Sometimes keeping it simple is best. But what about simplicity parenting? Maybe overspending and overscheduling aren’t the best parenting practice.
When my daughter was four, I enrolled her in a gymnastics class to expose her to something new. She didn’t need the structure—she would have been happy at the park—but I wanted it. Two months later, when she started kindergarten and I picked her up after school for tumbling, I could tell that a class stacked on top of a school day felt all wrong. She was fried; she needed downtime (what some call simplicity parenting). I pushed her through her last two classes because I’d paid for them, but I told her she could stop after that. It was the right move.
Giving our kiddos a good start is every parent’s goal. It begins with baby gear. It morphs into music lessons for preschoolers, reading tools to get ahead, and fancy birthday parties because that’s what the neighbors do. Later, it’s pricey club sports and SAT classes for higher scores to get into a good college. Worrying that your kids will miss out if you don’t pony up becomes an all-consuming parenting affair. The more kids you have, the busier you get, and the more money you spend. Keeping things balanced, emotionally or financially, becomes a distant memory.
But when families get overbusy, life gets to feeling frantic. According to New Jersey psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, author of Raising Emotionally & Socially Healthy Kids, young kids in particular don’t need lots of extras because six hours of school, doing what they’re told, and controlling their impulses all day long takes a lot out of them. What they need time for is unstructured play, unrushed homework, connecting with family, and plenty of sleep.
The upside to simplicity parenting is a flusher bank account. Author Brett Graff, aka the Home Economist, has written an entire book on why overspending isn’t good for any of us. In Not Buying It: Stop Overspending and Start Raising Happier, Healthier, and More Successful Kids, Graff explains why we need to spend less on our kids. Overspending sabotages personal wealth, encourages narcissism, and contributes to competitive parenting.
Her arguments are compelling. And, it turns out, they mirror our family’s general philosophy on spending and childrearing. We didn’t know we had one in the early days, but we were living as Graff suggests. We prioritized a medium-size (some would say small) house in a neighborhood where our kids could walk to their public school. Gymnastics notwithstanding, we spent hours at our nearby Norman Rockwellian park playing for free, visited our library weekly for books, and never worried about preschool phonics or the like. All free. The kids had plenty of time for unstructured play and family hiking. Birthday parties didn’t become excessive because, well, I’m cheap—and I agree with Graff about excess. Both kids played instruments and sports, but we didn’t break the bank.
Graff isn’t saying don’t sign up for activities. Research shows that kids, especially teens, benefit from extras. But ask yourself if they’re for you or your child (note to self). Activities shouldn’t put us in the poorhouse or burn out our kids. Graff wants us to simmer down and drown out the cultural noise on what makes successful kids. Figure out what works for our family and our finances. Affluent parents spend more on their kids, but low-income parents spend a larger share of their paycheck on their kids, according to Graff. And for what? Seventy percent of our kids quit sports by age 13 because they’re fried. Is that what we want?
Graff advocates for smaller houses (bigger ones cost more to run and promote separation), skipping Mercedes baby gear when Ford will do fine, opting for fewer toys, and taking a deep look at private school assumptions—if you have them. Public schools, according to a couple of education researchers she quotes, outperform private schools when comparing like children, and will save you a bundle of money over the years. Graff suggests that rather than going nuts on kiddie spending, we should prioritize a few family safety nets that benefit everyone, including college savings, life insurance, retirement, and a will.
Equally compelling to me is the notion that spending less and slowing down recaptures childhood. Isn’t that what we want for our kids? A real childhood? Parenting expert Kim John Payne, founder of Simplicity Parenting, explains that today’s fast-paced culture of non-stop activities overwhelms children. It’s not that you have to quit your job to stay home and be June Cleaver. But Payne says kids will be happier with less stuff and fewer extracurriculars. They’ll also do better academically. I know from personal experience that teary meltdowns come from feeling overwhelmed, fatigue, hunger, or overstimulation, including screens. Screens are creeping into kids’ lives ever younger, and Families Managing Media highlight the importance of non-screen activities for optimal development. Other researchers say it’s important to consider what kids aren’t doing while they’re on their devices. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, will tell you screens are replacing green time, and he posits today’s children suffer from nature-deficit disorder.
The less-is-more parenting philosophy is actually really easy. Slow down, go outside, read a book, spend time together, stop the non-stop shopping for your kids. The really hard part is sticking to your family’s values as parents around you ramp up to give their kids the so-called best. They’ll fret about academics, the right schools, the right sports, when to start music lessons, and whether their kids are falling behind. Dialing down the cultural noise is difficult. But it’s easier—and possible—in neighborhoods and communities with similar values. I have friends who moved to my town from an affluent suburb because they didn’t want to join the kiddie achievement rat race. Figure out what’s best for you. Give yourself permission to get off the hamster wheel. Your kids will do well. And your bank account will thank you.
Joanna Nesbit writes about college, education, personal finance, and the nuts and bolts of transitioning to adulthood. Follow her on Twitter at @joannanesbit or learn more at Joannanesbit.com.
Any third-party resources or websites referenced above are not under Society of Grownups control. Society of Grownups cannot guarantee and are not responsible for the accuracy of the resources, websites, or any products or services available through such resources or websites.
While Society of Grownups hopes the information is useful, it’s only intended to provide general education. It’s not legal, tax, or investment advice, and may not apply or be useful to your specific financial situation. If you need recommendations geared to your personal financial situation, consult the advice of a financial planner.