A CONVERSATION WITH KIM JOHN PAYNE
How do we navigate this new world of technology with our families? How can we help our kids reach their potential? What’s the best way to help our children enjoy their childhood while also preparing them for adulthood? Is it even possible to feel successful in this parenting gig?!
What if the answer to all those questions was SIMPLE? What if all we really need to do is – quite simply – SIMPLIFY?
Well, that’s the approach Kim John Payne and his Simplicity Parenting coaches recommend. After almost 30 years as a private family counsellor, educator, consultant and researcher, Kim has discovered that the secret to happier, more functional families is to make time for connection and trim down our schedules to create balance and calm. In short, simplifying our lives can pay huge dividends for our families.
We caught up with Kim to chat about his best-selling book, Simplicity Parenting, and the global movement it has generated.
GRAPEVINE: You claim that simplification is the answer to many issues facing families today. But tell us: what’s the problem with the fast pace and busyness of family-life today?
KIM JOHN PAYNE: A highly-stressed childhood has become the new normal – I see so many kids who are in ‘fight or flight’ mode. But we’re just not built for that constant level of stress. To quote a friend of mine, Steve Biddulph, we’re raising a generation of neurologically damaged kids. Not only that, but for a long time, we didn’t recognise the problem.
What’s encouraging is that tens of thousands of parents are now recognising that this highly-stressed childhood is harmful. It’s kind of like a gut instinct; our head tells us, “It’s okay – that’s just how it is now.” But our gut tells us that it’s NOT okay. Simplicity Parenting is the biggest-selling parenting book worldwide, with 31 different translations. That just goes to show that this is on a lot of parents’ minds. Parents are saying, “This stress and busyness is not what we want for our families.”
Many parents today have lost their joy in parenting. They’ve lost their original hopes and dreams for what their family would be like. So much of family life becomes hauling rat-bag kids into the car, when everyone’s running late and it’s chaos – with this kid going to soccer, that kid going to music lessons, this kid going on a playdate, one parent has that activity on, the other parent’s got another thing …
Our family lives are so far removed from those early dreams that it causes a base-beat of dissatisfaction.
GV: The reality doesn’t live up to our expectations?
KJP: Right. But what we wanted wasn’t unreasonable! It’s not unreasonable to hope to be a really connected, close family. That’s normal! This other stuff is NOT normal, and yet it seems that the two things have been flipped. These days, having a disconnected family going in a hundred different directions is now accepted as normal. It’s what you’ve got to do, it’s just the way it is. And we’re only in the early stages of living in a state of disconnection with our families – we’re only two or three generations into that. If you go back to my grandparents’ generation, it wasn’t like this.
GV: So we need to get back to how things were?
KJP: I’m not saying we need to go back in time. But our nervous systems are just not built for the life we’ve got going on at the moment. I asked a friend of mine who’s an evolutionary neurologist about whether humans’ brains will adapt to these stress levels. She went away and did the maths and then told me, “They will adapt, but it’ll take about 900 years.” That’s 900 years for our brains to adapt to the kinds of stresses kids are dealing with today!
We need to create for our kids a home that’s a secure, safe base from which they can launch out into the world. And our home base is strong when there’s time for real connections – not when everything’s going 100 kilometres-an-hour.
There’s nothing earth-shattering about it – it just takes time. That’s what the Simplicity Parenting movement is helping parents do – to prioritise taking that time so that they can have a simple, connected family life. It’s almost as if it gives parents permission to allow kids and families that downtime so that they can reconnect.
GV: Families are really busy today. Parents seem to feel pressured to provide as many activities and as much stimulation as possible for their kids – there’s this anxiety that we’re being negligent if we let any enrichment opportunities slip by. How would you respond to those concerns?
KJP: According to the stats, over half of the jobs in the future will be project-based. People under the age of 30 will be either self-employed, freelance, or in project-based employment. That’s not the permanent, secure, employment situation of today, where all the structure is external and pre-existing. We’re rapidly evolving into a de-structured society.
So, given that our kids are going to end up in an unscheduled society – where they’re not going to get up in the morning and clock into the bank or the factory or whatever – why put them through this super fast-paced, intensely-scheduled life now? These rigid schedules, where kids have something (or multiple things) on every afternoon and evening, are actually dis-advantaging and dis-opportuning our kids.
The world kids are growing up into is one in which they have to create their own structure. And the ability to create your own structure is developed in one simple way: through PLAY.
GV: So play-time is as important as all those scheduled activities – maybe even more important?
KJP: Absolutely. There needs to be time for play, and even time for kids to get bored. In my book I talk about ‘the gift of boredom’. Out of boredom comes creativity. And if kids are going to be successful in this unstructured society of the future, they’re going to need to be creative, innovative, adaptable. Not only that, but as I know – having been self-employed for over 30 years – that they’ll also need problem-solving and grit.
Those qualities are not learned primarily through all these activities we pack into their schedules. We think that playing on the cricket team will help kids learn to socialise, but actually, when they’re playing on a team all the rules are established and the coach is in charge. Whereas give kids three hours of downtime, let them build a tree-hut, and the most spectacular arguments will break out …
All that planning and all those negotiations – those are the root of what they’ll need for the project-based work they’ll be doing in the future. This is the ‘work’ of childhood, and we need to recognise it as vital in itself. We need to have a reverence for childhood.
GV: What does it look like to have a ‘reverence for childhood’?
KJP: You can either see childhood as an enrichment opportunity, in which you have to get as much in as possible, and fast – or you can see it as an unfolding experience. It’s a philosophical choice. For the former, it’s like we’ve gone into a parental arms-race, where we’ve got to get and do more than the next parent …
However, the reverence for childhood comes, for me, from seeing something like a childhood deprivation disorder that’s sweeping the globe – and addressing the question of how we give our children this very brief little period in their life called childhood.
Unfortunately, many people in the past 20 or 30 years have subscribed to this idea that they’ve got to pack 18 years of experience and development into the first eight. Kids just aren’t socially, emotionally, or neurologically ready for it. And what we then get is a bunch of really stressed-out kids – kids who have this overwhelming sense of helplessness.
GV: How does Simplicity Parenting reduce stress on kids?
KJP: All kids are quirky, but when they’re under this constant stress, those quirks become inflamed – they become disorders. If the kid’s a busy kid and you keep pounding them with too much too fast, with this supersized family life, then that quirk of being busy becomes ADD. And if your kid likes everything lined up and you keep pounding on them with all this stress, then that becomes OCD, and so on.
However, when parents simplify and balance their family’s lives, the kids go back from being ‘disordered’ to just being quirky. I can’t tell you how many parents have said to me over the years, “I feel like I’ve got my kid back!”
GV: So just simplifying family life can actually improve the behaviour of challenging kids?
KJP: Absolutely! And the really thrilling thing is that if you keep it going, the same thing that was their disorder becomes their gift. The busy kid who starts becoming hyperactive, you balance his life out and he just goes back to being busy – but you keep simplifying and that kid becomes a real leader, a real mover and shaker.
Kids with ADD are often great observers of where change and shift need to happen – and when things are safe and calm, they go from just being hyper to making constructive comments and helping facilitate change – they’re well-timed and considered. These are great kids. So the very same thing that was the disorder has become the gift. And the choice is ours.
I’m not denying that ADD, OCD, and all those other disorders exist. All I’m saying is that a disorder is an inflamed quirk, which can become a calmed quirk. Just simplifying life can have a huge benefit, even alongside traditional therapies.
GV: How might a simplification ‘treatment’ complement other therapies when those quirks are inflamed to the point of disorder?
KJP: That’s been at the core of my practice for years and years. If a kid’s struggling, he or she might still need some extra support or therapy – no doubt about it. There’s some great help out there: art therapy, play therapy, movement therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, to name a few. But if a kid goes out of the therapy room into a crazy busy life, then no matter what good work the therapist has managed to do, the kid can’t really absorb it.
On the other hand, if they go out of that room and they have some downtime, then a meal at a fairly regular time and a pretty rhythmical bedtime – all these predictable elements – then even when they go to sleep, what the therapy has managed to achieve is actually being absorbed. Physiologically speaking, the muscles haven’t clenched, the skeleton hasn’t locked up; the body has been relaxed …
What simplifying does is create a sort of ‘container’ for the therapy.
Over the years I’ve had loads of referrals from other therapists. We do a 6- to 10-week process to really dial things back and simplify life. It’s like a stress-elimination diet. Then they go and get the therapy, and the parents are thrilled because the therapy is really effective. Simplifying help makes the most of the resources that they’re putting into the therapies – time, money, etc.
Even kids who aren’t at the point of disorder can benefit from an extra paring-back of their usual routines and stimulations – especially when they start exhibiting signs of what I call a ‘SOUL FEVER’.
GV: Soul fever?
KJP: When our kids have a physical fever, we as parents know that something’s up, often even before the fever comes. Instinctively, we know when our kids’ behaviour is a bit off and that they might be getting sick. But we also need to be attuned to the possibility of a soul fever – a deeper emotional fever. When our kids are struggling – they’re not doing well with friends, they’re arguing with siblings, and it’s more than just ordinary conflict – it’s time to pay attention.
Just as we know intuitively to dial things back when our kids suffer from a physical fever, when a kid has a soul fever they need rest, calm, and quiet. Close the curtains, simplify their food, quiet their environment …
If we can just realise when our kids are getting a bit overwhelmed – that they’re getting flooded – it can make a huge difference. What we often do instead is just keep on sandbagging our families, hoping that by sandbagging we can just survive another day. But things are really out of whack if, because of all these expectations and this busyness, we’re just trying to survive day-by-day, rather than enjoying life.
We need to trust our instincts. It’s not good enough to exist like that, and we know it! When I suggest simplifying, it’s not some weird hippy thing – it’s actually in every parent’s instinct. And I think that’s why this has struck a chord with so many hundreds of thousands of parents around the world: it rings true.
GV: You mentioned how some rhythm and predictability to their home life can benefit kids in therapy.
KJP: Little kids don’t really have a sense of time. The way they feel safe and secure is when they have predictable, rhythmic points in their life. When a child feels safe, that’s when they can start to develop other social and emotional qualities – but until they feel safe, the brain literally inhibits other frontal lobe and limbic system development. So if we want our kids to be smart, we’ve got to give them RHYTHM AND PREDICTABILITY – because that’s what releases a lot of neurological activity into the higher parts of the brain.
I often put it this way: out of the ‘we do’ comes the ‘I am’… Rhythm is full of ‘we do’: We do this, and then we do that … When we’re getting ready for bed, we brush our teeth, we put on our pyjamas, and so forth. And it’s almost like the scaffolding of self-esteem, because the ‘we do’ gives the structure from which the ‘I am’ launches out. Rhythm is hard – I know that from my own parenting experience – but it pays off.
The other thing about rhythm is that it gives kids a picture of what’s coming – and when children have a picture in their minds about what to expect, it sends the message over and over: “You are safe.” And when a child feels safe, they’re way easier to parent.
GV: How come?
KJP: I work with parents all over the world, and I’ve found that the flash-points in many families happen during transitions. For example, often parents struggle with transitioning kids to get dressed in the mornings. One mum figured out that she’d make what she called a ‘scarecrow’ every evening with each of her daughters. She’d work with them to set out, from top to bottom, everything that they’d wear the next day – and then every single morning they’d put the clothes on in that order. When she did it that way, it went from being a 45-60-minute battle to get her kids dressed down to a 5-10-minute ritual! It’s just much more efficient.
When you give a kid a picture of what comes next, and it comes true, it brings the child into the limbic system of their brain – which is their cooperative centre. It’s the picture of what’s going to happen next – that predictability – that results in cooperation.
GV: What’s another area of parenting where rhythm can be helpful?
KJP: Because predictability triggers the part of the brain responsible for cooperation and collaboration, parents find that introducing a lot of predictability greatly reduces the amount of fighting between siblings. It makes problem solving more possible.
When there’s a lot of sibling rivalry going on, I tell parents to go on a real ‘simplification binge’ for a month. Some claim that it fixes the problem completely – but at the least, it makes things better.
You can talk to the kids about their conflict, and then you remind them that it’s time to set the table or time for something else – you lead them right back into rhythm – and off they go into autopilot, conflict over. You don’t dwell on the problem; you just get them back into rhythm. And then before very long, they’re playing together again. The change that rhythm can bring is beautiful.
Another thing that can help with family harmony is creating a good balance of activities …
GV: What does a good balance look like?
KJP: I like to give the example of the rotation of crops. If you don’t rotate your crops, you burn out your soil. It’s not sustainable. In the same way with a family, there’s something unsustainable about not having a rotation of activities. There’s no problem with having one third of the time being busy. Kids have to learn to cope with being busy. But then one-third of the time should just be really relaxed downtime. And the final third of the time is for rest – sleep.
One mum I know was an ‘efficiency expert,’ and she wanted to come and speak to me because the idea of downtime struck a chord for her. She worked out a calendar in which she’d mark down calming days and stimulating days: for every stimulating day there had to be a calm day. If there was a super-stimulating day then the next day had to be an extra-calming day, or she’d schedule two calming days in a row. She found that just doing that – and really observing those calming days as she’d designated them – had unexpected benefits.
When she began this, she was in the process of separating from her husband. They were really disconnected. But this calendar, this system of balancing things and making sure there was enough downtime, played a key part in keeping their marriage together.
GV: And when you’re talking about downtime, should that be screen free?
KJP: Well, I’m not anti-screen. That would be kind of silly these days. But I am passionately pro-connection. I’m passionate about giving kids opportunities to connect on four levels. One level is the natural world and playing. The second level is with friends – I love to see kids playing together with friends. Not ‘friending’, but actual friends. The third level, as we move inwards, is family – deep connections with family. And the final and most important level is connection with self. Self-awareness, self-esteem – knowing who you are and what your values are. And all those connections take time. We all need time.
Recent stats show that the average American 8-to-18 year-old is exposed to 7.5 hours of screen time a day, and that’s not including school-time exposure. So then how can kids have time for nature, friends, family – and time for knowing themselves – if virtually all their waking hours are spent on screens? Friends and family must be a much bigger part of life than screens.
Another problem with screens is that, when we turn the screen on to babysit our kids, they become passive – they end up relying on us and on external stimulation for entertainment. Screens stimulate dopamine production – and it becomes all about pleasure. Turn the screen on, the kid gets a dopamine hit. Then you ask them to clean up their room, and they push back – because it’s not pleasurable.
Dopamine sets kids up on a pleasure-cascade, so it makes parenting really hard in terms of discipline. And it’s not the kid’s fault – they don’t mean to be defiant. But they’ve been set up to expect this hormone cocktail, to expect pleasure, because that’s what a screen does. Over and over, when parents have cut down on screens, they’ve commented on how easy discipline has become.
GV: So, how do we begin the simplification process for our own lives and families?
KJP: The beauty of the simplicity parenting approach is that you do what is doable. You don’t have to buy a Prius and a pair of Birkenstocks (shoes) – it’s not prescriptive. You begin where you are – where you want to begin.
Some parents begin with a toy and book cull – because that’s a simple and concrete place to start. One set of parents told me that they were just going to begin by committing to sharing Sunday dinner as a family. They built out from there until they were having regular mealtimes together.
A lot of parents start simplifying by turning off all devices at mealtimes – TV, radio, smart phones, everything. Other parents jump right into the deep end! For years I’ve done this brain-reset thing, where I challenge parents to go for one-month screen-free. And when they’ve done it, only a very small percentage of parents ever go back to having the screens on, because they get their kids back. Discipline becomes easier, they get more connected – and thousands of these parents have commented that they had no idea how much the screens were getting between themselves and their kids until they turned them off.
The great thing about Simplicity Parenting is that it gives you permission with these small, doable, humble steps, and then you build on those successes. As parents we don’t often get to feel successful! I don’t think of it as being about change – I think it’s a trajectory shift. If we do one small thing and change the angle of our approach by a couple of degrees, by the time a year is up we’re in a whole different place than we’d started out in. Just a small shift and keep going in that direction, and before you know it you’re in a much more connected, elevated space. We don’t have to turn our lives upside down.
GV: What’s the best thing about Simplicity Parenting?
KJP: The feedback I’ve received from thousands and thousands of parents is that when they simplify and balance life for their kids, one of the unexpected results is that their lives feel better, too. They feel more connected to their spouse, to their friends, to their family. What parents experience through simplifying is actually a real renewal of the family time they were hoping for when their children were first born. Ultimately, when people have had the courage to simplify on all the different levels, they’ve remarked about how much better their lives have become.
THE SIMPLICITY PARENTING WEBSITE HAS JUST BEEN LAUNCHED, AND IT’S A GREAT RESOURCE FOR THOSE INTERESTED IN DIALLING THINGS BACK FOR THEIR OWN FAMILIES. YOU CAN CHECK IT OUT AT WWW.SIMPLICITYPARENTING.COM