LIVE MORE WITH LESS
Simplifying and decluttering
IFamily Coach, Jenny Hale, takes a look at the stunning implications of weaving simplicity and playfulness back into family life.
grew up on a quarter-acre section, close to a cliff, a small orchard of trees, a veggie garden and grandma a 10 minute walk away. Most of my clothes were hand-sewn and my jumpers were knitted. When I or my siblings grew out of them, they got handed on.
We had one car, so if we did an after-school activity we had to be able to walk or bus there. We all walked to the local primary school and we sat at the kitchen table for dinner – the special dining room table was for important occasions. I had two significant birthday parties that I can remember – and they were special. We never had pocket money, but we did get a chance to earn extra dollars for special things like the movies or the Easter show.
I know we had a playroom but I can only recall there being chalk and a blackboard, books, table tennis, marbles, knucklebones and board games. We spent most of our time outside with balls, bats and our imagination. Tree-climbing, running races, and hide-and- go-seek were favourites, and in my horsey phase, so was making the dog jump hurdles. Mum was amazing at providing breaks for refreshments which kept us going and changed the pace so we could recharge the batteries.
That was a long time ago, and ways of doing things change – but weaving some of the simplicity and playfulness of that time into today’s family life could really help. My role as a Family Coach offers the privilege of working alongside families throughout New Zealand. I sit with amazing parents who care deeply about their children. It concerns me when I hear of the out of control behaviour and anxiety in children’s lives. Parents are exhausted and worried. They have tried lots of parenting strategies but feel their children are behaving in ways they would not have dreamed of doing themselves. It makes me wonder if we have gotten ourselves too busy and too stressed.
Are parents feeling that good parenting has to be exhausting and frantic, with lots of toys and experiences? Are we feeling guilty that we're not available enough so we buy more gear or add another activity into the schedule? On my own journey, I have been inspired by internationally-renowned author, Kim John Payne, who wrote Simplicity Parenting. He says that today’s busier, faster society is waging an undeclared war on childhood. With too much stuff, too many choices, and too little time, children can become anxious, have trouble with friends and school, or even be diagnosed with behavioural problems. Now he is helping parents reclaim for their children the space and freedom that all kids need for their attention to deepen and their individuality to flourish. So how do we get childhood back? We want our kids to have every opportunity to experience what life has to offer and not miss out on a chance to get better at something. We are very influenced by what others are doing and it can hugely modify what we do with our own kids. It can be a lonely place to be doing things differently to everyone else. Maybe a good place to start is to pause before we say, "Yes!" to more activity or stuff. We need to ask ourselves a few good questions to keep things in balance. Will this add more pressure, or will it give us more time to be relaxed? Am I doing this because I think it's what others expect me to do, or because I want to? Am I doing this because my child is pressuring me, or because I believe it's good for our family?
Once you have grounded yourself with these questions, give yourself so me freedom to beat your own drum and do what works for your family. Not easy – but possible. Children play with more imagination and resourcefulness when they have fewer toys to choose from. It invites deeper thinking and stirs up possibilities. A good idea is to box up toys and circulate
them so that at any one time, there are limited choices. Every week or so, rotate the toys with a fresh box or two. At any one time you might have the Duplo out, the puzzles, the cars, the book box, the dolls and the crayons and paper. The other lovely toys are stored away, waiting their turn for a rotation. When a child does not have exactly what they are after, like a phone – watch them creatively adapt a block or even their hand and turn it into one. If a child has just started school, wait at least six months before enrolling them in something else. They will be tired from school and need lots of down time. As parents, you can decide when it's time for something else and then go for one activity per term. There are approximately 12 years of school, so let your children look forward to trying new things – just not all at once. Kim Payne reminds us that the busier you are, the more your children need, and will benefit from, the establishing of a sense of rhythm. What things do you do every day that are predictable, certain and so regular they just tick over? It might be the family breakfast, the systematic transition between activities – like getting up, making the bed, eating breakfast, packing a school bag and cleaning teeth. Young children are helped by seeing photos of the activities that need doing. If you have anchors in your day, your children will slip into the regularity of them with a lot less fuss than if you do them now and then. Afternoon tea is a great time to reconnect, sit and pause together over some nourishment. Sit at the table and be present with your children.
Other anchors could be Friday family nights, fortnightly family meetings, going to the grandparents’ house for dinner, summer picnics in the park, winter marshmallow toasting, movie nights, and board game nights. Children love to know that the lovely activities in the family are on repeat. Maybe decide that your child’s parties can be held every second year. On the alternate years, they can have one or two friends for dinner. Keep birthday presents simpler and more affordable. A box of crayons, a book, or some plasticine are great gifts. Our kids are overloaded with gifts at parties and it seems the more they get, the more they want.
Sleepovers and play dates are such a treat. Children are anticipators and they love to know that something good is coming up. For example, “Let’s look forward to that. We can talk about it around your seventh birthday.” There are multiple positive benefits from having frequent family meals. Eating together impacts the quality of what children eat, family dynamics and even reduces the likelihood of alcohol and drug abuse. If dinner is hard to do, try dessert or breakfast time. Morning and afternoon teas can also add to family closeness and improved communication. Have systems in place – the table is set, everyone starts together, everyone pitches in with clearing up. The key to success is routine – do it often enough so that children know the drill and it’s easy. Keep it light and fun by having a few good talk triggers that everyone can respond to. It’s tempting to entertain children constantly or default to a screen before giving them time to really think about what to do next. When children say they're bored, this often means they can’t think of what to do next. Leave a gap – let them come up with some of their own ideas. You might refer them to the list of activities on the fridge and just empathise with their feelings and wait.
Children don’t always know how to regulate their rest and play. Having a regular ‘read on the bed’ time is a good way to change the tempo, helping children recharge their batteries and also giving everyone a break from each other. This is not a punishment and is another lovely rhythm to include.
Bush or beach walks are refreshing and restorative. The senses are engaged in new ways when you smell the sea salt, touch the coarse sand, find where crabs hide out and get your hair blown about. Children will find things to do and get a new balance. We can overdose on praising children and set them up to feel dependent on what other people think and say about their work and play. Instead of complimenting and critiquing their experiences, let the experience have its own joy. Children love to be noticed and it is more satisfying to have someone come alongside you and mention that you have been busy drawing lots of trees, than it is to hear that your trees are the best.
It can take time to get into new rhythms. With any change there is often an uneasy feeling while you get used to it. Your children may complain initially because they still want to do ballet, guitar, soccer and karate each week. They may also dislike having dinner at the table each night instead of on their lap. Bring them on board with a new vision of how you are gathering more time together as a family to enjoy each other and be more peaceful. They will come on board and given time, your family can find a new pace and a whole lot less stress.