Tis a gift to be simple

Since I’m the primary caregiver for our children, I consider it part of my professional development, as it were, to read new-to-me parenting books on a relatively frequent basis. I’m often not looking for anything particular out of them — I think we’re all doing pretty ok on the whole — but it’s always good to be able to take a look at things through a fresh lens. And of course, there are always things that we could be doing better!

Enter Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne (with Lisa M. Ross), which is appealingly subtitled “Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids”. And who wouldn’t want that, right? Calmer, happier, and more secure sounds great to me.

Payne’s thesis is that our children are suffering from “soul fevers”  caused by “the four pillars of ‘too much’: too much stuff, too many choices, too much information, and too fast” (p. xi). Kids are overwhelmed with material goods (chiefly in the realm of toys!), whose very excess leaves them unable to appreciate, much less love, what they have. Closely related to this is the issue of too many choices: how to you decide which stuffed animal to play with when you have twenty or thirty? or which clothes to wear when your drawers are overflowing? Choice overload and decision fatigue are not solely adult problems, after all, and our children are even less prepared to cope with them than we are. Kids are bombarded with too much adult information, and overscheduled into activities that deny them the gifts of unstructured time and the boredom that leads to deep play and real creativity. So what’s the solution? In a word, simplify.

Simplify, simplify, simplify. Reduce the number of toys. Hold off on organized sports until kids are approaching adolescence. Save charged political discussions with your spouse until the children are sleeping. Open up the schedule for free time. Build predictability and rhythm into your family’s life. Turn off the TV and let them be bored. Get outside.

Now, in many ways this is all stuff we’ve heard before. What I appreciate about Payne’s approach, however, is that he makes it all seem eminently doable, without any accompanying sense of guilt. Although he presents research which can occasionally be alarming, his tone is not of an admonishing superior but one of someone who is coming alongside you to show the way and cheer you on. It’s entirely refreshing. Moreover, Payne provides a series of concrete actions that you can take in any order, and encourages you to start with whatever feels easiest for you to accomplish. Once you start with the first thing, he posits, the rest comes easier.

And so with that I decided to tackle step one for our family: clearing out the toys. Not that I think we’re doing too badly at all — Anselm and Perpetua have what I would consider a pretty reasonable amount of toys, most of which are of the simple old-fashioned sort that don’t make noise or flash or do the imaginative heavy lifting. But at the same time, I knew we were holding on to toys that they really didn’t want or need. So, armed with Payne’s “10-Point Checklist of Toys Without ‘Staying Power'” (pp. 69-74), I set to work:

  1. Broken toys: we had more than a few of these. Out they went into the trash!
  2. Developmentally inappropriate toys: I don’t think we have any toys that are too developmentally ahead of the kids. I did find about half a dozen baby toys that had been missed in the last sorting, so those got put into storage.
  3. Conceptually “fixed” toys: I did keep some of these — we have some Sesame Street figurines that see a lot of use — but I got rid of anything that came in a kids’ meal.
  4. Toys that “do too much” and break too easily: We somehow ended up with a lot of little toy vehicles made of very cheap plastic. I got rid of all the broken ones and put most of the rest in the donation box.
  5. Very high-stimulation toys: We actually have only one toy of the making-noise variety, which is a talking and singing teapot. That gets a lot of use, but I do have a mental note to not replace the batteries when they (finally) wear out.
  6. Annoying or offensive toys: I didn’t find anything annoying — besides the teapot, which I can live with — but used this guideline when sorting out duplicates, trying to choose the toy that was more touchable or aesthetically pleasing as the one to keep.
  7. Toys that claim to give your child a developmental edge: We didn’t have any of these.
  8. Toys you were pressured to buy: None of these, either. Although the kids watch some TV, it’s all from streaming services so they’ve never really seen commercials.
  9. Toys that inspire corrosive play: Right now, Anselm and Perpetua play fairly well together — I couldn’t think of any toys that consistently get between them. None of these.
  10. Toy multiples: Ah, yes. Toy multiples we definitely had (and still have)! Plenty of stuffed animals that don’t get played with, many many vehicles, and other duplicates. I put a lot of these into the donation box.

The result was a pretty streamlined toy pile. I got rid of a box of toys (to be donated) and another half-bag or so that went to the trash. We still have a wide variety of toys to choose from, but these can now all be seen at the same time — nothing’s buried at the bottom of a pile. For example, I forgot to snap a before picture, but here’s our decluttered vehicles bin:

I got rid of about half of their vehicles, keeping the wood and metal ones and getting rid of almost all of the plastic toys. There are still lots to play with but they form a single layer now! The rest of our bins got a similar treatment. And while it’s only been one morning, Perpetua in particular has been playing with several toys this morning that had been languishing unseen for a long time. Neither of them appears to have noticed anything missing. I’m going to call this one a win.

As for the other suggestions in the book, many of the issues Payne names are ahead of us because our children are still so young, and so reading Simplicity Parenting is more of a prophylactic than a cure. But I like his vision for family life, a lot:

It takes time to reduce, to say “no thanks” and mean it, to the distractions and excesses that have overwhelmed our daily lives. And changing a family’s direction isn’t easy, especially when life feels like a cyclone. Yet perhaps the strongest force on earth can be harnessed for this work: a parent’s love for their children. The process of simplification — a shifting of a family’s core axis — is usually driven by a parent’s simple desire to protect the ease and wonder of their child’s early years. I’ve seen the wisdom of starting small, of beginning with the possible, relishing the results, and allowing success to them fuel the process. I’ve found that what works best is to simplify the child’s life first: to declutter their overload rooms, diets, and schedules, and to increase the rhythm and regularity of the home.

[…] As distractions fall away, a sense of ease takes hold and expands. There’s more time for connection, room for contemplation and play. Boredom, once feared and banished from the home, will be allowed in again, appreciated for how often it precedes inspiration. Contrary to what you might think, regularity is more liberating than “boring” to most children. Rituals that can be counted on throughout the day and week actas powerful affirmations. For teenagers rhythms provide a steady, reassuring counterweight to the volatility and strong emotions that define the territory of adolescence. Rituals loosen a younger child’s grip, relaxing their need to control small and seemingly random aspects of their day. (211-12)

Simplicity Parenting will be going on the list of parenting books I regularly recommend. I found it very helpful, both in terms of giving us some steps we can take now, and as a reminder to stand firm on some family structures and rhythms that we’ve already established.