Parenting · Simplicity

Things you don’t need for a baby.

Since we are expecting number 7 I guess that makes me the “experienced” mom.   At least I am experienced in the sense that I have in fact been here and done this a couple of times.  My sister-in-law is expecting her first.  So I suppose it is natural to think back to expecting my first and the absolutely uncertainty that I was awash in when I was a first time mom and laugh at myself.

Something that has been amusing me the past few weeks is the “baby registry” phenomenon.    What do you need for a baby?  I can almost feel that remembered panic setting in with me, the new mom, sure that I was going to miss having that one, ultimate, thing that will make caring for a new baby easy.   Especially when you don’t have much experience around newborns it can seem like they are little alien creatures who will break if you don’t care for them perfectly, and marketers are more than happy to exploit these insecurities and sell you all sorts of stuff you don’t need.

The reality is that you really don’t need much for a newborn (under normal circumstances).

Top ten things you probably don’t need:

  1. A changing table.
  2. Special baby towels/washcloths
  3. diaper wipe warmer
  4. diaper genie
  5. mobiles/white noise/baby lullaby/ crib vibrators
  6. sterilizers
  7. full-sized high chairs
  8. special laundry detergent
  9. baby food
  10. diaper stacker

Your newborn spends the entire day eating, pooping and sleeping with occasional breaks to look at things usually to face of whomever is holding them – at first they would be perfectly happy to be held 24×7.  As they get older they spend more time alert and quickly start looking for things to do.   Baby’s needs can be divided  into some basic categories:  sleeping, eating, diapering, bathing and care, clothing, travel, and play. These needs are what should drive baby purchases, not marketing.

Blogs I Know · Simplicity

A good thought – but

You knew there was a “but” right?

Every now and then I pop into which has some good insights into simplicity.   Most of what he says I agree with in principle, but….  a couple weeks ago  there was the article, society, reimagined,  Leo treats us to his imagining of a better society but I also felt there was something very much missing in his look at society.

If there is one thing modern, urban simplicity advocates forget it is the invisible screen against which their lives are projected.  What do I mean by that?  Well, quite simply there is a whole mesh and network of things, services, stuff, that is a scratch and a peck under the surface that we never see, we never know about but it is there and without it all our systems would crumble and most people would find that crumbling utterly unbearable.  Which I realize is probably clear as mud so I will pick on poor Leo and pull out his ideas and use them as examples.

Junking the car: It sounds like a good idea, getting rid of our cars –  working closer to home or even working at home with mass transit available for those times when one must travel.  To urbanites it is an awesome idea.  Not such a great plan if you are rural and the nearest mass transit is 50 miles away.

I don’t hear a lot of simplicity advocates wanting to get rid of mass transportation, emergency vehicles or freight.   These are part of the screen.  We like the fact that our homes are not right up against the clothing factory or the manufacturing site, but as long as we want mass transportation and freight someone, somewhere has to be building buses and trains,  these are built out of parts that must be manufactured, from materials which must be manufactured from raw materials that have to be harvested and shipped.  Then to run the bus or train you have to have fuel (some sort of energy), it has to be maintained, the roads or tracks it runs on have to be maintained.   All this requires energy, people and raw materials.

While the simplicity advocate might really want to have their nice little community free from cars in the street where are these mass transportation workers going to live?  Is the miner going to raise his children within walking distance of the mine?  What about the ore smelter, the steel worker or the parts manufacturer?   We do not have (nor can I imagine we will develop) technology that will make aluminum parts manufacturing for mass transit vehicles a clean process – certainly not one I would want to raise my children in the shadow of – which, considering my husband works for a company that makes freight vehicles, buses and emergency vehicles, is a real possibility if we are going to localize industry.   If we are going to advocate a change in how we  loco-mote we need to consider the holistic costs of what we are thinking of.  Do we create a better community for ourselves and our children while leaving those families who enable this lifestyle living in the shadows of factories and manufacturing plants or do we sacrifice transportation as we know it.  How much would we be willing to sacrifice in order to improve our communities?  Would we give up mass transportation, freight or emergency response vehicles?  And if not willing to do so are we asking others to live in a way we would not choose to in order that we may live as we want?

Locally Grown Food: I like this idea, but the idea that we are going to grow enough food in back-yard and community gardens to sustain families is — well, naive.   Farms, family farms, those sized large enough to produce enough food for the family living on them can only be so small.  Just think of how much land you need to devote to growing food in order to supply yourself and your children (and your parents) with enough food to survive the year.    I suspect my family could do in it our area (the insanely rich and fertile Willamette Vally) on right around 20 acres.  This would produce enough for us and enough to trade.  If we are just looking at sustaining ourselves 10 might be possible and that is with modern preservation techniques.   If we lived in a community were we could trade skills for grain-crops closer to 5 might work.  A back yard garden or a community garden plot is not going to supply my family’s needs.  That is reality.  I would love to  think that I could possibly manage to do it on a 1/4 acre or something, but that would be delusional.  There is an interesting discussion here with more thoughts.

Now organizing communities around farming, going back the the village model is something that rings right in my soul.  If we were mostly farmers with some tradesmen here and there we could return to a system of locally grown food as the center of most family’s diets.   But we would have to sacrifice a lot of modern life.   This would require a rural agrarian life style for almost everyone. Which is going to mean smaller communities overall. Then you loose some things.  You are not going to have a universally “wired” world and a universally agrarian world.   The energy and manufacturing needs of a digital society are so enormous that the two are in reality incompatible.  Building buses and trains is nothing compared to building computers, digital networks and modern communication infrastructure.   Who will be feeding these factory workers making the microprocessors, network cable and video screens?  Again do they have to farm and work in a factory?  The amount of time to plant, harvest, preserve, store, prepare and serve homegrown food is astronomical.   Not equal to the amount of time most of us work at our livings today, but it is an everyday of the year gig.

And mmlist actually does go into the idea that the ideal simple world would be a world that was highly digital.  Look at the manufacturing footprint of your basic laptop, it dwarfs the bus or firetruck, then  look at the foot print required for a digital infrastructure.  Are we ever going to be able to provide that style of living for everyone?   How this is supposed to happen I can’t even imagine.   Sure I agree that this sort of vision could be real in some places, maybe the college towns mmlist suggests, I am sure Eugene would be game for it, at least in parts, but I think that vision of simplicity only works as long as it is a subculture within a highly developed, factory manufactured, consumer base world.   Sort of a new aristocracy, as long as there are enough serfs to plow the field the royalty can live resplendently, just don’t peek too closely at the lives of the serfs.

What is missing in the vision?  Humanity.  How do we provide a quality, dignified existence to all God’s children?  It is not enough for us to envision a life that benefits us while harming others, it is not enough to free ourselves and our children while leaving the rest of the world in the mud.  Sure we can do just that, but is that in any way better than shopping at Walmart and buying cheep, plastic, crap from China?   We eventually have to make the choice.  We will eventually have to give up the freight and the digital infrastructure if we wish to have an equitable world, or we will have to accept that some parts of the world will always be the “slaves” to the wants of the rest.

Parenting · Simplicity

Simplicity Parenting

I finished “Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids” by Kim John Payne this week.   I wanted to love it, I liked it a lot, but it also left me sort of grumbling.   Generally I would recommend it but with the following caveats: it is not a book well rooted in the “Voluntary Simplicity” movement in general, it is not really about parenting and it certainly isn’t from a Catholic/Christian world view — not even a slightly ascetic world view.  If you pick up this book thinking you are going to read about how to parent within the voluntary simplicity lifestyle you are going to be disappointed — this book is NOT about that.

All of this I can understand, the author’s work isn’t about the simplicity movement; he is drawing from his work with his clients (presumptively mostly wealthy or solidly middle class, duel career couples with one or two precious snowflake children).  These people are not the type to embrace a radical lifestyle change — so for those of us on the more radical lifestyle path there are going to be a few places at least where we stop and point to some really hugely obvious issue and say “You could eliminate that problem entirely if you were just willing to be a little more counter-cultural”.

Western children are not particularly happy.  They live in the richest time and culture ever imagined and yet they are stressed, unhappy, out of shape, insecure, hyperactive, troubled little people.  They are figurative (and sometimes literally) starving for essential nutrients while becoming obese on a rich diet of sugar and fat    And we, their parents, do this to them – at the very least we let our society do this to them.  Payne gets this right and he also gets much of the solution right – I would argue that he doesn’t take it far enough, but Simplicity Parenting is a good, maybe even a great,  start.

Payne does a fine job laying out the case that what our children suffer from is the result of  “Too much, too fast, too soon.”  He points to the forces of consumerism, the self-fulfilling  marketing axiom “Kids are Getting Older Younger”, the work of David Elkind, and the endless appetite for parents to push their offspring to gain a competitive edge for the future as forces of modernity and consumerism are swirling  around our children pulling apart their sense of security and even their sense of self.   These forces push children into stress responses where they react in their own particular ways, the quiet thoughtful child becomes more withdrawn, the active child bounces off the walls, the child with the forceful soul becomes aggressive.  The book then bogs down a bit with a chapter comparing the over stimulation of children with physical illness.   Several examples from Payne’s  practice are trotted out to illustrate the “Soul Fever” concept and how simplification of the child’s world helps alleviate the “symptoms”

Where Simplicity Parenting touches on great is that it isn’t like so many of the current “problems with childhood” books.  It doesn’t spend 200 pages hand wringing over the plight of our children followed a short list of “action items”.  The book is almost a workbook.  It breaks several core concepts down into digestible chunks – phases to walk through.  And the book is brimming with “process” while illustrating the intention and hoped for result of each phase.

The best laid out phase is the first:  “Environment”.  Simplicity Parenting walks parents through the  process of de-cluttering their children’s rooms and “stuff”.  Toys are given extensive treatment.  Books and clothes are next up for culling and then scent and lighting (focusing mainly on the child’s room but also briefly touching the home in general) .   Coming from a Waldorf point of view Mr Payne has some definite opinions about what makes for good, creative play, especially in the early years.    The craziness of Rudolf Steiner aside I think there is a lot of value to some of the ideas of Waldorf — not all mind you but some of them.  I also agree with many assertions that Payne makes about the inability of children to really enjoy anything when they are overwhelmed by “options” and “choices”.   All in all getting rid of the “stuff” cluttering our children’s lives and rooms is an important and logical first step in simplifying and enriching their lives.

We then turn to “Rhythm”.  This is a very “Waldorf” idea, the one I think that is probably most valuable.  If you are going to plunder  from Waldorf this is the one concept to grab first.  Payne draws the concept of ritual into rhythm in a way that is natural and works.   This is also the chapter where the reality of what Payne’s audience will  accept and the reality of what children probably would thrive with comes into  crashing discordance as illustrated with the almost harmless sentence, “Rhythm and ritual are what we aim for; predictability may be what we can achieve.”   We then jump the tracks and start talking about how to compromise for predictability.

There is a subtle yet devastating switch at this point.   With “environment”  i.e. “stuff” the decluttering and dejunking focused on the child’s room and things.  Mention was made in passing that unless the the entire home went the way of the children’s things and simplified and decluttered that the child’s world would revert to a cluttered disorganization cacophony.   The hypocracy of expecting the children’s stuff to simplify while the parents stayed on a hyper-consumerism course would not work.  It might seem obvious, but it is glossed over for the rest of the book, if the parents lives are an unpredictable, overscheduled, over worked mess then all the good intentions to bring harmony, rythme and order to the children’s schedules are much less effective in the long run.  The imbalance and  hypocrisy will most likely overwhelm the attempt.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t good ideas in the rest of this chapter.  Some of the author’s thoughts  “previewing”,  the idea of going over the next day’s event, giving a child an idea of what to expect, is very powerful.  When the usual rhythm and schedule is disrupted this sort of preview can give the child a sense of control, but it is a piss-poor substituted for the comfort of normal rhythms and predictable schedules.   Among the other valuable items are little nuggets of parenting thought that seem to be commonly missed, children bond with us through the little daily things we do, that some of the best relationship building moments happen in the unstructured “down-times”, parenting is more craft and process than it is a checklist-able, goals oriented production.  Bringing back and simplifying the family dinner,  dumping “edible food-like substances’ and nutritionally dubious treats, creating bed-time routines and allowing for more rest, the return of the bedtime story and creating a sense of family connection with the sharing of family stories and history are all really great ideas and well worth incorporating.

Before leaving this section I also want to point out something that drives me a little batty.  There is explicitly stated the idea that a teenagers “work”, their developmental stage, is one of defining themselves in opposition to their parents.   To illustrate here is a quote about 15 year old Alison the daughter of Laura, “Alison’s full-time (developmental) job right now is to push Laura away, but on her “time off” she does what also comes natural to her.  She can think of her mom as an alien one minute and, thanks to their broad and deep connection, snuggle with her the next.”  This is my personal pet-peeve, so I won’t belabor this, but it IS NOT a teenager’s job to push their parents away.  Despite even modern takes on Freud and Erickson much of the conflict of this stage of development is constructed behavior based on the ridicules idea that young adults are busy with the work of developing their own identity and that means that they must have some kind of raging personality conflict with their parents.  This view is aberrant, the creation of marketing and social forces that undermine parental confidence and keep teens in the infantile  self-identification phase as long as possible, not allowed to take on adult responsibility and deprived of any meaningful work, their sense of self allowed to be defined only on the most superficial aspects they become easily controlled and herded through the corridors of shopping malls and high-schools, trained to be good little consumers, basing their sense of worth on the trappings of success, what they own, wear, drive and on physical perfection and competitive victories.  Ok, so maybe I did belabor that a little bit.   But it is almost astounding that in a book entitled “Simplicity Parenting” there wouldn’t have been at least a little questioning of the “teen” paradigm.

After Rhythm we turn to a very similar chapter on Schedules.  It seems that the author’s main distinction between rhythm and schedules is age.  Young children have rhythm, older children have schedules.   Within “Schedules”  there is a bit of an extended mixed metaphor of farming and sports and children’s over scheduled lives.   Payne makes a strong arguments for the worth of boredom, that busy days be balanced with calm days and he even make the daring suggestion of returning a sense of Sabbath to our daily lives.  All great ideas.  I really like what he says about the joy of anticipation and what it can give to children and I found the idea that over-scheduling can lead to an unnatural need for stimulation that replaces “inner development with outer stimulation”, a nascent addiction.   We then turn to the pressure parenting issue.  While Payne focuses on sports and martial arts this concept also applies to just about every aspect of a child’s world, schooling, art, music, dance, sports, all these good things get thrown into some deranged hyper-drive as parents compete to have the most wonderful little snowflake child possible or they at the very least feel compelled to give their children the “competitive edge” they “need” to succeed in the adult world.  Parents need to disengage their egos and hope and let their children approach life at a slower more balanced pace.

The final process chapter is “filtering out the adult world”.   The first part takes on the used of media “screen time” and how it is detrimental for very young children and at best of questionable value for younger children.   We then look at balance a child’s need for emotional safety and their need to explore their world and the role of parents in helping them navigate these conflicting needs.   We also look at the way parenting has shifted home is no “base camp” from whence children launch their adventures while over anxious “helicopter parents” flit overhead driven to protect their children from a horribly dangerous world.  The world of course is not much more dangerous than when these parents were young, but the immediacy of media and the desire to constantly sell the alarming makes risk assessment difficult.   There is also a few page of the reality that moms especially are overworked.  The female partner of duel career families almost always is the one to bear the brunt of child rearing responsibilities.  Payne gives us a few idea about the possibilities of father taking on responsibility for somethings — but this is a woefully under addressed aspect of this book.  Among the best ideas from this chapter are limiting screen time, talking less, monitoring less and trusting our parenting instincts more.

The conclusion of this book was strange.  We are present the tale of Carla, her hyper career oriented parents and the baby brother on the way.  At six Carla is stressed about the arrival of a rival and her parents are worried that their “production schedule”  will not go off as planned unless Carla becomes a team player and gives her buy-in to the baby-brother roll-out.   After her bedroom is de-cluttered, daddy adds “dinner” to his day-planner a few times a week and mom makes time for daily a special craft time with Carla (even though some nights mom is rushing to get take out to make the dinner meeting)  started to decompress and feel better.  I understand that the book would have been ill served to select a “perfect” family willing to make drastic changes in their lives and that is probably just as good that  we see that even small changes can be good, but this particular story just seemed to illustrate my problem with the book as well.

No one gets to have it all.  When we are unwilling to say, “I will trade off this good thing for that good thing” and instead just try to fit more “good things” into our days and lives eventually something breaks.  When we as parents try to fit our babies into our hyper-schedules, pop them into six weeks maternity leave, and then after work and weekends while we continue to rush forward at break neck speed in the career world somewhere a wheel is going to go flying off and more often then not it is the weakest link, the most vulnerable and sadly the most precious, it is the children.   Now I know that many people, probably all of Payne’s clients, and a good portion of the audience of Simplicity Parenting would swallow their own tongues before they would be willing to be so counter-cultural as to scale back, scale down, work less, consume less, live smaller, but yet at the same time live more fully, but that is the natural conclusion of almost all Payne’s arguments.  Yet he stops from going to those conclusions and leaves all of his great ideas at the children’s bedroom doors.


A video to share

I am linking this so that the blog layout doesn’t chop it off.  I enjoyed this video this morning.  Monastic life in the Coptic tradition.

The way Father Pete had to work through and deal with letting go of the distractions of life was inspirational.  I am convinced that all these modern things, the noise and stuff and business of modern life dulls our senses to what is most important.  Father Pete says, ” The goodness is the struggle and to be aware that it is a struggle, be aware that we are constantly making choices between the good and  bad, the good choice and the bad choice.  I’m not very good at it.  But I’ve come to acknowledge  since being here  the importance of that struggle and that it is an eternal, human struggle and that not to engage in it means that we just fall asleep; we become numb and I was numb when I got here.  I know that now.”