Simplicity Parenting – A talk by Kim John Payne


I went to a parenting talk last weekend and on the request of a few mamas from my community babywearing group I decided to do a quick write-up on the presentation. This will be a quick job, in the interest of posting something while it’s still fresh, as opposed to a fully researched job. If you are a Kim John Payne/Simplicity Parenting fan, please keep in mind that I did not know Kim John Payne until I went to his talk and have not read the book (although it is currently in my Amazon shopping cart). I am writing this post off the top of my head while my four youngest children are enjoying breakfast on a Sunday morning (and possibly watching some mindless tv, yes, there, I said it.)

Kim John Payne’s approach to parenting was first inspired by his work with violent offending youth and studies in psychology. While taking a course studying shell shock in war veterans, he realized that he saw the same symptoms in the troubled youth he was working with. As the years went by, he started working as a therapist with children who had not been traumatized by war or violent criminality, yet  he saw that the same disorders and symptoms appear. By that time, the effect of traumatic stress on the brain were well studied and Kim John started to question whether the accumulation of “smaller” stresses could lead to the same symptoms and brain disorders. He started counselling his patients – or more to the point, his patients’ parents – to wind right down and eliminate the constant bombardment of stimuli on their developing brains. He saw that within 6 weeks of simplifying a busy lifestyle, children’s disorders became their quirk or what made them unique. A child with ADD would become a “busy” child. A child with OCD would become a “tidy” child. A child with HD would become an “active” child.

What then defines a “busy” lifestyle and can we get started on the path toward simplicity? Kim John Payne’s identifies 4  paths to simplifying:

  1. Predictability and routines. During the first 30 months of life, a baby’s needs a deceivingly simple. Baby’s life revolves around two overarching questions: Am I safe? and Can I trust? Children who grow-up without an answer to these questions (or a negative answer) remain stuck in the constant hyper-awareness that comes from never feeling safe. Predictability and routines allows the child to trust that his basic needs will be met and frees up his brain to be creative, innovative, attached and secure.  We cannot always respect routines but we can always be predictable. If we are entering a period of instability, we can still ensure that the instability is predictable to the child. Predictable routines are easy to establish around meals and bed time or any transition time.
  2. Toys and books. The average North American child has 150 toys, where the 3 000-piece Lego set counts as 1 toy.  We often excuse an over-abundance of books by our love of reading but just like toys, junk books become value-less clutter. Scarcity of toys and books focused on quality forces children to unlock their creative potential but also to develop empathy and generosity for their peers and siblings.  Getting rid of toys is often harder on the parents than the children because it forces parents to face the reasons why they feel the need to provide so much for their children. Challenges to toy de-cluttering coming from the children are usually rooted in a last ditch effort to retain control: they fee like a coup d’état is underway and they react by fighting it. It is not because their toys have value. One parent asked if the toy de-cluttering should be done with the children around and Kim John believes it shouldn’t but that depends entirely on your level of masochism.
  3. Media. We often start our parenting journey with the best intentions with regard to media exposure and eventually give-up. Media is ubiquitous. Overuse of screen media rewires our brains, shortens our attention span and  stunts our creativity. We justify screen use by its educational purpose, yet we watch tv to “zone out” so which one is it? The AMA (American Medical Association), which is not known for making radical pronouncements, started by issuing a guideline of no screens for children under 6 months. It eventually bumped it up to 2 years and is now considering issuing a new guideline advising against the use of any screen for children under the age of 6.
  4. Adult conversation and a sense of wonder. Parents need to use extreme judgement in shielding their children from adult conversation. Children don’t have the maturity and discernment to make sense of adult topics. Inappropriate disclosure of information can be threatening or difficult to understand for children. For instance, if a close relative is struggling with a terminal illness, it is important to tell the children. But they don’t  need to hear every last detail about their loved one’s personal struggles, the pain they are going through, their fear of death or invasive medical procedures. In order to grow-up and bring positive change in the world, children need to be well-anchored in wonderment for the world. They need to believe that the world is a beautiful place and that we must all contribute to keep it that way. If children are disillusioned too early and lose their faith in beauty and goodness, they will have nothing to go back to when faced with challenges as adults. Preserving children’s natural tendency to marvel at the world around them gives them a reference point for being agents of change as they grow-up.

Throughout his presentation, he regularly referred to the frantic pace of our children’s lives with scheduled activities starting with infant play dates. He mentioned hovering or “helicopter parenting” as a symptom of a deeper malaise. When our children have a fever, we hover over them, making sure they are all right, staying by their side all night long if need be. He believes that today’s parents hover over their overscheduled, over-indulged, over-media-exposed children because they perceive that something is not well with them. Simplicity Parenting is about trimming the excess to let the generous, creative and empathetic child emerge.

He added that we often hear that scheduled activities and media exposure are preparing our children for the future. However, we also hear that future economies will belong to innovators and knowledge workers. Times when jobs were forever are long gone. In North America, the average stay in any given job is 2.5 years. The workers of the future will need to be adaptable, resilient and creative. By overscheduling our children in organized activities and letting them spend an average of 7 hours a day in front of screened entertainment, we are preventing the development of the life skills and abilities that will ready them for the future.

This is a resume of the talk, what stood out for me. I would like to write a critique based on my experience raising 8 children but time is running out this weekend. By and large, I think he is spot-on, especially for preschool-aged children.  Some nuance must be brought to media usage especially as children grow into teenagers and young adults. The great thing about having a large family is that I can revisit parenting decisions made for my oldest children and correct them with my younger ones. Onward and upward!

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2 thoughts on “Simplicity Parenting – A talk by Kim John Payne

  1. I find this very interesting, I would like to read his book, I would love to hear his suggestions for is there anyway to go back? For example if you haven’t done the best job shielding your child from adult conversation. Our children to a degree lived in an adult world for a time we did our best to shield them but sometimes adult sized problems are thrown at your wee ones and their is nothing you can do. Our 4 year old had brain cancer and he lived these adult sized issues, and it greatly effected our other children. Maybe you can’t recreate the innocents that was lost through that hard time… Great blog by the way

    1. Hi Cheryl, Thank you for visiting. I saw your blog and I was touched by your family’s journey. Prayers for Joel and the rest of your family.

      I don’t know to what extent children should be shielded from adult problems, especially whn they are thrown at them from a short distance. I think what Payne is saying is that they should be shielded from adult conversation. They shouldn’t be included in it and adults should make sure that their children are not over-hearing conversations that they are either too young to understand or to grasp the subtleties.

      I don’t think that children should grow into a secretive environment. Children are so perceptive! It’s not good for them to extrapolate and imagine what is going on when they feel something is up but are kept away from it. But it doesn’t mean that they should be told every last detail. For instance, if a couple is splitting-up because of infidelity, how much of the background story should they be told? How much details?

      Illness is a bit different, especially when it happens to a close family member. Children should be welcomed to ask as many questions as they have and receive age-appropriate clear and true answers, without having to extrapolate themselves.

      As for going back, I don’t know if we ever can. That’s one thing I really like about having a big family: I can’t go back but I can correct course with my younger children and I think that my older benefit from it somehow. The only way to change course is to change course. Changing our parenting is like turning an ocean liner around so when you want to turn, you have to go all in. Minute changes will get buried in the insanity of daily life.

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