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Simplicity Parenting: Why Less Is More for Your Kids

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Family counselor, Waldorf educator and public school trainer Kim John Payne, M.Ed., says that when he would take on a new client, he'd often offer them a choice between a year of therapy, or having him spend just one day at their house.

"Many of today's behavioral issues come from children having too much stuff and living a life that is too fast," Payne says. "I would visit from breakfast to bedtime; I helped the parents simplify their routines and lives, and very often the parents [would] see an improvement in their child's behavior within days."

Payne has traveled through Asia and Africa, helping families devastated by AIDS or war. He says children in Western countries have many of the same stresses, but for opposite reasons.

"The children in the developing world often have had negative sensory overwhelm, and we give our children sensory overwhelm here -- too many trinkets, too many choices, too much information -- and this causes a cumulative stress issue in kids," he says.

Next month, Payne will come to my town, Encinitas, Calif., to speak about his book, "Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids." At the event, he'll help parents create a "Simplicity Menu" for their family by breaking the routine down into five layers: simplify the environment (books, toys, etc.), meal times, food, schedules and information.

Payne asks that parents see childhood as an unfolding experience, not an enrichment opportunity. "If it is an enrichment opportunity, then we're in an arms race, trying to get the most for our child," he says. "This is fundamentally a con, and not healthy."

Because my child goes to a Waldorf school, we already try to practice much of what Payne recommends. And when you live on a house the size of a sailboat, less is always, always more. That's why I especially love this quote: "As you decrease the quantity of your child's toys and clutter, you increase their attention and their capacity for deep play. Too much stuff leads to too little time and too little depth in the way kids see and explore their worlds."

I don't mean to suggest we have it all figured out over here -- far from it. But I do know that when we adhere to many of these concepts, things tend to go a little smoother.

Take the idea of simplifying your life through rhythm -- a basic tenet of Waldorf philosophy. This doesn't mean you should keep your kids on a strict schedule, dictated by the clock, but rather stick to a predictable daily rhythm where one event usually follows another. For example, lunch is followed by naptime. This helps the child feel secure in knowing what's coming up next, leaves less room for debate and frees up your mind to be more present with your kids as you move through your time together.

We have a terrific rhythm in our house during the later half of the day (except on holidays or occasional special event days). After nap or quiet time, we usually play at home, make dinner and clean up. Then it's bathtime, followed by a story, lights-out and saying goodnight. This rhythm flows really well, helps the kids fall asleep on time and is not met with argument.

Suggesting skipping a bath time would be like suggesting the sun not rise the next day -- absurd. But, especially since the arrival of the new baby last year, we've had a less predictable rhythm in the first part of our day. As the baby's nap has shifted, we've gone from breakfast, get dressed, go out, come back for lunch and nap, to different things on different days. Usually it depends on how early the baby got up that morning. This is often the time that my four-year-old, in a boundary-testing stage of development, gets assertive about wanting to dictate what we do and has trouble listening and following directions. It's almost as if she senses the power vacuum and pounces.

Another area that I know we could improve is the fourth ideal: simplifying information. This is discussed in the book chapter about filtering out the adult world. As simplicity parenting coach Sue Gimpel writes:

It's up to us parents to share the pressures and worries and political opinions of the adult world only with other adults, who have the thinking and feeling capacity to understand the trials of grown ups ... Children must tend to their imaginative play, and as they do so, they are developing the creativity that will be necessary to solve the problems of the world at the time when they will be ready to deal with them.

At this point, perhaps you're worried that "Simplicity Parenting" will only make you feel guilty about the unavoidable television moment or adult conversation in front of those little ears that are -- let's face it -- always around. But fear not. Payne isn't about overwhelming parents with guilt or lists of things they need to change. Where would the simplicity be in that? Instead, he offers pragmatic ideas to implement these concepts in small and manageable ways.

The final words of the book say it all: "Just do one thing. Begin."

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