Why Simplifying May Protect Our Children’s Mental Health

When my Dad was growing up he had one sweater each winter. One. Total.

He remembers how vigilantly he cared for his sweater. If the elbows got holes in them my Grandma patched them back together. If he lost his sweater he’d recount his steps to find it again. He guarded it like the precious gift it was.

He had everything he needed and not a lot more. The only rule was to be home by dinner time. My Grandma rarely knew exactly where her kids were.

They were off building forts, making bows and arrows, collecting bruises and bloody knees and having the time of their lives. They were immersed in childhood.

But the world has moved on since then. We’ve become more sophisticated. And entered a unique period in which, rather than struggling to provide enough parents are unable to resist providing too much. In doing so, we’re unknowingly creating an environment in which mental health issues flourish.

When I read Kim John Payne’s book, Simplicity Parenting, one message leapt off the page. Normal personality quirks combined with the stress of “too much” can propel children into the realm of disorder. A child who is systematic may be pushed into obsessive behaviors. A dreamy child may lose the ability to focus.

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.

As a new parent I find this both empowering and terrifying. We officially have a massive opportunity and responsibility to provide an environment in which our children can thrive physically, emotionally and mentally.

So, what are we getting wrong and how can we fix it?

The Burden of Too Much

Early in his career, Payne volunteered in refugee camps in Jakarta, 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 that 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 they were physically safe, mentally they were also living in a war zone of sorts, “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 in order 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 protecting mental health is more obscure.

And sadly, our culture is messing up.

Modern day children are exposed to a perpetual flood of information which they can’t process or rationalize. They’re growing up faster as we place them into adult roles and increase our expectations of them.

Naturally, they look for other aspects of their life they can control.

The Four Pillars of Excess

As parents we want to provide our kids with the best start in life. If a little is good, we think more is better, or is it?

We enroll them in endless activities. Soccer. Music. Martial arts. Gymnastics. Ballet. We schedule play dates with precision. And we fill every space in their rooms with educational books, devices and toys. With so much stuff children become blinded and overwhelmed with choice.

They play superficially rather than becoming immersed deeply and lost in their wild imaginations.

Yet, a minimalist approach encourages parents to keep fewer toys so their children are able to 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 play and explore. 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.

Protecting Childhood

Similar to the anecdote of the heat slowly being turned up and boiling the unsuspecting frog, so too has society slowly chipped away at the unique wonder of childhood, redefining it and leaving our kid’s immature brains drowning trying to keep up. Many refer to this as a “war on childhood”.

Developmental Psychologist David Elkind reports kids have lost more than 12 hours of free time per week in the last two decades meaning the opportunity for free play is rare. Even preschools and kindergartens have become more intellectually-oriented with many schools eliminating recess so children have more time to learn.

The time children spend playing in organized sports has been shown to significantly lower creativity as young adults, whereas time spent playing informal sports was significantly related to more creativity. It’s not the organized sports themselves that destroy creativity but the lack of down time. Even two hours per week of unstructured play boosted children’s creativity to above-average levels.

Parents Take Charge

So, how do we as parents protect our kids in this new “normal” society has created?

Simple, we have no choice but to take charge and have the courage to be the odd parent out in our busy society. We start by saying no, so we can create space for a healthy childhood. No, Sam can’t make yet another birthday party on Saturday. No, Sophie can’t make soccer practice three times this week.

And we recreate regular down time providing a sense of calm and solace in their otherwise chaotic worlds. It provides a release of tension children know they can rely on and allows them to recover and grow, serving a vital purpose in child development.

We filter unnecessary busyness and simplify their lives. We don’t talk about global warming at the dinner table with a seven-year-old. We watch the news after our kids are asleep. We remove excessive toys and games from our toddler’s room when they’re sleeping.

Our children have their whole lives to be adults and to deal with the complexities of life, but only a fleetingly short time in which they can be silly, fun loving kids.

Childhood serves a very real purpose. It’s not something to “get through”. It’s there to protect and develop young minds so they can grow into healthy and happy adults. Because, when society messes too much with childhood, young brains react. By providing a sense of balance and actively protecting childhood we’re giving our children the greatest gift they’ll ever receive.

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