Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.
Earlier this year, a friend passed on a book to me - Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne. I am not one to read many books like this, but once I picked up this book I found it hard to put down. Parenting is hard work at the best of times, full of joys and struggles; but parenting in a hyper-consumer culture throws up a whole new level of complexities and conundrums. There are so many questions: what do I think about this? What do I do about that?
This book by Kim John Payne has really helped me to clarify some of my thinking as well as given me practical strategies for action. So much so, that a group of us have used the book as the basis for a whole day-long discussion on parenting – not just about the ideas in this book, but about our own experiences of parenting as well. It is such a worthwhile thing to do, I thought I would give a very brief summary of the book here to encourage any others who are asking similar questions to have a look, and to talk about it with others.
1. Why Simplify?
Kim John Payne covers some of “the problem” with our society’s view of childhood in this chapter. He asserts that our drive towards “too much, too soon, too fast” deprives our kids of what they need most: opportunities for deep, focused play, and connection with family - a safe haven to slowly unfold into the people they are meant to be. Too many toys, too much adult information, too much media, and too many scheduled activities take their toll on both these things.
What is it about childhood that you want to protect and preserve for your little ones? Be specific – get a clear picture of your dreams for them. Having a clear image of our goal will ease the daily decisions that must be made in a way that protects childhood.
2. Soul Fever
Soul Fever is what the author describes as the emotional equivalent of a physical fever. When small (or large) stresses accumulate, you may find your child with a soul fever: they are “out of sorts”, not at their best (and quite possibly at their worst), and they may seem stuck in that frustrated state. Payne suggests that we notice this and take it as seriously as a physical fever – slowing down, drawing the child near, suspending normal routine in order to give the child the calm and safe space to untangle their “emotional knot” – to return to their best, most balanced self.
How do you know when your child is overwhelmed? Some children may become sullen, others hyperactive. Some may become more irritable, or have less patience with siblings. As Payne described in the book, when a child is overwhelmed with cumulative stress, it is almost as though your child becomes a caricature of his normal self, with all the “quirks” intensified.
“When your child seems to deserve affection least, that’s when they need it most.” When the quirks are showing, when the behavior is most embarrassing, Payne makes the point that that is the time for us to draw them close, to dial back on daily routine, to have a quiet day at home – for many children this is all they need to come back to their best, to “reset”.
How much stuff is too much? What kind of environment is most healthy? What environment is most conducive to nurturing imagination or to a giving spirit?
This chapter discusses the “mountain of toys” that is so common in bedrooms and toy boxes everywhere, and the implications this phenomenon has on developing children. It’s been only 50 years since the advent of mass-produced, inexpensive toys, and the marketing of those toys directly to children. Over this time, one historian, Chudacoff, notes that children’s play has taken a dramatic shift – now far less focused on activities, but more focused on the things involved. Kim John Payne also notes: “The trend towards more high-tech toys speaks to the presumed need for more and more stimulation to hold a child’s attention. This notion has been sold to us so aggressively, not by any one advertisement, but by the cumulative whole. It is the endgame of the commercialization of play. It asserts that play requires products, and that parents must constantly increase the quantity and complexity of toys to capture their children’s attention.”
This chapter really gets you thinking about the role of advertisers in your child’s environment. Marketers fill children’s programming with the message that they should not be content with what they have. That what they really need is more things – that fulfillment can be found in “stuff”. We, too, may be vulnerable to messages from marketers that claim that toy will spark creativity and unleash imagination! Payne comments: “Ironically, this glut of goods may deprive a child of a genuine creativity builder: the gift of their own boredom.” I found it helpful to remember here that there is no toy that a child really needs to develop well. What they need is unstructured time.
The good news is that we can choose another way. That we can, as Payne says, “draw lines in the sand around our children”, protecting them from the commercialization of childhood and the onslaught of too much stuff. We can give them the opportunity to engage deeply in imaginative play, to create their own worlds and characters. We can provide them an environment of calm openness. Perhaps, best of all, we can nurture in them a spirit that will be for them a lifelong gift – a knowledge that fulfillment comes from relationships, not things. This chapter goes into great detail with tips for paring down the toys and books and keeping only what is best.
“Meaning hides in repetition: we do this every day or every week because it matters. We are connected by this thing we do together. We matter to one another. In the tapestry of childhood, what stands out is not the splashy, blow-out trip to Disneyland but the common threads that run throughout and repeat: the family dinners, nature walks, reading together at bedtime, Saturday morning pancakes.”
The message in this chapter is that we can help our children and our families thrive by providing elements of rhythm or predictability. Payne describes these rhythmic family rituals as “islands of consistency and security” that can give our children a chance to take a breath, to re-center, and to stay balanced. Learning is increased and tantrums are kept to a minimum. Our routines need not be complex — It may be one or two simple family rituals that connect your family. You will be amazed at how everyone benefits, and how you will look forward to these times just as much as your little ones!
If your family is busy, rhythm is still achievable, and is even more important. If both parents work, if hours are unpredictable, little rituals can work wonders to ground your family and give your children a sense of security.
Payne says in this chapter: “Just as too many toys may stifle creativity, too many scheduled activities may limit a child’s ability to direct themselves, to fill their own time, to find and follow their own path.”
Research cited in the book notes that, since 1981, homework time has doubled, scheduled extracurricular activities have doubled, and school days have lengthened – so that time for child-directed play is scarce. Spontaneous neighborhood games have been replaced by organized leagues, directed by adults. Even play is often adult-directed.
Payne suggests we discover “the gift of boredom” – and understand what a gift it truly is! Boredom can unleash some of the best, most creative, child-directed play – the kind that is the antidote to so many of the stresses they face. He says: “Let your kids be bored. Let them be. Sometimes in my lectures I write up a ‘prescription’ for parents: “Boredom. To be allowed three times a day, preferably before meals.”
By allowing down-time, we restore balance, and the “high” moments, the camping trips, the birthday parties, the trips to the zoo, are made even more valuable. They are anticipated, daydreamed about, remembered. Payne explains that anticipation counters instant gratification. It strengthens our children’s inner life with patience and an ability to wait - to hold back their own desire for ‘everything now.’
He clarifies the point: “I am not against sports, or toys…I am against the way that we’ve transposed adult endeavors – with an adult sense of competition, fanaticism, and consumerism – into children’s lives.”
6. Filtering Out the Adult World
One way we protect childhood is by acting as a “filter” for our young children – doing what they cannot yet do for themselves. This chapter gave some great practical tips on what things to hold back on while children are still very young. And central to it all is the need to simplify screens and learn to say “No, Thanks”.
It’s so counter-cultural it can make you look a little bit (or a lot) crazy, but rest assured you can do this in a way that works for your family, and you may even find this simpler way of life is much easier with young kids! Payne says: “Choosing not to have a television, at least while your kids are young, does not say ‘Television is an unqualified evil’ or ‘We want to go back to life in the 1940s’. It says, simply, on balance, ‘No thanks.’ It is a choice for engagement (with people, and the three-dimensional world) over stimulation, and activity over passivity, especially while kids are young. And you will greatly diminish your children’s exposure to violence and consumerism. Most of all, you will expand, almost doubling on average, your family’s free time.”
This chapter makes the strong case that limiting or removing television is one of the most powerful tools for a family who wants to simplify. Not only is there a new, safe space for children to develop slowly, but there is much more control of those messages targeted directly to children by marketers: what you have is not enough; you are not complete; you need more stuff (particularly the stuff we are selling!).
Another place we can act as good filters is in the conversation that takes place around our children. Children are often offered too much adult information, too much emotional clutter, before they have built the foundation to process it. This chapter points out that too much information does not prepare children for the grown-up world, rather, it paralyzes them. With great intentions, we lecture kindergarteners about shrinking oil reserves and world hunger – these topics are popping up more and more in children’s books and on children’s TV. We may think we are helping to create young activists, but childhood is not a time for these anxieties.
I loved the simple rule of “True. Kind. Necessary.” for conversation around children. Before sharing anything, we can ask: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?
I think that the main thing that I have taken from reading this book is to slow down and be more mindful of what, who and how our family nurtures and supports our children in their growing – physically, emotionally and spiritually. I have also really appreciated journeying with other parents in exploring how to best grow our children, knowing that we are not alone, and have a framework and the support of other parents in our work. I encourage you to read this book with your fellow parent, grandparents, friend or group of friends and share your thoughts and experiences.^ back to top