Simplicity Parenting – review and discussion

November 19, 2015

Until A&C came along, I never realized how much of parenting is sort of . . made up as one goes along.  It’s not like I thought each baby would pop out with an individualized owner’s manual (too bad), but it just hadn’t occurred to me that every new stage would bring on new challenges that I had zero experience with.

This is true especially with child #1, but even parenting two at once is brand new at every stage — getting them to play peacefully together, for example.  Most of the time I just go with a lot of trial and error, with a dash of wisdom from more experienced parent friends (IRL or online) and the occasional parenting book thrown in for good measure.

So, that explains why I picked up Simplicity Parenting.  You all know I am enamored by all things minimalist, even if our lifestyle does not always meet strict simplicity criteria*.  In the end, I found it to be a useful and worthwhile read, and also one that gave me some warm-‘n’-fuzzies while reading it.  You can tell that the author (Kim John Payne) truly loves and believes in children.  He also believes in discipline, structure, and limitations, but the overarching tone feels loving to me, which I have found is not always the case in parenting books.

By section, here are a few of his themes and the highlights I found most interesting/useful.  Please note that there are plenty of recommendations that I have yet to try, either because I just haven’t gotten around to it yet, or because A&C haven’t met the appropriate developmental ages.  Payne opens with a section called “Soul Fever”, which takes the reader through the overscheduled/overstuffed/overstimulating nature of many kids’ lifestyles and the resulting problems that may ensue.  The next several sections contain the meat of his recommendations, divided into several realms.  Here we go . . .

So minimalist … Ha!
Environment:  Here, Payne makes the case that the “thick overgrowth of multicolored, ever-growing, and expanding stuff” has negative consequence for children, including:
— less value placed on any individual item
— too much stimulation, impeding natural play
— placing too much value on ‘stuff’ and teaching children quite young that (over)consumption is important and to be celebrated 
He recommends significantly whittling down each child’s toy collections to just a small selection of visible items in the child’s room, plus a “toy library” for other toys to be rotated in and out when needed.  He emphasizes open-ended toys (craft supplies, costumes) over “fixed” toys (plastic Disney figurines).  We have about 93242 of those and Annabel seems to have creative play with them (acting out scenes, making up stories, taking on roles) so I’m not completely convinced on that one.  He also is rather extreme about books, suggesting that “for a child under eight or nine, you might have one or two current books accessible at any given time.  A dozen or fewer beloved books may find a permanent place in the room, perhaps on a bookshelf.”  

A dozen or fewer!?  This was shocking to me and I do not intend to cull the libraries of either kid significantly, as I always felt happy having a full bookshelf growing up, and would revisit old favorites randomly time and time again.  He also suggests avoiding books based on product or television character.  Umm, yeah, Disney has won over Annabel (and Cameron is drawn to Elmo, in that preternatural way that all 2-year-olds seem to be).  What can I say?  So I will not be removing the princess or Sesame Street storybooks anytime soon . . .

Rhythm:  I love this chapter, because rhythms and schedules always fascinate me. It always boggles my mind how we can be thoughtless and automatic about events that occur EVERY SINGLE DAY.  I know that “intention” is such a buzzword right now but I don’t care — I love it.

Payne opens by noting that “familiarity is much better for children than unpredictability.”  Interesting, and I do notice that A&C have much better behavior when it’s NOT vacation/post-vacation/post-routine shift.  At the same time, surely a little bit of wiggle room must be allowed, right?  He suggests building some routines into the day which lead to more predictability and rhythm in each day, and I really liked his concrete ideas:  They included:

Spending some time the night before going through the next day’s events with your child.  I admit I don’t always do this with Annabel, and it must be disorienting for her to wake up and not know if she has school!  She often will ask me, “Do you have to go to work today?” and when I say “yes” it starts the day off with a disappointment.  So, I’m going to try reviewing with her the next day’s events at bedtime.

Instrument practice in the morning.  Okay, A&C are too young to have instruments, but if/when they choose to, I think this is the best idea!  Get it out of the way while everyone is fresh and not have ‘piano practice’ hanging over anyone’s head at the end of the day. 

Building a predictable after school routine, with homework/free play/etc.  Cannot even imagine this phase of life yet, but I’m enjoying imagining the future.  (Kids love to do homework!  Right!? Ha.)

Involving kids in food prep.  I’ve been on a ~2 year cooking strike (I admit) but hopefully at some point it will come to an end.  Would love to involve A&C in prep.

Ritual/symbolic start to meal, whether it is a moment of silence or lighting candles or everyone saying their favorite part of the day.  We currently do not eat dinner together, but someday . . . or maybe we could incorporate this into breakfast, which is usually our most reliable “family meal.”

Rotation of predictable meals.  Interesting!  He suggests that you do something to the effect of Monday pasta, Tuesday Mexican, Wednesday soup, etc.  I suppose we already do that to an extent (salmon / fish on Mondays, usually, and takeout on Saturday night).  

Involving everyone in cleanup at the end of the day

Rhythmic “pressure valve” releases built into the day — expected down time.  May take form of a nap, an afterschool snack, quiet reading time, etc depending on the ages of the kids.

Sleep as a rhythm, with most children between 2-6 needing ~11 hours.  (Will someone tell Annabel that, please?**)

Schedules:  Here, Payne makes an analogy between childrens’ activities and rotation of crops.  Since I’ve never farmed anything in my life, this didn’t really grab me, but there were some good takeaways.  It is definitely true that children — even young ones — are scheduled to an extent they never were before.  So many structured “classes” “teams” “lessons” — even for 2 year olds!  And I’m guilty, because C is in gymnastics and has already done soccer, and A does ballet.  Oh, plus swimming!  So, yeah.  But is that too much?  How much is too much?  This is addressed in the chapter.

Payne recommends a balance between:

1) Leisure and rest (“fallow field”).  Includes hanging out, just “mucking about”, resting, casual play.

2) Deep play (“cover crop”).  Includes creative play (intensely working on an art project or a puzzle, for example).  To me, these sound like “flow”-inducing activities. 

3) Activity (“crop field”).  Sports teams, school, chores, scheduled social events, “daily life” busyness.  

He advocates for a careful balance between these 3, and for letting kids be (horrors!) bored sometimes.  He suggested meeting complaints of boredom with a neutral, rather cryptic-sounding phrase: “Something to do is right around the corner”, or doling out chores as suggested activities (kids will all the sudden find something very important/exciting to play with).

He mentions cultivating “Sabbath moments”, in either a religious or completely secular sense.  I am not religious but I am so attracted to the Sabbath idea, especially as it might lead to more intentional unplugged time and family connection.  I also like the idea that spacing out activities allows for more anticipation — if a kid is bouncing from one big “SPECIAL EVENT!” to another, nothing is special anymore.  Too many high notes lead to an addictive rhythm that is impossible to sustain.  Finally, there is a discussion about sports and how many athletes with very intense involvement early on (I’ve seen this a lot in patients who do gymnastics!) there is early burnout and then no athletic participation in later years when it is the most valuable (ie, in high school/later adolescence).

Filtering out the Adult World: Kids are not meant to spend their days ruminating about terrorist threats and financial difficulties — and yet somehow many of us let these sneak into adult conversation when they are around.  I know I am guilty of this, and A listens to E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G.  And she really thinks about things.  The other day she asked me: “When Cameron and I grow up and are not kids anymore, and you don’t have any more kids, will you be sad?”.  Um, woah.

So, he recommends:

1) Limiting (or avoiding entirely, really) TV.  I still let A watch one show daily.  So I guess I am ignoring his advice.  But it’s still just one (child-appropriate) show in the afternoon while Cameron naps.  We will have to see what happens once he drops it.

2) Avoiding helicopter parenting.  Check.  I don’t think Josh or I are helicopters in the least.  

3) Listen, don’t overtalk.  Avoid getting into adult subjects or stressful topics around children.  And in talking with them, ask yourself: “Is it true?  Is it necessary?  Is it kind?”.  


WHEW.  That might be the longest post I have written in months.  (Or ever).  But I found a lot of value in Payne’s book, and am even glad I took the time to make this outline, because I want to put more of his strategies into action.  I will say that his book is more anecdotal and not research based, but his ideas are interesting and many resonated with me, and he has the right voice in how he explains things — for me, anyway.   

Would love to hear others’ thoughts on the book, or on the ideas above.  

* Although we still do not have a closet!  That has to count for something.

** Actually she usually does about 10.5.  ~8p – 6:30a.  I guess that is not too far off.