; it is about the long haul. The big picture: a reverence for childhood." —Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting, p.xvii
Do you want to make your home a quieter, calmer, more restful home base?
Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne (Ballantine Books, 2009) explains how to declutter your house and your life, how to reduce media and simplify schedules, how to create rhythms that support your family values, and how to help children emerge, like butterflies, from their childhood at their own pace. It's a book about making home and childhood a sanctuary; about protecting children from the stress of hectic modern life; about the long-term view of development.
My overall impression was that Payne has a lot of wisdom to offer, though there wasn't that much that I didn't already know or hadn't already read about elsewhere. Good reminders. My book club enjoyed this book; one mom had read it years ago, and was delighted to discover new insights reading it again now. (Scroll down to find discussion questions for your own book club!)
Simplicity Parenting will appeal to you if you want to simplify your life. If you're looking to smooth out your days and calm the crazy, you'll find helpful advice in these pages. It'll be especially appealing to parents who like the Waldorf, Charlotte Mason, and other nature-based philosophies. If you've read other parenting books such as Hunt, Gather, Parent (read my review!) or homeschooling books such as Teaching From Rest (read my review!), you'll find some similarities here.
As Payne writes,
"Simplifying acknowledges how a child comes to understand the world—through play and interaction, not through adult concerns and information. The pressure is off when childhood is no longer seen as an "enrichment opportunity" but instead as an unfolding experience—an ecology—with its own pace international systems." —Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting, p215
Diving in: Schedules
Payne talks about schedules—including how little free time many kids actually have. Most children are over-scheduled. They have school all day, often followed by structured activities (such as sports and other extracurriculars), homework, and TV time or other screen time. This over-scheduling can lead to an emphasis on accomplishment and competition over enjoyment and satisfaction; as a result, children may not be able to develop self-direction or internal motivation.
"[A] child who doesn't experience leisure—or better yet, boredom—will always be looking for external stimulation, activity, or entertainment." —Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting, p196
You need pauses among the rhythm of your days, chances to deepen activity with imagination and reflection, pauses for anticipation of the next activity, time for inner development.
"But scarcity—that frustrating, "nothing to do" state—is like a hush in the crowd. Silence. What whisper voice can begin to be heard? The child's inner voice. Stand back. Anything can happen. By reaching for something to do, instead of always being scheduled or entertained, children get creative. They begin building a world of their own making." —Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting, p184
Payne makes good points in this chapter about moments of sabbath, distraction-free zones, setting aside being on-call for a while to be present. I was less in need of the reminders—I know the importance of boredom and free time!—but for many parents, the idea of stepping back from constant lessons, activities, and structured time, and stepping back from their role as children's entertainers, will be novel.
Personally, we limit our scheduled activities. Payne shared a story of a mother who would look at her child's week, and rate each day: more active, or more calming? She tried to balance them out. That's already something we do.
He also talked about sports, and the increasing demands of young children's sports schedules—the professionalization of children's sports. I found it particularly interesting that sports participation peaks around age 11 and declines thereafter, since I didn't start fencing until I turned 12. Payne mentions that many families, when they get involved in sports, give up family dinners, evening and weekends times, because they think the sports are more important. On the flip side, I know a family that eschewed sports entirely to preserve those evenings and weekends.
"Rich, fertile soil takes time and balance to develop. The same is true of childhood. In fact, in simplifying your family's schedule, it may be helpful to write a list of things that take time. Things that can't be rushed, things that deepen over time…. Your child's interests, their abilities, their sense of freedom, their sense of humor, and their sense of themselves will be on the list; these take time. The strength of your family's connectedness also takes time and balance. So start with balanced schedules. So the seeds of balanced childhoods. What will develop, over time, are strong and whole, resilient, balanced individuals." —Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting, p210
Diving in: Rhythm
I'd been thinking about rhythm and structure a lot when we read this book for book club, since it was near the start of the school year (not that we follow the school year, but some of our activities do). Payne's thoughts on the importance of rhythm reminded me that I could be more consistent in setting family rhythms than I have been are, for mornings, family dinners, and evenings, in particular. I was reminded of another mom who once shared with me that she always does slow mornings and hot breakfasts with her kids, because she didn't want them to have the rushed feeling of eating a cold eggo on the way out the door to school. Being a homeschooler, she has the flexibility to set that rhythm.
"A deep comfort in one another's company is what we look for in family; it's what we want our children to feel. A sense of ease that doesn't depend on a shared interest, activity, or conversation. This reassuring connection is often effortless when they're young. We are, after all, the family architect; we build its structures, we set its emotional climate. As our kids grow toward independence, however, there are more opportunities for hits and misses in our emotional timing and connection with one another." —Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting, p143
Payne says that it's the moments between activities that give us space to connect and relate. Children need the pauses to process their thoughts and feelings. If you don't give them that space, if they're so busy and scheduled, you'll miss the connection. The moments of doing nothing, together, are crucial. Ask yourself: can you and your children exist in the same space, doing nothing in particular, having no planned activities, and find things to talk about or do (side-by-side, or together)?
Downtime also lets children release the pressure of the day—which, incidentally, helps them sleep better. Payne recommends quiet moments, such as naptimes, quiet time, moments of silence before meals, lighting a candle, storytime before bed, or snack time after school.
Here's a few sentences Payne wrote about story time that I loved:
"Stories have their own richness and rhythms, a musicality of language that children love. I'm sure you've heard images and phrases from stories come through in their play. Kids learn about the world through stories, and about a world of possibilities that stretches far beyond their bedroom walls. By lending their hearts and emotions to the characters, children carve out their own identities and dig inner wells of compassion and empathy." —Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting, p168–169
Diving in: Environment and technology
Payne is big on simplifying the child's environment—both in terms of quantity of clutter, and in terms of stimulation. He's all for fewer, open-ended toys, less screentime, and more space to explore and create. Simplifying leads to increases in attention, curiosity. and deep play. The high stimulation of screens, or the myriad options of a towering pile of toys, can lead to passivity, inattentiveness, boredom, and unrealistic expectations for how exciting real life is. Payne writes,
"The degree of creativity and inventiveness possible in any environment relates to the kind of variables in it. In other words, in play children use what they can move and what they can transform with their imagination. … The creativity is not in the things themselves, it is the force with which children move, imagine, and design with them. This flexibility is the difference between fixed toys and open-ended toys." —Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting, p85
Among the moms in my book club, I have a unique challenge when it comes to decluttering toys. They have fewer children, or older children, and once the last one outgrows the toys, they can seriously remove some. In my case, however, when my kids outgrow a toy, they've still got a younger sibling in line for it—and they're ready for the older toys, so I have to have everything available. We've worked out a system—as I mentioned above—where we only have a few out at once. But it's an interesting challenge.
Diving in: Parent pressure
Payne talks about the pressure parents often feel to conform. For instance: all the other parents allow devices and screentime! All the other parents signed their young kids up for sports! Etc. and so forth.
"Parents feel tremendous of pressure, both cultural and self-induced, to enrich, enhance, and escalate their children's early years. Under the guy's of protecting and providing, we control and cater to our children. If childhood is a "window of opportunity" for growth, we assume that it means it's a "limited-time opportunity." In a competitive vein, where more and faster are always better, our methods and our goal become clear: to "get more in" before the imaginary window closes." —Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting, p247-8
Personally, I've rarely felt the pressure to conform. Whatever my parents did, they did something right! Whether in my parenting decisions or otherwise, I am quite content to order a pot of raspberry tea at the bar while everyone else is downing beers. (Yes, I've done that.) I am fine being anti-mainstream.
As part of not conforming, Payne argues against helicopter parenting. Don't hover; allow your child to develop secure attachment and autonomy.
"When children are not being told what to want and what to imagine, they can learn to follow their own interests, to trust their own emerging voices. They can discover what genuinely speaks to them." —Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting, p87
Diving in: Pace, emotions, and stress
One of the big takeaways of the book is that children move, and ought to move, at a different—often slower—pace than adults. Don't expect children to move at your pace. They're encountering the world for the first time. They have different interests and concerns than you. As another mother told me once, she feels all her children are their own people already, and her job as mother is getting to know them. It's not so much about shaping them as observing and guiding.
Payne advises parents to reduce the stress their children are exposed to. He writes,
"What has also become increasingly clear to me is that so much of this stress is what we now call daily life. It is the life that surrounds our children, a daily life that is unfortunately not that distinct from the life we leave as adults: a daily life submerged in the same media-rich, multitasking, complex, information-overloaded, time-pressured waters as our own." —Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting, p13
In addition to downsizing schedules, decluttering toys, and so on, limit children's access to the world of adults. They don't need it yet. Recognize that children pick up on our emotions and mirror them, so be aware of your own emotions, and your own stress.
Payne also acknowledges that development, as a child, isn't always smooth. Children have emotional turmoil, what Payne calls "soul fever." Children can be disrupted and dysregulated, and these developmental periods—these growing pains—can last weeks, or years. The main thing? When you feel your child is caught up in too much, slow down and step back, the way you would when your child has a physical fever. Also, remember that children don't have the same level of emotional control or emotional intelligence as adults. It takes time, usually far more time than parents expect. As Michaeleen Doucleff wrote in Hunt, Gather, Parent, in America, people generally overestimate children's emotional abilities and underestimate their physical abilities. Give children time to develop.
Diving in: Centering values
Another theme, from later in the book, was the idea of sticking to your family values. If you know what you as a family stand for, then you can make sure all of your behavior, your guidance, your schedules, your rhythms, and so on are aimed toward that end. What is your vision for your family? What does your family value?
I know a family who keeps their family mission statement up on a wall, where everyone can see it. When they decided, for instance, not to participate in organized sports, they referenced their mission statement and their value of strong family connections. Sports would cut into too much family time in evenings and weekends.Payne also talks about parenting styles and the role of parents within a family. The key point: Parents aren't their children's siblings or their children's friends. The relationship needs to be more vertical than horizontal. Parents are the authority, though they don't have to be authoritarian; they don't give in simply because a child demands it, if they know what's best for their child; children are looking for their parents to lead them and guide them.
The parents I see struggle with vertical vs. horizontal the most are parents of only children. The child wants a playmate; the parent acquiesces. I think finding the right balance may be easier when you have more children. Then it's clearer than the children's friends and playmates—their horizontal relationships—are their siblings, and their other friends, not their parents.
When taking steps to simplify your life, the key is to look at your vision for your family and your family values. What would be a little step you can take in the right direction? Look for what Payne calls "flashpoints—the points at which tempers rise, cooperation, evaporates, and chaos ensues." These are places of tension that are ripe for change.
What did my book club think?
My book club split our discussion of this book into two separate meetings, because—to no one's surprise—many of the mothers are too busy to manage to read the entire book in one month. (Perhaps after simplifying they'll have more time?) We also figured there would be plenty to discuss even from the first couple chapters (and we were right)
We talked about ways we are simplifying, in the home and outside it. For instance, some are cutting down on the number of toys they have available for their kids. Personally, we have a lot of toys available for rotation. They're in bins. One bin can be out at a time. If the kids want a new bin out, they have to clean up the playroom first. We used to have some toys available all the time; recently, most of those have been moved to the bin rotation, too.
We talked about rhythms and schedules, being over-scheduled, and how to slow down. One mom shared a family ritual: before dinner, they light a candle, have a moment of silence, and say a blessing. It's a reminder to be present together and slow down.
One question that arose was: How do you know if you're doing too much? One mom reminded us of a meme that had been shared, which featured women a century ago getting together to do laundry together. She asked us, "How would those women have time for all the things you do?"
"They wouldn't," another mom offered tentatively.
"Exactly." We aren't supposed to be so busy with out-of-the-house activities. Part of simplifying is about simplifying your schedule and finding a slower pace of life.
In relation to that, we talked about sports. Payne advocates for waiting to start sports until kids are older—middle school ages, not 5 years old. He argues that children often burn out on the sport when they start too young. Usually, that means they're being pushed too hard to develop a talent early, and often, that their intrinsic motivation is squashed or replaced by the external drive to seek approval or fame.
One of the moms in the group has a 7-year-old daughter in taekwondo. She asked us whether she shouldn't, even though it was clearly a good experience for her daughter and not overly competitive. We reminded her that she's not running a typical public-schooling family. Payne's advice is aimed at mainstream parents, who, far more than us unconventional homeschoolers, have busy children. School days with sports on top can easily be far too much, for any age child.
The key point here was that we all need time and space to move at our own pace. I know I'm happier when I have days that are just at home, doing home things. My kids, too. One week earlier this fall, we had a couple busy days in a row: at our Sudbury co-op, apple picking at a local farm. The next morning, my son asked me if we were doing anything that day. Well, I told him, we had the option of going to the farm again for the Sudbury co-op. Or we could stay home! "Oh, good." was his reply. We all need rest and recovery days, quiet days to balance out the busy.
One of the other moms said that, while reading the book, she kept thinking of me—because I seem good at having that rest time baked into our schedule. And that's because I need it, too! Being over-scheduled is one of the biggest problems everyone has.
Our discussion also included children's tantrums, the kinds of activities or situations that seem to set children off, and what to do about it. The most helpful advice we shared: First, that children are happier, more able to deal with transitions, with fewer big negative emotions, when they have time and space to go at their own pace. (Sounds like a theme of this book…!)
Second, that children are generally doing the best they can with the tools they have, with where they are developmentally. Developmentally, it takes a long time to be able to manage our emotions and to have the self control to not "act out". Reminding ourselves that our children are doing the best they can can help us stay calm when our children aren't calm. One mom shared that she had made a list of things "things that my kid does that are developmentally at his level." The list contained all the frustrating and outraging behaviors her kid went through, as a reminder not to expect her kid to have it all together yet.
Simplicity Parenting book club discussion questions
- In chapter 1, p18, Payne writes that you can see so much about what a family holds dear from the pattern of their everyday lives. If someone looked at your life, what would they see about your family and your values?
- Payne asks, in chapter 1, p19, How did you imagine your family and children? How did you picture yourselves as parents? How did you imagine your home?
- Payne says a lot of parents tell him, "We didn't think it would be like this." How about you? Did you think it would be like this?
- Do you feel that your children have too many toys? How do so many toys end up in your house? Do you feel motivated to declutter?
- Payne shares the example of a pair of siblings who fought more than they played (p81). He suggests that their reactions were mostly due to a feeling of overwhelm, not because of some innate sibling rivalry. How do your children play together?
- In chapter 3, Payne talks about the benefits of open-ended toys. Which toys do your children seem to gravitate towards? Which ones are they playing with when you see them at their deepest, most engaged play?
- In chapter 3, Payne gives a list of 10 qualities of toys without staying power. How did you feel upon reading this list? How is your child's room doing? How did your parents do when you were a child?
- In chapter 4, Payne relates examples of morning routines.What does your morning look like? Mornings set the tone for the day. How can you make your mornings more calm?
- We benefit most when making changes to the pain points. What parts of your day are hardest or most stressful? Why? What suggestions from chapter 4 might help?
- In chapter 5, Payne discusses the importance of boredom. How often are you your child's entertainer? When they start complaining in the fair board, how often do you rescue them? How often do you schedule and entertain? Think back to when you were a child. Do you remember being bored? What did you get up to, after you fell bored for a while?
- In chapter 5, Payne explains the power of being able to enjoy an ordinary day. Do you feel a pressure to deliver exceptional days? How often are you contend with? Missing out on some great opportunity because it's better for your kids to have a day to play, to explore closer to home, to have a day off from being out?
- At the start of chapter 6, Payne asks a mother to pick a word that best described her experience of motherhood. That mother chose "worry." What word would you choose?
- In chapter 6, Payne talks about the pressure to conform—to let children have screentime and devices, to fit in with all the other parents, etc. How much pressure do you feel? What can you do about it?
- On p248–249, Payne describes a couple types of over-involved parenting styles. Do you see yourself in any of these?
- Chapter 6 talks about the level of involvement of mothers versus fathers. What is the balance like in your marriage? Are you the worried or the calm one?
- Chapter 7 discusses centering values in your family. What are your family's values? Are all the activities you do aligned with your family values?