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.