Recently, I met Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, better known as The Minimalists. They asked me to join their show to talk about my work and the creation of Raising an Organized Child, a parenting guidebook published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In preparation for that interview, I learned a great deal about them. Both these men came from broken homes and experienced neglect, they left home as soon as they could, climbed the corporate ladder as young adults, made money, amassed debt, and realized they were not happy. Then they stumbled on minimalism, a simpler and intentional way of living. The more I learned about minimalism, the more I realized that I have been promoting a similar philosophy in my book and to my patients for the past 20 years. I encourage clients to simplify their parenting, to not be afraid to let their child struggle or be bored, and to teach them the basic skills they will need to be organized thinkers as adults. As a result, I help families to reduce their stress. I have been teaching Minimalism Parenting.
What is Minimalism?
Minimalism is a tool used by many to declutter their lives — not just their closets — to reduce their fears and worries. This philosophy demands us to be present and conscious in our decision-making about what is most important to each of us. Minimalism offers a solution: if it is not important, do not waste our energy trying to achieve it.
Why are Kids so Stressed?
Children are overscheduled, overstimulated, and feel compelled to live up to unrealistic expectations. Our kids spend up to seven hours per day at school. Then, many head to after-school care or to extracurricular activities. In fact, more than 60 percent of American students participate in at least one after-school program. If we add in homework, the time it takes commuting to and from school, and “getting ready” for each music lesson, sports practice, theatre rehearsal, etc., very little time is left to play or hangout.
In the free moments they do have, kids are now bombarded by unrealistic images on social medial. They view posts of “peers” traveling on apparently extravagant vacations, purchasing the newest gadgets or clothes, winning awards at their tournaments and events, and getting accepted to the most reputable colleges. All of these images fuel the need for bigger, better, and more. The Minimalists use the term “stuffication” for what happens when in search of happiness, we chase after more and more things. Things that we think will make us happy, but once we get them, we end up just wanting more, never to be satisfied with what we have.
Why are Parents so Stressed?
As parents, we fall prey to the same types of unattainable or unreachable goals. We want the best for our kids and we fear the consequences of them missing out (FOMO). So, we push to put our kids on the most competitive teams and enroll in the best schools. We expect excellent grades and results, encourage our students to take the most rigorous class schedule, all without really assessing whether they are enjoying the process. We don’t dare to step back and take a realistic look at what countless hours of practice and endless travel to kid activities is doing to family time. We fear our kids being bored and so we buy them games and toys when their closets are already bursting and we are tripping over the discarded toys they do not value enough to put away. All of this fills our calendars and takes our money, and then we dismiss our own stress as a natural, unavoidable consequence for doing what we think we must do for our kids.
Minimalism Parenting May be the Answer
Ryan and Josh do not directly talk about parenting, but after meeting with them I recognized that their philosophy directly applies to what I have been encouraging parents to do for years. Without realizing it, I have been promoting minimalism parenting. Minimalism parenting means that we should focus on the things that are most important, such as providing our children with love, encouragement, and support. These are critical factors that children need to grow into happy, confident, and competent adults.
Ryan and Josh point out that minimalism takes work. It is not easy to live simply. In fact, for most of us it is far easier to spontaneously purchase whatever we think we need, leaving us with clutter and excess, along with the possible guilt, debt and obligations. It is an understatement to say that parenting is not easy. But, like minimalism, hard work up front pays off in the end. For example, sleep training an infant can be painful, but once you teach them to sleep on their own, parents often get many years of improved rest. Showing your preschooler how we should clean up before taking out the next toy, encourages a lifetime of tidiness. Allowing your child to explore, create and push safe boundaries, will result in a teen who is a problem solver and less dependent on their parents.
Parenting will never be easy, but by focusing on a few important lessons, parenting can be less complicated. In Raising an Organized Child, I describe the “5 Steps to Boost Independence, Ease Frustration and Promote Confidence” in their children. The steps should be a guide for parents:
· Be Consistent,
· Introduce Order,
· Give Everything a Place,
· Practice Forward Thinking, and
· Promote Problem Solving.
Whenever parents struggle to make a parenting decision, they can fall back on these principles. These same steps can be applied throughout a child’s lifetime, and in the book I explain how to adjust them to your child’s developmental level. The goal is to continually push our children to grow, without setting unrealistic expectations that make them want to give up.
In fact, so much of the frustration we feel as parents comes from our own, often unrealistic, hopes for ourselves and our kids. For example, it is not reasonable to expect a five year-old to want to clean their room, or for a seven year-old to choose an apple over a dessert for a snack. Parents need to assume that middle-school-aged children will procrastinate and many teens will have trouble prioritizing their time. And, notably, remember that where (or if!) your child attends college does not automatically guarantee their future success as a young adult. Our job as parents is to gradually teach these lessons without burdening our children with the guilt from unmet expectations. Instead, parents can offer consistent guidance and structure to help them be successful, and the independence to let them try and struggle without the fear of failure.
Listen to Your Child Challenge
The Minimalists recommend a 30 day challenge where they encourage viewers to box up all their things, and anything that is not unpacked and used in the next 30 days (or expected to be needed in the 30 days after that) should be eliminated. You can do a similar challenge with your kids, but I am not suggesting you just box up their toys and games. To begin your journey parenting with minimalistic intention, ask your children questions. What do they really like to spend time doing? Which classes do they find the most interesting? How would they like to get exercise each day? What new activities might they like to try? Then start a conversation with them to brainstorm ways to achieve what they want.
Help your child to pursue their interests by creating a next-steps plan. If they want to be busy that is fine, but if they want to be less scheduled, let them back out of undesired activities. As you work on the challenge, please remember that you are there as a parent to protect their health and safety. So, if their answer is, “I want to play video games all day,” then they are not making a healthy decision. In that case, keep asking questions until they come up with a better solution.
As a guideline, a good plan should not interfere with a child’s development. It should include the five “Hs”: be pro-health (exercise, sleep, nutrition), and include time for proper hygiene, completing homework, helping out at home, and hanging out with friends. Your child’s plan will be most successful if it is scheduled and made a part of the daily routine, even if the item is as simple as spending more time with a friend. Each month or two, help your child to reflect on the plan and modify it as they choose.
The Pandemic has Changed the Game
In some respects, the coronavirus crisis has forced most families at home to already begin minimalism parenting. At least temporarily last spring, and in some cases even now, essentially all extracurricular activities halted for students. As America comes out of these dark pandemic days, it will be up to each family to figure out where you go from here. Do the “listen to your child” challenge and make adjustments. Some children may make dramatic lifestyle changes, and some may be eager to get back to whatever “normal” was before. Either way, this unusual year offers an opportunity for change. Embrace this opportunity and take a step toward being an intentional — more focused and less stressed — parent.