In Kim John Payne’s travels as a humanitarian worker to war-torn countries around the world, he saw firsthand the toll that dire circumstances placed on children. What really shocked him is when he returned home and recognized the same vacant and stressed-out look.
“I came back to the West and I was seeing exactly the same children,” says Payne. “These were ordinary kids from ordinary families but they looked like the kids I had been seeing in Cambodia.”
Today’s fast-paced lifestyles, coupled with high expectations placed on children, was wreaking havoc on kids’ emotional health, Payne says. He firmly believed that parents needed to declare peace within their own homes and he was determined to help them.
In 2009, Payne wrote the book Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids (Ballantine Books). The work has been reprinted seven times and translated into seven languages. Payne’s message about scaling back struck a chord with weary parents and has led to the formation of hundreds of Simplicity Parenting groups across the country.
From his adopted hometown of Northampton, Payne and seven staff members, including his wife, work to promote a growing movement that argues that our kids need less stuff – toys, clothes, classes, playdates, travel teams and tutors – and more boredom in their lives.
Payne, M.Ed., serves as a consultant to more than 110 schools in the United States, and travels frequently to lecture to parents and educators. What he’s found is that people are relieved to get confirmation for what their “gut instinct” was already telling them – this drive to give kids every advantage is putting them at a disadvantage.
“I think we have only started to scratch the surface,” he says. “Tons of parents are starting to ask questions. Over the last five years, these ideas have really gained momentum. We were seen as counterculture at first, but now we’ve come right into the center of parenting conversations.”
For years, Payne has been involved in the Waldorf education movement and is raising two daughters in the progressive, liberal community of Northampton, a place where he arguably has a captive audience. How would his ideas to simplify go over in a more competitive place for children, say like Newton?
“The response was fantastic,” says Erin Sanders, a parent of three, who helped arrange for Payne to speak recently at Newton’s Angier Elementary School. “I was riveted. I think people are running from place to place. Their kids are super-programmed. We live in a great area for classes and there are so many choices. But this has created franticness within the family and there’s been a push back.”
Any significant resulting changes, however, may be gradual. “It is Newton,” jokes Sanders. But noting how several friends are now trying to embrace a simpler lifestyle for their kids, she adds, “There seems to be something brewing.”
In Newton and many other communities like it, there’s still a fear that if parents don’t sign up children early for extracurricular activities – whether piano lessons, travel soccer, ballet or chess club – they may fall behind their peers. What’s needed to get a child into the best colleges is a question that always looms – even in kindergarten.
Yet, Payne argues that any child can pull together a good SAT score and a stacked resume. What colleges – and future employers – are looking for are creative and adaptable kids and those skills don’t develop from constant parental coaching.
“To give them down time is to set them on a trajectory of success,” says Payne. “If we overschedule our children, it makes them dependent on others. We cannot raise children who are passive and dependent on the world to provide for them.”
Simplicity Parenting is based on four key ideas – or pathways, as Payne calls them. What he wants most is to help people “clear away life’s clutter” so that they can hear their own parenting voice.
Which leads to his first step – get rid of stuff. The average American child has more than 150 toys, creating too many choices and distractions. Payne suggests filling cardboard boxes with clothes, books and toys to either donate or store away in a kind of home “library” that can be visited from time to time.
“If you simplify the child’s environment, it brings immediate calm,” says Payne. “You see the children playing better together. It follows the basic principle, ‘What is rare is precious.’”
His second step involves strengthening family rhythms, which he notes is different than routines. “When you do the same thing in the same way, warmly and kindly, everything becomes easier. It shows you value calm.”
For Payne, dinner time with his wife and two daughters follows a similar pattern. They light a candle on the table, thank the farmers for the food, and unplug the phones. “I literally unplug the modem,” he says.
Wellesley resident Polly Mahoney, who started a Simplicity Parenting group after reading Payne’s book, says she makes a point to walk her kids and husband to the door every morning and hug them as they head out. The predictable practice has become a comfort to all of them.
“I think the things we make a priority to do send a message that this is what’s important to us,” she says. “They say meaning hides in repetition.”
The third step involves scheduling, with the underlying principle that boredom is a gift for kids. Payne insists he’s not old-fashioned or suggesting a return to the past. Instead, he argues that kids need to be adaptive and creative to cope with the fast-paced world that awaits them, and those skills only develop in moments of boredom.
If you ask adults to recall a “golden moment” from childhood, it’s never a trip to Disney World, he says. “It’s sitting on a rock, watching a river flow. It’s a making a connection to nature, a connection to friends, and connection to oneself.”
He disagrees with the notion that children must play the same sport all year long (his next book is on this very subject) in order to be competitive. Payne was a successful basketball coach for 20 years in England, with five of his players earning All-Britain honors. “Not one of my kids started basketball before the age of 12.”
Finally, he makes a case for unplugging kids – from TV, video games and constant exposure to the concerns of adults. Young children don’t need to know about the conflict in Syria, global warming or the details of their uncle’s divorce.
“Parents are in a hurry to introduce kids to be world citizens, but we need to start them off believing it’s a beautiful world, and that won’t happen unless they have the evils of the world protected when they are little,” says Payne.
Neurologically, children cannot make sense of injustice and, instead, they launch into a “fight or flight” mode that fuels anxiety. Before parents say anything in front of their children, Payne advises, ask three questions: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?
As far as parenting movements go, Payne says few make the case for doing less. He’s wary of fads, and hopeful that what he’s advocating is do-able, sensible and enduring. “We want to help parents feel adequate, not inadequate.”
After Payne’s visit to Newton, Sanders says she didn’t pull her kids out of all their extra-curricular classes. She didn’t cancel all playdates. But she did make a conscious decision to schedule fewer of them, and to embrace boredom and down time. One friend went home and cleared the clutter from her girls’ bedrooms. Another gave her children the choice during school vacation week between a trip into Boston for a show and a hike in the woods.
They chose the hike.