There’s real pressure on parents of my generation to expose our kids to as many enrichment opportunities as possible so that they learn skills / stay occupied / keep up with other kids / get to do things we didn’t get to do. It sounds great to put your child in swimming lessons (life skill!) and soccer (team sport!) and violin or piano or dance classes (the arts!), until you think about the potential costs of doing multiple activities each week: more time in the car; feeling rushed; less unstructured time and free play; parent stress from having to keep track of schedules and gear; and less money in the family budget for other things. Those potential costs can go up exponentially if you have more than one child.
I was looking for—and got—validation that it’s okay to not try to do everything when I read Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne.
After working with children and families as a school counselor and private therapist, Payne says he realized that “by doing less and trusting more, parents can create a sanctuary that nurtures children’s identity, well-being, and resiliency as they grow—slowly—into themselves.” I highly recommend the book, but in case you’re not able to read it yourself here are a few notes.
- “A smaller, more manageable quantity of toys invites deeper play and engagement. An avalanche of toys invites emotional disconnect and a sense of overwhelm.” Payne suggests getting rid of/not purchasing toys that fit these criteria: broken toys; developmentally inappropriate toys; conceptually fixed toys like molded plastic characters from movies or video games (Payne asks, “whose imagination is being celebrated: Hollywood’s or the child’s?”); toys that “do too much” and break too easily; very high-stimulation toys that re-create a video arcade experience (frequent bursts of adrenaline increases cortisol—a stress hormone—in our bodies); toys that claim to give your child a developmental edge (kids develop on their own internal timeline); toys you are pressured to buy by your child, who may be influenced by effective marketing or peer pressure; and toy multiples.The toys and materials my son is most interested in—and has been consistently interested in from ages 2 to 6—are wooden train track components, wooden blocks, recycled cardboard boxes, paper, markers, and tape. If you say “but tape is not a toy” you are thinking like an adult. Here’s a post by a mom who took away all of her daughters’ toys.
- “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.”Our son has only ever had one or two pairs of shoes at a time: tennis shoes year-round, plus sandals in the summer (plus rain boots and snow boots). He has an assortment of shirts and pants/jeans and shorts that pretty much all go together, so the only parent involvement is providing a morning weather update so he can choose the right amount of coverage.
“Too much stimulation causes sensory overload.”
I looked at my son’s bedroom this summer—at artwork from last school year nearly covering one wall, at his full bookshelf, at a bench covered in summer camp crafts and bits of stuff, at his collection of big cardboard boxes, and at the train tracks and scattered toys on the floor—and admitted that it made me feel overwhelmed. I took most of the artwork down, culled a bag full of trinkets to donate to his kindergarten teacher’s prize box (how many times have I done this and where does this stuff come from?!), moved most of his books to my closet where they are still accessible, and put in storage some games and toys that are still too complex for him. After a few weeks he let me know that he’d noticed the artwork disappeared. Each time I clear stuff out of his room—and I see that he is neither bothered nor deprived—it gives me confidence to get rid of more.
- “When you simplify screens, you install valves to stop the all-day, every-day rush of information and stimulation pouring into your home.”
Check out How I limited screen time by offering my kids unlimited screen time. I know that this works because my son has gone weeks without screen entertainment because he was too busy doing other things. My husband and I got rid of our TV when our son was an infant, and we dropped our Netflix subscription almost two years ago, because we also are busy doing other things. (Do I still use Facebook? Yes, but I am better at not letting it be a time suck.)
- “Too many scheduled activities may limit a child’s ability to motivate and direct themselves.”
Payne notes other problems with scheduling kids in too many formal activities, including depleting their resources by not providing them downtime, causing them to lose their appreciation for the ordinary, and not allowing them to build an inner flexibility through the “messiness” of free play.I find it helpful to take a broad perspective—what kind of enrichment are kids around the world getting?—and to remember my own childhood, during which I had fun, made friends, and learned many important life skills without camps and parent-arranged playdates and scheduled activities.
What have you done to extend the benefits of simplifying to your childrens’ lives? Are there one or two things you did that seemed to have a big impact?
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Another great book that offers sound advice for a simpler childhood is The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel.