Simplifying: Why children benefit

“If we wipe that counter down just one heart beat slower, just a little bit, then a child’s mirror neuron activity will pick that up, have time to process it, and then they’ll wipe with us.”

Kim John Payne, author of “Simplicity Parenting”

Simplicity. The first years of a baby’s life can feel anything but simple. While their needs are few — namely love, food, sleep, and play, parents often feel pressure to provide the absolute best on these fronts.

The best food.

The best sleep.

The best play. 

And we are told to accomplish this by doing more: more playdates, more lessons, more outings, more variety on the table. Jessica Rolph is joined by Kim John Payne on today’s episode to help us question this approach. He is the author of the best-seller “Simplicity Parenting”. Kim John Payne. He has also written: “The Soul of Discipline” and “Being at Your Best, When Your Kids Are at Their Worst”.


Jessica: Welcome Kim.

Kim: Oh, gosh. What a treat to be with you, Jessica. It’s lovely to have a chance to chat with you.

Jessica: Oh, thank you. Well, this is such an exciting thing for me too. I will tell all of our listeners that I read your book years ago and it really impacted my parenting. I’ve really…I’ve thought of it many times since, so I’m excited to share your wisdom with our community.

Kim: Great.

What is Simplicity Parenting?

Jessica: So let’s just get started. What does Simplicity Parenting mean? 

Kim: Yeah, simplicity and having a balance within a child’s life is I guess at its core, it’s fulfilling a value that so many of us have for our children, and that’s to simply give them a childhood. There are such a large and growing number of parents who are trusting their instinct rather than their intellect. Because our intellect is you look around the neighborhood and there are people doing soccer on Monday, ballet on Tuesday, and then repeating and repeating and then psychotherapy on Friday to cope with it all. That’s more what we see, but what we feel is all together, this is, you know what? We need to keep it simple. We need to have our kids have a… And the word I often come back to Jessica is balance. It’s fine to have busyness, but it’s also fine to have decompression.

Four elements of simplifying

We think about four main elements in our simplifying, that are doable.

And those four areas, I guess we’ll talk about a bit today, but just to name them at a high level, one is that we talk about simplifying the environment, the decluttering, and working out what’s essential and what’s not essential in terms of toys and books and clothes. And then the second simplicity pathway that our coaches and myself have often gotten feedback on is that of rhythm and predictability, and all the little beautiful little rituals that we have in our home that are like little stepping stones that our children can hop, hop, hop from one to another. And it leads them all through the day.

And then the third is scheduling, so just soothing in a sense, calming the schedule so that we have a balance between excitement and lots of lovely things to do, but also time to decompress, and time to go into that deep creative play. And then the last one is about filtering out adult information and being really careful about the amount of speech, our own conversation that we have around children that could be scary for them, and they can’t process. And also screens, is being stewards and curators of what our children see on screens is becoming more and more really on people’s minds a lot these days. So those are the four major pathways we have noticed that are both doable for a lot of parents, but also they feel organic, they endure through the years.

Purposeful play

Jessica: I think of you when I am putting together this sort of weekly meal schedule where every Wednesday we have soup and every Thursday we have pasta. And I think about the simplicity lessons, and it really… Your work is so memorable and it is enduring, it’s really lasted throughout their childhood. So, let’s start with the stuff, how do you know if a toy is purposeful before you decide to bring it home, and what does that even mean? 

Kim: Yeah. What I’ve noticed over the years is that toys that invite a child’s creativity are the toys that most kids tend to relate to a lot, they come back to them a lot; that they can be multi-faceted, they can be this, they can be that. A quick example, Jessica, is I was visiting someone’s home once and we were simplifying, and we went down into this play space in the basement, and there was this amazing child-size jeep, a child could actually get in it and drive it around and so on. And it was immaculate, it was new, and I said, “Oh, this is brand new.” And she said, “No, no, no, we’ve had it for a couple of years.” And the thing had hardly ever been touched, and I said, “Oh.” And then over in the corner was this beaten up old box, and it’d been drawn on and painted on and had curtains fitted to windows, and what I realized it was that was the box that the jeep had come in. And so the children were actually played for hours with the box and not with this fixed product of the jeep or whatever it was itself.

Rhythms vs routines

Jessica: I love hearing that, it’s so helpful to guide parents when we have so many choices out there to just go with the purpose. In your book, you also discuss the healing power of rhythm and predictability for children, so speaking to parents of children of between kind of birth and four, let’s say, can you help these, our community, help us understand why children benefit from knowing what to expect? 

Kim: Yeah, children when they’re very little, they don’t have very much activity at all in their executive brains and in the neocortex or in the frontal lobes, they don’t hold a big picture of things. It is why they’ll often ask about a presents for Christmas in mid-summer, or if you’re in on the Northern hemisphere, it is totally switched around. They don’t hold that big picture of the day, the week, the month, and it’s almost like we can gently scaffold and hold that for them when we have rhythm, predictability and little rituals. And those are three separate things, but they’re all quite closely aligned really. When we have rhythm for a child, there’s a big picture of the day that they get, which they can’t generate for themselves, they just simply cannot, they just don’t have that ability yet, it’s why it makes it so beautiful, they live so much in the now. And one doesn’t want to interrupt that, but at the same time, when they have a picture of how the day is going to go, then they can be in the now even more, because they can…

They’re not concerned and worried about what comes next, and their nervous systems can calm down, they can play creatively. When you have rhythm in the way you raise a child, it’s almost like you have an extra parent around because the rhythm helps transition from one activity to another if it’s pretty much the same every day, or every weekday or on the weekend, because then the child knows what’s coming next and doesn’t push back against the transition, it’s almost like they go into auto pilot. And one of the things that I’m often asked about rhythm is… One of the comments is, “Look, I grew up with a routine”, parents say this to me, “I grew up with a routine, and I want my kids to be free and be creative,” and I differentiate between cold, boring and forced routine. When you’re forced to do things, I think of that as a routine; rhythm is warm and connecting, and it’s done together. And it’s almost at the polarity to cold, detaching, a forced routine.

And when we do this with our children, it’s not only that they know what’s coming next, they… The little ones in particular, feel safe and they feel they can trust, that that’s… If you’ve ever done, psych 101, Jessica, you might remember Erik Erikson talked about in the first years of a child’s life, all they want to know is, “Am I safe? And can I trust? Can I trust the people around me?” Rhythm beautifully has that built into it. 

When they are engaged in play or whatever they’re doing, we can do a little… One of my favorite tools, Jessica, is think alouds. So we can do a little think aloud, so a two year old is playing with their blocks and we walk by and we say, “Hmm, it’s going to be time… I think it’s time for snacks soon. I better go across and start setting that out and come back and tell everyone.” It’s a lovely tool because you’re not taking a child head on, but you are announcing it and you do the same thing every day, and a child then transitions, and a lot of discipline and behavioral issues disappear when you have good rhythm and good predictability.

Jess, these are the little rituals that say to a child over and over, “You are safe. You can trust Mommy or Daddy. You’re safe with us because you know what’s coming next, and then Mommy and Daddy make it happen.” Gosh, we must be magic. The safety of rhythm, predictability and rituals.

Jessica: Oh, I love that, I love that. We have these routine cards. You said that children live their lives pictorially, and we created these routine cards with pictures of children moving through their bedtime or their morning rituals, and I found them to be so helpful in my family. Before they can read, they can see pictures of what comes next and what to expect. 

Integrating Waldorf to mealtime

You draw on your Waldorf background in the book. How has a Waldorf informed mealtime in your home? 

Kim: I was influenced because I trained as a Waldorf kindergarten teacher. And they have a very rhythmical approach to the day, just so soothing to a child’s nervous system, but so stimulating to a child’s brain, do you see? So soothing to the nervous system, but stimulating to the myelination and the development of the brain. It’s not all about soothing; it’s about stimulating, but stimulating the right thing in the right way at the right age.

And food definitely came into that, because when you have rhythm in food, then you build towards those days of the week when you have certain foods. Jessica, you mentioned Wednesdays were soup day. That was my soup day in our home when our children were little as well, they called it yucky soup day. We always had to have a little discussion about how we could make the yucky soup yummy. And we did, and we managed, so that there was very, very little, or kind of almost no fuss about food because on this day they knew this. And we had those days defined by candles. We had seven candles of seven different colors, those little kind of those thick round candles. They last for a long, long time. And we had them in a just simple little candle holder and on green candle it was pasta, on blue candle it was rice day, on yellow candle it was soup day. I can’t remember exactly which ones now, but when… But the children would go and check out which candle day it was and they knew exactly what food we were going to have. And one of my daughters who potentially could have been a very, very fussy eater was very much helped by that. But the candle day also was significant for them because on orange candle day, that was our painting day when we’d get our paints out. And blue candle day was our hiking day where we’d go on a big hike.

And so they’d rush down in the morning to check the candle and then we’d remind them again of what we were doing in a little picture or drawing, and off we would go. And in that way, it really helped stimulate brain development while soothing the sympathetic nervous system, which you don’t want a child to go into. You want them to be much more calm as they’re going into things so that the activity becomes creative and rambunctious and fun, but it doesn’t become aggressive and violent.

Proactively simplify

Jessica: I love imagining your family, what a beautiful picture I have in my mind right now of the candles and the colors and the food. So, most families don’t know that they might be moving too fast or too busy. This could be our family, sometimes I’m aware and sometimes I’m not, but oftentimes it becomes too late and everyone starts to feel overwhelmed. How can we simplify our lives more proactively and less reactively? 

Kim: Yeah. It’s almost like a lot of modern parenting is like a contact sport these days, or like a parental arms race. I would honestly say to that, trust our instinct. Trust our instinct with scheduling. If we get that extra invite after the play date to go to the party, or after a busy day in daycare to meet up at the park and our child just looks just a little bit on the edge of tiredness, it’s trusting our instinct to say, “I think we just need to go home.” And just… I often call it decompressing. Just go down into deep creative play, give them some time.

Now, the difficulty, of course, with this whole thing, and I quite realize it, is that if you look around the neighborhood, most other parents are engaged in very high velocity parenting.

People say to me sometimes, “Oh, Kim, this simplicity and balance in children’s life, that’s lovely, but that’s not the world we live in.” And for me, it’s like on the contrary, the world that our children are growing into will require them to have self-creativity, adaptability, self-motivation, and that is when we give our children space for that in their lives. This is not just soft science, that is literally the parts of the brain that myelinate. Simplicity isn’t disadvantaging our children and taking them back into the past, it’s actually preparing them for the unpredictable future that they will be stepping into.

Jessica: I really get it. You’ve said that too many scheduled activities may limit a child’s ability to motivate and direct themselves. And this is what you’ve just described. I love your podcast. It’s a podcast called Simplicity Parenting and on one of the episodes, it’s a fraction slower and a whole different energy. Can you describe for us what this different energy looks like? 

Kim: Yeah, our children’s brains process just that one or two ticks slower than us, just that one or two beats slower. So actually, Jessica, in a podcast that we’re about to release soon, I put it another way as well. I call it Slow Down, Low Down. When we speak to children, slow it down to match their processing. So slow down. And low down, speak from your lower chest and tummy, because that is the very securing little rumble that they heard, in that lower voice, lower down, lower in the chest, lower in the tummy, that’s what they heard when they were in the womb. That’s exactly the resonance they heard. So when we slow down our voice and speech, and when we bring our speech lower down, you see children just lean against us, snuggle up to us. So that’s one perspective on that fraction slower.

Mirror neurons

The other thing is related to children’s… When they’re three, four, five, six year olds, is that they have this beautiful flowering of mirror neurons in their brains. Now, mirror neurons are responsible for two types of imitation. The first type of imitation is that children imitate what we do. The second type of imitation that mirror neurons pick up, is that they imitate what we feel. So do and feel. But they process it at a slightly slower speed, so that if we want a child to help us wipe the counter down after breakfast and they get up on the stool, if we wipe that counter down just one heart beat slower, just a little bit, then a child’s mirror neuron activity will pick that up, have time to process it, and then they’ll wipe with us.

Now, not only does that help them become little helpers and feel competent, is that that also… Mirror neuron firing builds the pathways for future emotional intelligence and empathy. It’s amazing, isn’t it? A child helping us wipe the counter and do many other things through the day, helping in imitating us will be socially and emotionally more empathetic and smarter, and it’s the emotional intelligence which dictate a person’s success in life. It’s the EQ.

Transitioning out of a busy work day

Jessica: I love that. And I think sometimes it’s a challenge for me to go from the pace of work, of my work life, which is so exciting, and it’s a long day, and then get home and then re-enter that family unit into a slower pace. Do you have any tips for us parents who are trying to do those transitions? 

Kim: Yeah, transitioning out of a busy day into slowing down. There are tons of different things that parents have told me they do over the years to make that transition. Some of them do some kind of meditative work, breathing work, before they enter the house. Others will do, as they walk up to the house, do a mindful walk. They know they’ve got 15 seconds, but they’ll just notice… If you live in a place where there’s a park or you have some plants or a tree, most of us can get out of our cars and perhaps see something of the natural world. Perhaps not, but most of us can. You just take three, four heartbeats and you just notice it, you just notice the natural world around you as you’re moving into the house.

In my podcast, I have a whole little… I think a series, a little podcast about entering into the house. One example is to make that very ritualized, so you don’t go into the house and just get hit with a sort of family tsunami, where it’s just your heart starts racing, “How am I ever going to cope with all this?” or, “I’ve got to get the supper on,” and you start rushing around, you throw the keys down, you go into… What one mother, when I was visiting in China some time ago, she said, “When rushy rushy come in, all peace go out. Rushy rushy is not good.” Because we think we’re rushing, but in our rushy rushy-ness, as she put it, our children are picking that up. Again, the mirror neurons are picking that up. That starts increasing their heart rate, their respiratory rate. It starts increasing the energy, up it goes, and we think we’re going to save time by rushing, but then fights break out with the siblings that takes so much more time to actually sort out, and you in the end feel feel like you’re playing Discipline Whack-A-Mole. It’s very, very inefficient.

And part of what people have found through Simplicity Parenting, a comment we have all around the world with all our coaches report that people say to them all the time, when they slow it down just that heartbeat or two, when they have rituals when they come into the house, the children then pick up on that and they settle into what they’re doing. For example, if you come into the house with your child from daycare or wherever you are bringing them from, or you’re greeting the children, if you are coming into the house and there’s a certain little rhythm to it, a ritual… And the ritual might be that you go and you sit on the sofa and you snuggle for two minutes, or they tell you about their day, or you have a book where you do some drawing together or, whatever it is. And there’s three or four little steps and you do those steps, then the children don’t haul on you, they don’t hang on you.

They don’t fight for your attention because they know for that two or three or even five, if you can afford it, five minutes, they know they’re going to get your attention.

Jessica: That’s so helpful. You know, I have to say my, my kids just rush me when I get home and they’re clamoring. And sometimes they do fight for me who gets “uppy” first and you know, and it’s really chaotic, frankly, we’re trying to, you know, settle down for dinner and I’m walking in… 

So Kim, I have so many things to bring into my day now. I, you know, I just, it was really a dream come true to be able to talk to you, the author of this book that has really guided a lot of my parenting. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Kim: Oh, I couldn’t be more pleased to actually talk with you, Jessica. I’ve been looking forward to it and best wishes to you and all your community.

Here are my takeaways from the conversation with Kim:

  1. The four areas in which Kim focuses on simplicity are:
    1. Environment — declutter toys, books and clothes
    2. Rhythm and predictability — start with something small, like lighting a candle at mealtime
    3. Scheduling — when you have stretches of busyness, build in time for decompression
    4. Filtering — filter out information that our children aren’t yet ready for, including digital content
  2. Do little “previews” of the day to come in the morning or at bedtime. When children’s minds aren’t worrying about how the next hour or two will unfold, their nervous systems can down-regulate, allowing more space for creative exploration. 
  3. Our children’s brains process things a couple of beats slower than ours do. When we speak to our children, we can slow it down to match their processing. And by slowing down the tasks that you are doing around them (like wiping down the counter), you encourage them to participate. 

Just 3 takeaways from my talk with Simplicity Parenting author, Kim John Payne. Our Lovevery blog has more suggestions for simplifying your space, and ways to be more present with your baby or toddler.


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Kate Garlinge

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Posted in: Routine, Playtime and Activities, Cognitive, Play, Social Emotional, Parenting