I found a new book to buy, Kim John Payne’s book, Simplicity Parenting. I don’t know what the cover looks like, but I firmly agree with the title. Reviews are through the roof. To boil down what I have read so far, Payne suggests that normal personality quirks combined with the stress of “too much” can propel children into the realm of disorder.
This stops me in my tracks. This could be my child, your child, your neighbor’s children. The author is saying that we must be vigilant in this day and age not to over do it. But wait, we have all been taught that it’s a good thing to work hard, and give your children more (opportunities) than we had when we were young. Isn’t this the goal?
What if you learned that giving your children more opportunities, choices, and tangible miscellany could push a systematic child into obsessive behaviors, or cause a dreamy child to lose the ability to focus? Apparently, this is precisely what’s happening in this day and age.
Payne conducted a study in which he simplified the lives of children with attention deficit disorder. Within four short months 68% went from being clinically dysfunctional to clinically functional. The children also displayed a 37% increase in academic and cognitive aptitude, an effect not seen with commonly prescribed drugs like Ritalin.
How is this possible that something so plain, so core, so basic could result in improved mental health for kids, particularly in the face of rapidly increasing attention deficit disorder diagnosis and new drug protocols?
CAN “TOO MUCH” REALLY BE A BURDEN?
Early in his career, Payne volunteered in refugee camps, where children were dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. He describes them as, “jumpy, nervous, and hyper-vigilant, wary of anything novel or new.”
Years later Payne ran a private practice in England, where he recognized many affluent English children were displaying the same behavioral tendencies as the children living in war zones half a world away. Why would these children living perfectly safe lives show similar symptoms?
Payne explains that although these kids were physically safe, mentally they were living with constant pressure to be better, “Privy to their parents’ fears, drives, ambitions, and the very fast pace of their lives, the children were busy trying to construct their own boundaries, their own level of safety in behaviors that weren’t ultimately helpful.”
Suffering with a “cumulative stress reaction” as a result of the snowballing effect of too much, children develop their own coping strategies to feel safe. Parents and society are conscious of the need to protect our children physically. We legislate car seats, bike helmets and hover in playgrounds. But are we forgetting mental health?
There is an undeniable body of evidence out there that children in modern society are increasingly stressed, so much so that we have seen irrational and incomprehensible behavior from disturbed teens across our country.
Our society is truly to blame here. It really does take a village to raise a child. Often, parents are too close to their children to recognize cause and effect.
Modern day children are exposed to a constant flood of information which they may have trouble processing and rationalizing. They’re growing up faster as we put them into adult roles, increasing our expectations of them. So naturally, they look for other aspects of their life they can control.
PILLARS OF EXCESS
Naturally as parents we want to provide the best for our kids. If a little is good, we think more is better. Sometimes it’s what we’re giving our children that’s the problem.
We enroll our children in endless activities, soccer, music, martial arts, gymnastics, etc. We fill every space in our homes with books, devices and toys. Did you know the average western child has in excess of 150 toys, and receives an additional 70 toys per year? We are overwhelming them with choice. Our children become blasé to simple treasures. Imaginations suffer. Simplicity Parenting encourages keeping fewer toys so children can engage more deeply with the ones they have.
Payne describes the four pillars of excess as having too much stuff, too many choices, too much information and too much speed.
When children are overwhelmed they lose the precious down time they need to explore, reflect and release tension.
Too many choices erodes happiness, robbing kids of the gift of boredom which encourages creativity and self-directed learning.
And most importantly “too much” steals precious time.
Developmental Psychologist David Elkind reports kids have lost more than 12 hours a week of free time per week in the last two decades meaning the opportunity for free play is scarce. Have you noticed that even preschools and kindergartens have become more intellectually-oriented, and many schools have eliminated recess altogether to increase classroom time. Participation in organized sports has even been shown to lower creativity as young adults. It’s not the organized sports themselves that impact creativity but the lack of down time. Just two hours per week of unstructured play boosted children’s creativity to above-average levels.
So how do we as parents improve our children’s lives in this new “normal” society?
Simple, we say no.
We protect our kids and say no, so we can create space for them to be kids. No, you cannot watch cartoons. No, you don’t need to take extra lessons this week. No, you can’t play on mommy’s tablet.
Instead, we provide a safe and calming alternative in their otherwise chaotic worlds. Find the crayons, encourage fort building, or go outside and find something to do. Truly this is how we encourage a release of tension children need, serving a vital purpose in child development.
It is up to us parents to filter unnecessary busyness and simplify our children’s lives. We don’t need to talk about politics or global warming at the dinner table with a seven year old. We include them in conversation, relish family time. Slow it down. Remove excessive toys, games, and scheduling from your child’s life. Recreate, play and honor childhood.
Our children have their whole lives to be adults and to deal with the complexities of life, but they have only a fleetingly short time in which they can be kids. Allow them to be silly, fun loving kids. Childhood only happens once. It’s during this precious time we need to protect and develop young minds so they can grow into healthy and happy adults.
When we overload a child, it’s no surprise young brains react negatively.
By providing a sense of balance and actively protecting childhood we’re giving our children the greatest gift they’ll ever receive. As a society, we have a massive opportunity and responsibility to provide an environment in which our children can thrive physically, emotionally and mentally.