Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids

In a terrible irony, this tremendous resource is hamstringed by its own lack of simplicity. Too many words, too many ways of phrasing the same thought, make Simplicity Parenting difficult to read. No individual sentence or section stands out as excessive or laborious, but the end result is a slog that not one committed, educated mom in my book club managed to complete. I only just finished it after six months of trying. It’s a shame, because the book contains incredibly helpful—dare I say life-altering—primary points and a plethora of meaningful and fruitful supporting insights and tips.

Kim John Payne (with help from Lisa M. Ross) writes, “We are building our daily lives, and our families, on the four pillars of too much: too much stuff, too many choices, too much information, and too much speed.” Luckily, there are “things we can do as parents to protect the environment of childhood”: Simplicity Parenting’s “four levels of simplification: the environment, rhythm, schedules, and filtering out of the adult world.”

When it comes to your child’s environment, “[a] smaller, more manageable quantity of toys invites deeper play and engagement.” Payne offers a ten-point checklist for determining which to pitch. He also provides guidance for parsing books, clothes, and a variety of other categories of “stuff” so that your family can “embrac[e] experience over things, and ‘enough’ rather than always more.”

Payne then turns to “the sense of security and predictability that rhythm affords a child”: “Where well-established rhythms exist, there is much less parental verbiage, less effort, and fewer problems around transitions.” Payne provides many suggestions for creating a sense of rhythm, including singing instructions rather than saying them, lighting candles at a certain time of day, establishing a “secret ingredient” style dinner schedule (“Monday pasta night, Tuesday rice night”), and more.

As for scheduling, he tells us: “In parenting . . . it is often in the intervals—the spaces between activities—that relationships are built. . . . Unfortunately, some kids have very few pauses in their daily lives, going from one activity to the next without a chance to process their thoughts or feelings. Or a child’s parents might be so busy and overscheduled that they present a moving target, unavailable for these unplanned moments of connection.” “[J]ust 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.”

In the final section, Payne recommends simplifying in order to “filter out the adult world.” Here the primary suggestion is to limit screen time: “By choosing to banish [TV], in one step you will greatly diminish your children’s exposure to such hallmarks of adult life as violence and consumerism.” Another is to restrict the words that come out of your mouth. When we “telecast their every move,” talking incessantly, “there’s less space for their thoughts . . . . A child’s curiosity and creativity are stifled when they believe that something is not ‘real’ unless, or until, you talk about it. It’s hard for a child to go down deeply into their play . . . .” Moreover, talking means not listening. We need to offer at least some moments of “our full and silent attention.” He also recommends simplifying the type of information that we share: “Many parents ‘flashbulb’ their children with too much of . . . their own unprocessed thoughts and feelings.” Payne offers one fabulous way to police the quantity and character of parental verbiage: “Before you say something, ask yourself these three questions. Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”

My one complaint with the content of Simplicity Parenting, as opposed to the delivery, comes near the end, when Payne writes:

While our intentions are well-meaning—’Honey, do you think your anger at your sister might also be a little jealousy? Can you tell her how you feel inside?’—this emotional monitoring has an unexpected effect. It rushes kids along pushing them into a premature adolescence. Children under nine certainly have feelings, but much of the time those feelings are unconscious, undifferentiated. In any kind of conflict or upset, if asked how they feel, most kids will say, very honestly, ‘Bad.’ They feel bad. To dissect and parse that, to push and push, imagining that they are hiding a much more subtle and nuanced feeling or reply, is invasive. It is also usually unproductive, except perhaps in making a child nervous. While young children have feelings, they only slowly become aware of them. Until the age of ten or so, their emotional consciousness and vocabulary are too premature to stand up to what we ask of them in our emotional monitoring and hovering.

This advice stands at odds with social science and neuroscience research supporting the strategy that Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson dub “name it to tame it” in The Whole Brain Child. By discussing emotion and introducing more nuanced language than “bad,” we help our kids manage their big emotions. Surely there’s a grain of wisdom in the Simplicity Parenting recommendation—we shouldn’t badger our kids about their emotions—but, as written, the advice would seem to be at odds with the latest science. That said, I wholeheartedly agree with almost everything else in the book.

Reviewing and digesting Simplicity Parenting took a huge amount of time, but it was not a waste of it. I already use the teachings multiple times a day. I fervently hope that Payne will release a revised, heavily edited version so that I can endorse it with the five stars its content deserves. Unfortunately, as of now, Simplicity Parenting gets hoisted by the point of its own petard, or, more accurately, by its failure to apply the point to itself.

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The quotes that follow provide a sense of the book’s content and style so that you can decide for yourself whether the read will be worth the energy required:

“[E]very stage in a family’s evolution can benefit from a little more space and grace, a little less speed and clutter. Another point to remember . . . is that simplification is often about ‘doing’ less, and trusting more.”

“[I advocate] a conscious move, both practical and philosophical, toward a more rhythmic, predictable, child-centered home life. By that I do not mean that the home and everything done in it are oriented toward the child, but I absolutely do mean that the home and everything in it are not exclusively oriented toward adults.”

“[O]ur little ones (into adolescence and beyond) will experience what I’ve come to call ‘soul fevers.’ Something is not right; they’re upset, overwhelmed, at odds with the world. . . . You could say that they are acting ‘out of character,’ but in truth, their character is amplified, almost caricatured. . . . This happens all the time, this sliding along the behavioral spectrum in response to stress. It’s normal and healthy. . . . [When you sense soul fever, it’s] . . . time to stop normal routines[, and say,] ‘Something’s up; I’ve noticed. I’m here if you want to talk about it.’ . . . [You should offer support, not a quick fix, for a soul fever just as for a regular one.] You don’t ‘make them better’ when they’re sick, yet your care . . . allows them the ease to fight off whatever nasty virus they’re grappling with.”

“‘When your child seems to deserve affection least, that’s when they need it most.’ . . . Imagine how secure your child will feel knowing that . . . your love will accommodate, and look beyond, their less-than-best selves.”

“We can become trapped in our own amygdala hijack, a sort of emergency response to parenting, characterized more by fear than by understanding.”

“Nature is a warm sensory bath that can counterbalance the cold overwhelm of too much activity, information, or ‘stuff.’”

“The more adamantly a parent tries to convince me that a break would be impossible, the more certain I become that both parent and child need to take a step out of their everyday lives . . . .”

“Clearly nobody is completely immune to the marketing forces arrayed against us. Yet the less exposure a child has to media, especially television, the less vulnerable they will be to advertising’s intentional and unintentional messages. . . . These messages, over time, create both a sense of entitlement, and a false reliance on purchases rather than people to satisfy and sustain us emotionally.”

“Ask yourself, ‘Is this a toy my child can pour their imagination into, or is it too ‘fixed’? By ‘fixed’ I mean is it already too finished, and detailed, too much of one—and only one—thing?”

“By displaying and playing from one basket at a time, a child is better able to focus while playing, and to clean up. Upending huge bins of toys sometimes seems like a bonanza, a luxury of possibilities. In daily life terms, however, doing so just creates . . . chaos.”

“Children’s play flourishes when we ‘let it’ rather than ‘make it’ happen.”

“A sense of industry—of busyness and purpose—counteracts feelings of overwhelm.”

“Movement counters the passivity of our devotion to technology.”

“By simplifying clothes you ease transitions. You offer freedom from choice and overload, while still allowing for the slow and sure development of personal expression.”

“Simplify the smells and perfumes in your home, particularly in your child’s room [to] . . . quiet the amygdala and promote a sense of safety and well-being for a young child . . . .”

“Let natural light be the last that is curtained at night and the first that is welcomed in the morning.”

“Meaning hides in repetition: We do this every day or every week because it matters.”

“One of the simplest, purest forms of stability or predictability in daily life is politeness.”

“[A]fter-school time is also a great opportunity for free, unscheduled time. Having time for open, self-directed play is a nice balance to the rules and schedules kids follow at school.”

“[N]obody leaves the table until everyone is finished.”

“[Back] away from highly processed and sweetened foods.”

“It’s appropriate for teenagers to begin to chafe at long-standing family rhythms. It is their job, developmentally, to complain. That doesn’t mean that in response we should pack up our traditions and call it a day.”

“[S]leep your child has before midnight is worth more than that of a postmidnight hour. Your child’s internal rhythms are set so that the deeper somatic sleep happens earlier in the night.”

“[N]ot only did she need to learn to relax, she needed to model ‘relaxation’ to her kids. ‘I was modeling competency, and efficiency, but they hardly ever saw me sitting still!’”

“When we open up our child’s schedules, we make room for anticipation.”

“So much activity can create a reliance on outer stimulation, a culture of compulsion and instant gratification. What also grows in such a culture? Addictive behaviors.”

“But the biggest pressure involved in all of this enriching is the pressure of exceptionality. . . . [T]he ordinary allows for the exceptional, but not the reverse.”

“When kids younger than ten or eleven become occupied with organized sports, especially to the exclusion of time for free, unstructured play, that involvement can cut crudely across their progression through a variety of play stages that are vitally important to their development. Equally disheartening is the fact that so many kids are quitting as they approach adolescence, just when the structure and rigors of organized sports and martial arts have so much to offer them in their quest for individuality, independence, and maturity.”

“[In play, t]oday’s progression to fun may be repeated, built on, or changed tomorrow, or it might be ‘archived’ and resurrected another day. In sport, the picture of what is needed—in terms of equipment, and the nature of the game—is already determined. How the game plays out may vary, but the game itself is defined.”

“Plan to get something done or read while being a benign parental presence: easy to ignore, but available should the need arise.”

“Worry is an aspect of parenthood, but it shouldn’t define it.”

“[T]elevision is a direct counterforce to simplifying . . . . [It] runs on commercials, the siren song of ‘stuff.’ An altar of commercialism, it is your home’s most efficient conduit of clutter. And television can easily suck up any free, unstructured time you’ve gained by simplifying schedules. Between 1965 and 1995 Americans gained an average of six hours a week in leisure time; we then devoted all but a few minutes of it to watching TV.”

“For our littlest ones, neurodevelopmentally speaking, the ‘rewards’ side of the television equation seems to be blank.”

“By the time the average person reaches age seventy, he or she will have spent the equivalent of seven to ten years watching television.”

“In comparison to the high stimulation that television offers, real life can seem slow, and children can respond to it with boredom and inattentiveness.”

“Television viewing’s combination of neural hyperstimulation and complete physical passivity clearly doesn’t stimulate the brain’s development in the same way that interacting with the world does.”

“Healy notes that kids who don’t start using computers until adolescence gain competency within months equal to that of children who’ve used them since they were toddlers.”

“[A] ‘sportscasting’ parent drowns a child in words. In real time (that is, blow-by-blow) they telecast everything the child touches, does, is wearing, or even what they may be thinking.”

“By keeping a running commentary on everything they do, we mean to assure them that we’re noticing. Yet the more we’re talking, the less we are really noticing.”

“Very often when we’re tired, when our physical or emotional reserves are low, we can mistake our child for a sort of sounding board or sympathetic ear for whatever issue or quandary is on our mind. Yet despite their questions and curiosity, children need boundaries to feel secure and free. They need to know, and to be reminded, that some things are for adults to discuss; they are not for kids to hear, or to comment on.”

“Very often, in two-parent households, when one parent is overinvolved in their child’s life, the other parent is underinvolved.”

“The word I often hear from dads is calm. A sense of calm is what they strive to provide to the joint task of child rearing. Stepping back, being ‘laid-back,’ trying to ‘take the long view’; these expressions come up frequently as men explain what they perceive to be their role in the parenting dynamic. Their goal is a sense of balance, but very often the result is a lack of involvement, and increased isolation and anxiety for their spouse.”

“What I have seen though . . . is that when the father steps up, many mothers are able to take a welcome step back.”

“Exclusive provinces (or nearly exclusive) need to become Dad’s, so his efforts are part of ‘doing,’ not ‘helping.’ So that, in the child’s eyes, Dad is the ‘go-to’ person for that slice of daily life, not the occasional ‘substitute.’”

“Before falling into sleep, remember the ordinary moments of the day, the moments with your children that meant something to you.”

“[F]or young children, ‘freedom of choice’ about every small detail in their day—everything they eat, wear, or do—can be a paralyzing burden. . . . Imagine your own version of ‘choice overload.’ Perhaps you are trying to find a health plan . . . .”

“Several things happen when you have too much stuff and too many options: Decisions are more difficult, and expectations rise.”

“[S]hift the balance of [your statements to your kids] from a vast majority of requests with a few instructions to mainly straightforward instructions with a few requests.”

“The path simplification provides is one that you will move off of on occasion, and will need to find your way back to. But because it’s a path that defines and strengthens who you are together, it allows for bends and corrections.”

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