Plain and Simple: A conversation with Simplicity Parenting founder and author Kim John Payne about helping our kids thrive more by doing less.

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Tell us how your story begins.

I was living in Victoria and working in a group home for kids who had all kinds of trouble. They had suffered a lot of violence, a lot of abuse, a lot of addiction. And I was puzzled. 

I was also attending university and I took a course about what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. Our teacher was this really lovely medical doctor who’d worked in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He was describing combat veterans and their symptoms: nervousness, jumpiness, hyper-vigilance, that kind of famous fight-or-flight tendency. He described over-controlling behaviour. The more he was describing combat veterans who weren’t adjusting very well, the more he seemed to be talking about the symptoms that the kids in the home I was working in had.

It wasn’t long after that I decided to travel and volunteer in South-East Asia. There were really big refugee camps along the Thai–Cambodian border, and a lot of stuff going on in Indonesia as well. I was volunteering at various sites and I came across nervous and jumpy kids, hyper-vigilant kids who were over-controlling and had a lot of night terrors. At night-time, a couple of young volunteers and I would wander around the camp, sitting with kids at night who were screaming and shaking, and we’d calm them down, which was just like what would happen in the group home. 

I moved to the UK to study more about childhood stress and trauma. I opened a little counselling practice, and I was helping out in a school as a school counsellor. Through the door came kids who looked just like the kids in Cambodia and just like the kids in Indonesia, and just like the kids in my group home. 

They were nervous, jumpy, hyper-vigilant and over-controlling, and they had night terrors. They looked like wartime kids. It wasn’t as severe, but the look—it’s hard to put into words, but there was a feel and a look with these kids that was just unmistakably similar to the kids who had suffered abuse in the group home, and the kids who’d suffered trauma in the refugee camps. Only, these kids were living a relatively normal life. They were from different socio-economic backgrounds, different cultural backgrounds. 

I came across Steiner education. Steiner teachers in the UK, the US and Europe do home visits when the child’s in kindergarten. I started doing a lot of home visits. The only common thing I could see between these kids was a kind of low-grade, under-the-radar fast pace of life. They were all living in this too-much, too-soon, too-sexy, too-young world. And this is before computers and the internet. 

I could identify that this was under-the-radar stress. I had access to a lot of research at the time, and it was also the really early days of brain research. What was being shown, although not proven, was that the amygdala—the fight-or-flight, the ancient brain, the reptilian brain—could store trauma memory. 

So I started testing. I started thinking that if cumulative stress is causing these kids to be like wartime kids, then it’s like an undeclared war on childhood. I had to figure out how to get these kids out of the warzone so they could start recovering. The only way I could do it at the time was to cumulatively reduce the stress. It was a pretty simple thought: let’s just reduce. 

I started working with parents, talking about Simplicity Parenting and talking to them about stressors, and the kids came good. We had kids with diagnosed ADD, ODD, OCD—no shortage of Ds. They were anxious and nervous, but with some really simple changes they got back to being their quirky selves.

How does all this cumulative stress affect our kids’ brains?

I asked a friend who is an evolutionary neurologist whether the brain was adapting to this pace of life, this supersized family life. She found the brain is evolving, but it’s evolving in the wrong direction. The amygdala, for the first time in human evolution, is growing larger, not smaller. We figured if we kept stress as it is today and didn’t increase it, because it’s increasing rapidly, our kids would be good to go in about 900 years. In other words, we’re 900 years ahead of our kids’ ability to handle what has become accepted as normal in their lives.

Why is Simplicity Parenting resonating?

I think the reason it has become a phenomenon is because the community, worldwide, has a gut instinct. I think parents know that this ‘overwhelm’ on our kids is not okay. I hear it everywhere, not just in the US, Europe or Australia. I was in Mongolia a couple of months ago, and Lapland before that. They’re saying the same thing. Parents all over the world have this instinct, and that’s really hopeful: our instinct is still intact. 

Nothing we suggest in Simplicity Parenting is particularly weird. One of the beautiful things about it, and it’s kind of deliberate in the writing in my books, is that it’s all small, doable changes. You can live a mainstream life yet simplify to these four pillars, these four pathways of simplicity, and have your kids be balanced. And have them bring out their gifts, rather than their disorder. 

Describe Simplicity Parenting in a nutshell.

Simplicity Parenting is a way to have a life in which you give your child a childhood. You give them the gift of boredom. You allow them to be creative. But most of all, it’s a safe harbour—a safe harbour of family connection. 

A family living a simple and balanced life is a connected family, where family values will trump marketing values. Where you can live a connected family life from which your kids can launch out into the world and come back and decompress. 

Home life is a place kids can relax and feel secure and safe. There’s a lot of stuff out there we can’t control, but what we can influence strongly is home. I’m not suggesting the world has to change—although, if I were ruler of the universe, of course I would change it. But we can’t. There’s stuff going on out there that is just not child-friendly. It’s child-hostile. It’s teen-hostile. 

I’ll give you a quick example. I attended an online conference recently, with a workshop about marketing to children. Do you know we have a new name now, as parents? Our name is not ‘parents’. The whole workshop was about getting kids to buy more stuff, and our new name is ‘purchasing friction’. The name of the workshop was ‘Removal of Purchasing Friction’.

All the major influencers—Ford Motor Company, Disney, Facebook—were there, and it was run by this marketing guru. They are deliberately, mindfully and consciously trying to take away our influence on our children so that our children will have open access to screens, and open permission to buy. Sixteen billion dollars a year is spent on marketing to kids. Marketing forces are one part of the undeclared war on childhood. 

There are also national curriculums and high-stakes testing. Here in the US, we’ve had this act called No Child Left Behind. But I call it ‘No Child Left Intact’, because the pressure in schools was and is enormous. We’ve also got pressure from sports clubs—pressure to have kids attend not only school, but also after-school activities, more and more, and even in the holidays. There’s a lot of stuff going on.

What Simplicity Parenting does is offer a safe harbour that doesn’t over-protect kids. It’s an alternative to helicopter parenting; it’s actually at the other end of the spectrum. It’s simple and it’s sensible. It offers a way of living that, to hundreds and thousands of parents around the world, is instinctively right. It’s quiet—you don’t have to be evangelical about it. Your kids thrive. They completely thrive when you give them this more-balanced way of living.

What forces have contributed to the overwhelm that kids are feeling? 

The average 12-year-old in the US, Europe and the UK is exposed to 9.25 hours of screens a day. That’s a factor. And then you’ve got marketing forces, and they’ve got to sell stuff. They used to sell to adults but they’ve fished that pond out, so they had to keep growing. If you don’t grow at two percentile points per quarter, you’re in a recession. So then they started marketing to older and older people with disposable incomes. And they fished that pond out. Then they started marketing to kids. 

I traced the development of sports shoes, for example. Sports shoes used to be for people who played sports. Then they started marketing them to general adults. Then they started marketing them to teenagers. They even got older people to wear unusual sport shoes. When they fished that pond out, they started marketing to kids. There were ‘Weeboks’—Reeboks for infants. 

The whole economy is based on growth. That’s why marketers are trying to remove ‘purchasing friction’—aka parents—from the picture. You’ve got really voracious marketing forces aimed at families, and families were the last bastion of discernment. We thought about what we bought our kids. That, now, is really gone. 

There’s also a general lift in parents’ levels of anxiety. We want to give our kids a head start. We’re trying to pack eighteen years of development into the first eight years. But that really disadvantages our kids, because if we stress our kids out when they’re young, their frontal lobes don’t develop. That’s the intelligence part of the brain—the brain’s governance. What grows instead is the amygdala.

One of the things we found, in one study into kids with chronic ADHD, is that when families simplified their lives, after four months their kids’ school grades had increased a full grade and a half. 

These parents were packing so much into their kids’ lives because they wanted them to succeed. The irony is that if you want your kids to succeed, you need to give them a childhood—because that’s when their creativity fires. That’s when they develop interest, that self-motivation, problem-solving innovativeness—that’s called giving children a childhood. The empirical data is very convincing: kids will get smarter if we get simpler. 

What are the key points to Simplicity Parenting?

The first thing to understand about these four pathways is that I didn’t make them up. I’m not a big fan of parenting books, which I know is weird because I write them. But I’m not, because they often just subjugate us as parents. It’s as if they’re this big parenting expert, and they’re primary and we’re secondary. 

Our kids need us to be primary in their lives. I’ve spent decades watching and observing what was successful, what was enduring, what would last and what was doable. It’s almost embarrassingly simple, but what was successful was really simple to do.

The first point is decluttering. It makes you feel really good. You simplify the environment. There are fewer books, fewer toys, fewer clothes. 

There are fewer harsh cleaning products as well, because olfaction, smell, is a really important thing for kids. Little kids can’t control much in their lives, because they’re little. And they’re so vulnerable, so their sense of vision and their senses of smell and hearing and touch are really heightened—that’s why they put everything in their mouths. All their senses are intense because that’s what evolution has done.

So simplifying, soothing and calming down their environment is really important. Cleaning things out also gives you a really good feeling. With 1,000 Simplicity Parenting coaches out there in the world, we get a lot of feedback from a lot of different cultures, and we’ve observed some really interesting sidebars to this.

So what happens if you simplify toys? The average kids have around 150 toys. That means the 3,000-piece Lego set counts as one. I started counting them, and that is international data. That’s not just in the US. 

I used to go into homes and I was called ‘Dr Trash Bag’, which is a bit unfortunate. I’d have these trash bags with me, and we’d simplify the toys. We’d put in all the junk, all the merchandising, all the annoying things, the aggressive things, and we’d keep filling up these bags. You’ve got two or three kids, you’re pushing 500 toys in a house. They’d come out of everywhere. We’d leave each child, each teen with about twenty to thirty toys. Then the child keeps about ten to fifteen and we’d get a box and put the other half away—and this becomes the toy library. You circulate them in and circulate them out. Same with books. I subscribe to what is rare is precious, and books are precious. Have fewer because it makes them rarer, it makes them precious, and it gives a child time to dig down deeply into them.

When you have fewer toys, kids play better together. All around the world, when this toy cull happens, it’s the simple toys that parents keep, as well as the construction material. I don’t know about you, but one of my kid’s favourite toys for years was not all the fancy stuff my parents would buy in Australia and send over at phenomenal cost. It was the box that the refrigerator came in. It was a rocket ship; it was a shop. Things that are simple—time in nature, for example—all that stuff lets kids play better together. When they have to be creative about their play, that fires the limbic system, which is the cooperative centre of the brain. Fewer toys leads to less protectionism. A lot of kids lay over their toys like dragons. Fewer toys means creative play. And creative play means cooperation. That’s the first pathway. It creeps back in, though, so you’ve got to do it every six months or so. 

The second pathway is rhythm. What I noticed over the years was that in families with a really rhythmical, predictable home life, the kids were so secure. They knew what was coming next. Little kids’ social and emotional development really depends on having a secure home base. Rhythm means that they know the certain way they wake up in the morning: Mummy is going to sing this silly little song when she comes in. Then we get up a certain way, and there are the same cereals, and we get dressed in a certain way. Then we go off to day care or school. We come home, and we help prepare dinner in a certain way. Then we clean up. And then bedtime also happens in a certain way.

Rhythm is really different to a boring routine. I think of connecting rhythms and not boring routines. Connecting rhythms are the things we do with kids that are just normal, warm and nice, while boring routines are just exactly the same thing every time. Setting the table can be a connecting rhythm because you do it with a kid, and you’re just chatting away about how they’re the fastest or the second-fastest runner in the class now. And you’re just setting the table, but you’re talking about whatever’s come up for them in school that day. 

On the other hand, you could say to your son or daughter, “Go and set the table right now, please.” That’s a routine, and that’s boring and disconnecting. The difference between rhythm and routine is connection and warmth. Kids who have rhythm in their lives know what’s coming, and then it happens. When they know what’s coming, they take part in it, which creates the rhythm. That says to a child, myriad times a day, “You are safe; you are safe.” It’s deep neurology. This rhythm creation allows the higher brain to myelinate and function. It’s really good news that it can be done so simply. It’s nothing fancy at all. 

The third pathway is simplifying schedules. Parenting, these days, has almost become a contact sport. It’s like a parenting arms race, or something. You can either see childhood as an enrichment opportunity—you’ve got to get a lot, as much as you can, sign up for as many classes as you can—or an unfolding experience. Do we let childhood unfold, or do we jam it full, pack it in, push it down and compress it? Which do we want to do? 

Scheduling is just dialling back. What is essential? What is not essential? It’s dialling back the number of play dates, dialling back the number of sporting events. I’ve been watching this for thirty-plus years now, and my advice is that kids need at least three to four decompression points a day. They take in all this information at school and clubs and sports. Then they need points of decompression. In my book, I write about safety release valves. I particularly talk about the gift of boredom: just let kids be bored. 

Let them be royally bored. When they were little, if my kids came to me and said, “Dad, there’s nothing to do,” my only response was, “Oh, dear.” That’s it. I had to be careful, because therapists have the weirdest kids. We over-talk it all the time. But off they would go, and their intense creativity would come back. They’d break out and they’d come back at suppertime. We’d light a candle and say thank you to the farmers for the food. And they’d say things like, “We played really hard today, Daddy. We played hard.” Isn’t that great? It’s not ‘worked’ hard but played hard. That is their work. But we’ve got to give them space to do that. Just cut out all this overscheduling.

The fourth pillar is filtering out information. This isn’t just unplugging. It’s being really careful what we say in front of kids. Before you say anything in front of kids, ask yourself: is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, and will it help them feel secure? If it won’t help them feel secure, but it’s kind, and it’s necessary, and it’s true, just don’t say it. Defer it until later. Talk to another adult about it. 

It seems things were simpler when we were kids. There was a distinct divide between kids and adults. What has changed that?

Yes, in the past we understood that children were different to adults. That’s been broken down now. I think part of the reason is that—at the risk of being boring— the media has deliberately broken it down.

Starting in the 1990s, there was a flipping of the script between adults and kids about who’s in charge. Do you remember Home Alone? That was the cutting edge, the first of a slew of now normal stories where the kids are in charge and adults are seen as immature, self-centred and out of touch. 

I did a simple research project about this with my grad students at my university. We found that over 80 per cent of children’s programming now portrays kids as being in charge, and the adults as being dumb. If kids are watching seven hours of programming a day in which adults are dumb and kids are smart, that dramatically affects the way kids perceive us. And we watch that programming too.

What I see going on now is something I call ‘peer-parenting’, where parents—really good, lovely people—will talk to their children like friends and buddies. It’s a fast track to having a child with a behavioural problem because they’ll figure they’re in charge, so they’ll turn into little bush lawyers. They’ll negotiate everything. I write about that extensively in my Soul of Discipline book. 

The outcome is that you have adults not being adults anymore. Here in the US, it’s so common for mums and dads to call their kids ‘little buddy’, and in Australia it’s ‘mate’: “Hey, mate, how you doing?” This leads to a kid feeling as if no one’s in control. If no one is in control, a child’s social and emotional being will step into that leadership vacuum every time and take control. It leads to really big behavioural problems. 

In my private practice, it’s beautiful to see when adults get back in charge and understand the difference between being friendly and being friends. What happens is the kids calm down. Everyone gets much closer. The kids don’t argue about everything. And a lot of sibling aggression calms down. 

Kids fight not only about who’s in charge, but also about who’s top dog. A lot of parents now are misunderstanding what’s a negative, harsh authority and what is loving authoritarianism. The book I’ve just sent off to the publisher deals with that a lot. It’s called Being at Your Best When Kids Are at Their Worst. It’s about emotional self-regulation.

The other reason parents behave this way with their kids is that we want our kids to be good social citizens. We want our kids to be mature and to be out there in the world, seeing what is wrong and what is right. I recently gave two talks to very large, worldwide audiences. One to the LGBT community in America, and one to the Black Lives Matter parenting community.

I was a bit worried about them. I said to the producers, “My line on this is that we should really not be talking to our kids about this stuff until they’re at least twelve, and even then, introduce it lightly.” I got a lot of really good feedback about that. If we tell our little kids stories about being shot in the head or global warming or violence against misogyny—a little girl who’s growing up doesn’t need to know about misogyny yet. She needs to know how to deconstruct that clock and put it back together again, so that she can learn to feel competent. So that when a little boy puts her down, she turns right around to him and says, “Don’t be stupid,” not, “Don’t be a misogynist.” 

I think we over-talk these things because of our own anxieties about how violent the world has become, because of the half-hourly news cycles and because we want our kids to be social warriors. If we want them to get out there and change the world, then they have to know what a beautiful world looks like. They have to know there are beautiful people in the world, that their friends and family friends are good people. Otherwise, if they’ve been fed a steady diet of violence, how do they know what to change the world to?

That’s why Simplicity Parenting has resonated around the world. The book is strange because it actually doesn’t try and teach you one single thing. It doesn’t ask you to do anything. It just says to do less. It doesn’t confuse you. In my Soul of Discipline book, I give an overview of the parenting fads of the last fifty years. I point out how they swing left, all loosey-goosey, and then they swing right, which is tight and over-controlling. Then we swing left again. It happens in seven- to ten-year swings. I talk about how confusing that is, and how we can get ourselves out of this confusion just by dialling it back and getting in touch with our own instincts again. That’s what Simplicity Parenting does: it lets us parent from instinct. I think that’s why it’s become so popular. 

How do screens affect resilience?

Screens erode resilience, and they do it dramatically. It’s got to do with dopamine. What screens do—and they’re specifically designed to do this, and we all know it—is give kids really big shots of dopamine, which is the ‘pleasure and reward’ hormone that tells you to do something and you’ll be instantly rewarded for it. You’ll feel good, and you don’t really have to move outside your bedroom. 

So when those kids walk out of their rooms—and, by the way, they shouldn’t have a screen in their bedroom in the first place—they walk into a real world where pleasure and reward are based on effort. Therefore, the resiliency, the willpower to actually make a mark in the world, to actually be able to be competent and feel confident and take things on—that’s the building of resiliency. That’s where kids develop grit.

But if kids are dopamine addicts—which is what they are, and I don’t use that term lightly: they are flooded with dopamine—then they don’t have the pathway to resiliency because they don’t engage will. That’s the short version of it. 

One last thing: there’s a book called The Learning Habits. It’s based on a longitudinal study, completed over fifteen years, about how kids get smart, how they study. The thing these two researchers from an Ivy League university here in the US found from studying 55,000 kids was that level of grit decreased in direct relationship to screen exposure.

The more you bring screens in, the less resilience and grit your child will have, and the less social and emotional intelligence. The researchers found a direct relationship to screens and common childhood diagnoses like ADHD and others. As screen use increases, resilience and grit directly decrease. 

For me, we cross a major bridge when we give kids their own screens. I’ve got a 16-year-old daughter. She doesn’t have a phone, and she won’t have a phone until she gets her drivers licence. We live up in the mountains, and then she’ll need it. But can she use my computer? Absolutely she can. She uses it quite a lot, no problems. She’s 16. It’s out in the public space of our house. It’s not in a bedroom. She can use it, but it’s mine. When I say that’s enough, I take the screen back. 

When you give a kid their own screen, it’s really primal that they’ll say, “It’s mine.” My plea to parents is that if you must give your child a screen before they’re 12, then let them borrow yours. The subtext here is that if it’s yours, you’ll want it back before very long—because most of us adults are addicted to screens too. 

This article is from issue 14 of Lunch Lady, for more articles, recipes and fun craft ideas buy the mag from our shop here or download the Lunch Lady app and get digital versions here !