If you have not heard of Kim John Payne before, you likely will thank me for introducing his stellar work here. The Australian family consultant and author of the best seller Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids among other books (*), has extensively researched the roots and antidotes to social difficulties, behavioural issues and emotional obstacles.
The premise of the book is that overstimulation, as a slow, insidious drip of heightened stressors, creates an effect similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Children’s schedules, activities, meals, clothes, books and toys – all the over-committed, over-burdened ways we have stretched their lives – deplete our little ones’ inner resources.
I had my doubts about this book but it is not at all the preachy, cult-like manual I thought it might be. Wise, gentle and beautifully written, Simplicity Parenting is full of practical tips and sensible observations drawn from real-life stories from Payne’s 24-year-long consulting practise.
Nowadays, parenting has become a competitive sport; society has normalised the anxious pursuit to “childhood enrichment” with learning activities (“so children discover their talents early and develop them fast”), teaching verbiage and educational toys. Payne’s gives you the permission to step out of this rat race and relax, by showing you how children benefit from fewer toys and carefully chosen books as well as blank spaces on the daily calendar and predictable routines.
Well versed in the Waldorf principles, Kim John Payne suggests that children can develop their innate capacities for creativity when we make space and time for free play, self-discovery and connection.
Highly inspiring, this book makes you pause and evaluate the home environment you create for your children. As the architects of our family’s daily lives, we can establish a safe, warm and secure family base camp from which children will launch out into the world with resilience.
“A protected childhood allows for the slow development of identity, wellbeing and resiliency.” – Kim John Payne
Simplicity Parenting is a true springboard for ideas on how to slow down and to restore a calmer home life for your children, away from the bustle of the outside world and the pressures of our fast-paced, consumerist culture.
Even if not all of the advice works for you, Payne insists small changes make big differences so you are free to pick whatever bits are doable in your family. The consultant noticed that, the most common first step families are willing to take is clearing out the excess of “stuff” (see infographics “Environment” below) in their children’s bedroom!
I’ll admit it was really therapeutic and liberating for me to de-clutter our physical space, but what struck me the most was the “filtering out the adult world” chapter. Gaining awareness of what we talk about in front of or over the kids when they are around is a notion I haven’t come across in other readings related to parenting. Many books emphasise the need to extensively talk to children about their feelings, yet Simplicity Parenting advocates a limited but more meaningful use of our words, while following your instincts and the child’s cues. Payne also suggests we ponder before speaking and ask ourselves if what we want to say is true, kind and necessary. Another very relevant element of this chapter is the “hovering / helicopter parenting” which I can a lot see around me and that I yield to at times myself. It is such a relief to read that stepping back and trusting more is actually positive for children.
The ideas for setting up a daily predictable routine and creating rituals were lovely, I noted down some of them here below:
– “Favourite things”: Family gathering, for example at dinnertime, with each member explaining something that stood out from the day – parents can take this opportunity to acknowledge and encourage their children’s positive actions.
– Dinnertime: Family eating dinner together. Children involved in meal preparation. A few moments of silence observed before dinner (whether religious or secular). Candlelit dinner. Clean up together after dinner.
– Menu plan with daily dinner staples: for example, Monday pasta, Tuesday oriental, Wednesday soup. Variations can obviously be made within each staple.
– Rituals: after-school snack together, Saturday morning pancakes, waking up song, evening walk in summer, candlelit breakfast in winter, scarecrow of child’s next-day outfit on a hanger.
– Dependable activities: washing hands before dinner. Brushing teeth after dinner. Stories before bedtime, instrument practice after breakfast, free play in the park after school.
– Advance notices to ease transitions.
– Preview of the day: Parent and child sit together at a casual, unhurried time to walk the child through what he can expect (for example at breakfast time).
– Politeness as a form of predictability.
“Rhythm calms and secures children, grounding them in the earth of family so they can branch out and grow” – Kim John Payne
In addition to creating islands of consistency within an intentional, slow lifestyle at home, Payne’s cautions against screen media and packed schedules. I understand why many parenting authors put forward the need for children to play with their parents, but it is refreshing to read that I don’t have to be a clown and entertain my daughter all day or cram her every waking hour with some form of stimulation. Boredom is valuable and children need time between activities to process what happens around them (see infographics “Schedules” below). They thrive when they have opportunities to spend unstructured time to tune in to themselves or engage in deep play.
Overall, the book shakes up some accepted norms of modern parenting and reframes parenting to its primary goals. It made me acutely aware of where it could all start to go wrong, as my daughter gets older. While Payne lays out various attainable ways of simplifying and balancing family life to allow children to flourish in the critical period of childhood, I believe some lessons are widely transferable to other areas of our adult life: it taught me to speak less and in a more meaningful way; to unplug and direct my attention to the necessary when stress and anxiety are creeping in; and to go further in de-cluttering my physical and mental space.
(*) Kim John Payne also authored The Games Children Play, (1996 Hawthorn Press), The Soul of Discipline (2015 Random House/Penguin), and co-authored Whole Child Sport, How to Navigate Child & Youth Sports and Being At Your best When Your Kids Are At Their Worst (2017 Shambhala Press)
If you want to further explore the ideas of balance & simplicity, you can sign up to the Simplicity Starter Kit on Kim John Payne’s website, or listen to his Simplicity Diary which consists in a series of brief records inspired by his daily life and travels.