Minimalist Parenting: Doing More With Less

For many children, summer break is filled with activities like math classes and language lessons. That's leading some parents to wonder what ever happened to a laid-back summer of playing outside and riding bikes? Host Michel Martin speaks with a roundtable of moms about 'minimalist parenting.'

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

Today, as we head into summer break, you might already be hearing those sighs of relief. For many parents, though, summer is anything but a break. It can end up crammed with commitments; baseball practice, swimming lessons, summer camp, not to mention family trips and activities. That all sounds like work.

Well, our parents today say it doesn't have to be that hard. They call themselves minimalist parents and they are here to share some advice on how to pare down and prioritize what's really important this summer.

With us now are Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest. They are the authors of the new book, "Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More By Doing Less." Christine is editor of the website, Boston Mamas, and Asha is the founder of the website, Parent Hacks. They're both moms of two. Also with us is Jamila Bey. She's a journalist and a mom of one and one of our regular guests.

Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

JAMILA BEY: Thank you.

CHRISTINE KOH: Thank you.

ASHA DORNFEST: Thank you so much for having us.

MARTIN: So, Christine, I'll start with you because I think a lot of parents think minimalist and parenting does not belong in the same sentence, so I'm going to ask you how you define it.

KOH: Well, minimalist parenting is not about not doing anything. It's about identifying your unique values and paring down and prioritizing so you can find what works for your family.

MARTIN: And I understand that you weren't always a minimalist. What made you want to become one?

KOH: Well, you know, it was so stressful having so much in front of you and so many choices and so many options and I just started to experiment with doing less and tuning out some of that noise and trying to find a unique way that worked for me.

MARTIN: Asha, what about you? I understand that you also weren't always a - that you were a convert to the minimalist cause. What caused you to think about this anew?

DORNFEST: Well, I wouldn't say that I'm a convert, but I would say is that, you know, parenting really is not generally how it seems in the books and in the movies, and that's what I discovered. You know, my first child is very different than me in terms of his sort of proclivities and the way he responds to things and I really had to learn how to parent based upon him rather than based upon what I thought sort of defined good parenting in a book or even the way that I was raised.

MARTIN: Jamila, what about you? Your son is five now, so where are you in this?

BEY: Well...

MARTIN: You're kind of known as a contrarian. When everybody else is going this way, you're kind of going that way.

(LAUGHTER)

BEY: Yeah. Usually, usually. And, even here a little bit, I have learned that the value that we have in our home is critical thinking. I'm going to teach my kid how to think. And so rather than putting him in class after class and I couldn't wait till he turned five. I was, like, that's chess lessons. That's swim and that's tennis and then we'll see if maybe golf or basketball. But, you know, and I realized that does nothing to instill the values that I want to in my kid.

So this past weekend, for example, we went camping and the idea was, OK. Well, let's pretend that you can't find Mommy and you have to identify three plants you recognize. You know, so I had the kid running around and it took hours. He could identify the wild strawberries and we ate a lot of wild onions and chives that you can pull right out of the ground and he could now point to the black walnut tree.

So no money, other than the gas to get there, and it really did let us be together as a family, doing something together, teaching him to, you know, know his environment, something he'll remember forever, I hope. And I don't have to be in competition with other parents in terms of - well, what did you do with your kid? How is he learning today?

MARTIN: You think that's a part of it? You think that's part of what the kind of the scheduling comes from, is being in competition, in a way, Jamila?

BEY: My experience is absolutely. Absolutely. You do find that it's - oh, well, is your child in Mandarin yet? Or some of the - you know, oh, well, our nanny speaks Spanish and, you know - well, our nanny, who is from this country where they speak both Arabic and French is teach - you know, and it's very easy to get caught up in that. I was losing my mind and losing all of our money trying to keep up with that.

MARTIN: Well, all right. But I'm going to give a different perspective on that because we reached out to NPR listeners on Facebook to ask them what they thought about this and this is what Christie Hittenberger-Conaway(ph) wrote. She wrote, quote, "letting your kids run free all day long using their imaginations sounds ideal, but most of us don't live in idealistic neighborhoods where the kids can play kick the can until their moms call them in for supper. Most of us work. The '50s are over."

Christine, how do you take that?

KOH: Yeah. You know, I would have to agree. I work full-time, as does my husband, and so, you know, I think some people think, you know, when you talk minimalist parenting it's, as it relates to summer, that it's just let the kids run amok. And, you know, that's not really the perspective that we have. Personally, I've found that it's about tuning into what your kids are interested in and what they want to do to kind of go the path of least resistance.

So just to share a quick example, my daughter is the opposite of me. She does not like a lot of formal programming. She likes a lot of down time. And, you know, the years that I have tried to just shoehorn her into camps that work best for my schedule have been completely disastrous, whereas this summer we decided to take an approach where we said, you know, some things are fixed. We need these weeks covered. We need a lot of weeks covered. What would appeal to you? So it was really communicating with her and tuning in with her. And some of the ideas that I thought were the easiest and most convenient, you know, she just didn't want to do it. It would have been kicking and screaming to get there. So we worked out a summer plan that, you know, is fairly full but does have some built-in down time and is working for all of us, which is just huge. It's such a relief this year.

MARTIN: But I have to ask though, and I would love to hear from all of you on this. I mean we've been having a lot of conversations recently about so-called Tiger parenting, you know, the fact that, you know, and, you know, some of that is kind of ethnic. Everybody remembers the "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," Amy Chua's book, which was a bestseller where she talked about kind of drilling down. And she also - I think people forget that in a way she was making fun of herself because that worked with one child but it didn't work with the other. But there are a lot of parents who will say look, it's no fun for me either, you know, making my kid go to violin practice and making my kid, you know, practice and do all these things. But if you want to be good at something that that's what it takes and it easier to drill down when you're younger than it is to do that later on. I mean as Amy Chua puts it in her book, nothing is fun until you're good at it.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So I mean, so I don't know Asha, why don't I start with you. I mean, you know, what about that? People say, you know what? So, yeah, it would be more fun for me just to kind of be free range about it, but if I really want my child to master something this is what you got to do.

DORNFEST: You know, I think the question about being good at something is something we all have to like look at with a little bit of a critical focus because what do kids want to be good at? I think that when we think about our own success in life or, you know, our own dreams, the things that we're best at are the things that we're passionate about and the things that we truly care about. But you can't figure out what you care about until you have time to explore. And it seems to me that that is what one of the gifts of childhood really is.

Now whether you can, you know, run around in the neighborhood and play with your, you know, your friends maybe that is sort of an idealistic picture and it doesn't fit your life. But if you have a chance to explore different books or explore different, you know, ideas or things to do, you can find the thing that you eventually want to sink all that energy into. You know, in my experience, you know, imposing that on a kid because I think violin is good whether or not they do, it's just not going to, it's not going to work either way.

MARTIN: You know, what about this question? We got this question from Melissa who is a mom of two from Florida and she said; what if it's not the parents doing the scheduling? What if the kids are the ones that want to over-schedule themselves? I'm not sure which of you has - I know Jamila, your son is not old enough to be planning his own play date.

BEY: Not yet.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Although he will be soon. Trust me on this one. But Asha, I think your kids are; they're 13 and nine. Have you run into this?

DORNFEST: You know, I personally have not read into this because my kids happen to do - they're very happy with lots of overtime, you know, a sort of open time. But I know a number of families in that situation who have kids who are just really crazy about sports. You know, if it works for a kid and it works for the parent, great, you know, that's wonderful, then it's working for your family and it's not feeling like a conflict. But for those parents where, you know, they are feeling like their entire life is spent in the car and it's really too much for them, I think it's really important to talk to the kids about the fact that this is a family system. You know, what works for you doesn't necessarily work for me so let's find a compromise that works for both of us. You know, why don't you choose one activity that you're really, really into and then, you know, for this amount of time we're going to have a little down time so I can have some, you know, relaxation of my own this summer.

MARTIN: You know I always used to, you know, did you guys all watch "The Cosby Show?"

BEY: Oh yes.

KOH: Oh yes.

DORNFEST: Yeah. Didn't we all?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You know, mom was always reading a book. And I want to know what does she read in that book?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: She was like sitting there with like her feet up reading a book. And I would think when does she...

BEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: How do you get to read the book? How do you get to sit there and read the book? She had five kids?

BEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: I was like really?

BEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: I don't get that.

DORNFEST: This is Asha and I just have to say, I literally just used this example the other day because when I was a kid my mom would regularly say to me, you know what? You need to go find something to do because I'm reading my book.

(LAUGHTER)

KOH: And she would literally put her feet up on the coffee table and read. And I, you know, the lesson I take from that now is that my boredom was just not her problem.

(LAUGHTER)

DORNFEST: You know, she really...

MARTIN: Can your mom come over my house? And, but...

DORNFEST: She felt very good about defining her own space.

MARTIN: Well, in the time that we have left, I do want to wheel around and get some of your advice on this. But I do have one question Jamila, which I'm going to put to you, just because there's a serious side to this. And maybe, actually maybe Christine, this is better for you because you trained as a brain scientist - which is that there are, there's been a lot of conversation though, about the academic brain drain over the summer with the achievement gap and that opens up over the summer. Because on the one hand yes, this is a very middle-class problem, you know, people who have the time and the choice about what they put their kids in and so forth. But there are a lot of people who say that the problem then becomes - and this is particularly true for kids who are of lower income - is that when they don't have these kinds of enrichment activities over the summer, they start school and they're not ready and that they're falling behind, and that this gap continues to open up. And that's an argument for why a lot of people believe that the summer, there's a push to put more kids into more summer structured activities, not less. So what do you Christine, do you want a stab at it first and then I'll go to Jamila? What about that?

KOH: Sure. Yeah. I definitely understand that. I mean that's a concern. I hear it from a lot of teachers. I have a contributing writer who is a teacher and has written on this issue before. And I think, you know, I mean especially from the working parent perspective, I mean some programming is going to be necessary. And I also think that when you have some downtime in your summer schedule I mean that's when you can open up and kids can explore some of that down time. It was funny you mentioned the reading the book thing issue with "The Cosby Show" because just this, you know, this long weekend, my daughter was just glued to a new book series that she started the entire weekend almost and, you know, I think if you give your kids the chance to hinge on to some loves, you know, whether that's reading or whether they experiment with math and science through cooking or, you know, whatever it is, just helping around the kitchen, helping around the house, I think it is possible to build these things into daily life in a way that, you know, isn't so stressed and structured. When, you know, when you can, you know, it's a different scenario if you've got, you know, two full working parents.

MARTIN: Jamila, what do you think about that?

BEY: Well, the school that my son attends does have this problem. I mean more than 85 percent of our kids qualify for free lunch. And one of the things that the principal and the PTA have been very active in helping to talk with the parents about is look, over the summer we here in Washington, D.C. can be doing things. We can take our children to performances for free at the Kennedy Center. We have great libraries here. We have great museums. And it is important that even though, you know, you may not have an interest in this particular pottery exhibit that you at least understand that your child, particularly at those young ages, needs stimulation. They cannot just veg out in front of Nickelodeon watching, you know, cartoons all day. You have to put something in place. Even just buying a newspaper and saying OK, let's look at the front page and see what the news of the day is. You have to be willing to do that. That's part of parenting. The sad truth is that sometimes particularly when you look at young kids, they don't want to do that, so it helps to buy a book that they like, go get books from the library that they like.

MARTIN: Well, so in the time that we have left, let's talk about what are the first steps if people if you've persuaded people that maybe we're all doing too much and that we could enjoy life more if we did less? You want to start us off? Christine, do you want to start us off? Tell us, how do you start?

KOH: Well, you know I'm a big fan of just lifestyle editing in general. But, you know, the first place to start I think is to look at the calendar. And I literally did this, you know, I have an eight-year-old and a toddler so the toddler doesn't have much to say about all this. But with my eight-year-old and my husband, you know, we laid out the weeks of the calendar, looked at them and just kind of figured out a way, you know, when we had too much where we could trim down, really looking at it with a critical eye of what felt like too much - not just, you know, for one of us, but for all of us. So I would say the general broad sweep on the calendar is a good place to start.

MARTIN: Asha, what about you?

DORNFEST: Well, my kids are older and so I also, you know, work part-time from home so I don't have the child care issue as much. But I would say to identify some real interests and goals with your kids. You know, what are you into doing this summer? What do you want to get better at this summer? You know, start having those types of conversations with your kids and then see if you can find some either things going on in your town or, you know, grab some library books on that topic or, you know, that interest and just go for it. Start, you know, start working on those. Start from the kid's passions.

MARTIN: Jamila, what about you?

BEY: Corral your community. Find like-minded parents and say OK, we're going to be at the park at this time on these days. Bring some balls. Bring some chalk. Bring some bubbles and we're going to just sort of let the kids roam. Well, I mean the parents are looking in but just unstructured playtime. And ask for - I like asking other parents for book recommendations and then the kids can talk about books and they don't even know that they're learning so much.

MARTIN: How are you finding these like-minded people?

BEY: Neighborhood lists...

MARTIN: Because everybody's too busy.

(LAUGHTER)

BEY: Neighborhood list serves.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I'm sorry I would come but, I'm busy.

(LAUGHTER)

BEY: You are. You are. Neighborhood lists serves are my thing. You know, asking at he PTA meetings. Asking hey, look, for me it's just me and hubby here. We don't really have any family nearby. Saying, we need your help. What are you doing with your kids? Can we tag along?

MARTIN: And Christine, final thought too. I'm interested in how you think you can keep that going through the school year because that's when I think you kind of really a lot of times people put the burners on, right? Because they feel like they've got to get it all in you've got to get the test prep in. You've got to get the lessons in because, you know, recital is coming. How do you keep that going through the school year, Christine?

KOH: Oh yeah. You know, we, you know, I mentioned the calendar general sweep thing and I mean Asha knows this from talking to me personally too. I mean I travel a lot for work too and we just go through regular editing out and of to do items, of calendar items, of just trimming down, you know, really I like to look at it not as losing out on things but curating, you know, the best things on the calendar and to-do lists and getting rid of the stuff that, you know, you don't want to do or have to do. So I think it's actually the summer is a really great time to start experimenting with this approach so you can carry it into the school year when things start to ramp up and get crazy.

MARTIN: And my other favorite tip from the book is when you talked about going into the playroom and being ruthless. You said the fewer the toys actually, the more you play with them. It's a very...

KOH: Oh, it's totally true.

MARTIN: It's totally true? And you did that in an afternoon? See, I'd like to have video of that though, after screaming and yelling. You were alone when you do this, right? You said you talked about how going to there with two trash bags; one to toss, one to donate.

KOH: Well, you want to hear something crazy that happened just yesterday is, you know, I've discovered that I'm happy when I'm de-cluttering - that's just kind of like my happy place. So yesterday I was in the kitchen, you know, I let my husband sleep in yesterday morning, we switch off in the mornings, and I was with the two kids and I started de-cluttering the shelf in the pantry, two shelves that have been driving me crazy just overrun with stuff. And, you know, kids like to, they mimic you, right? So my two little ones - eight and two - started de-cluttering this play cabinet, and by the end of the, you know, an hour...

MARTIN: OK.

KOH: ...we had thrown away and recycled a whole bunch of stuff.

MARTIN: OK.

KOH: And it was awesome.

MARTIN: It was awesome. OK. Well, we'll take your word for it. Asha Dornfest and Christine Koh are authors of the book "Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less." Asha was with us on the line from Portland, Oregon. Christine was with us from member station WGBH in Boston. Jamila Bey is a journalist, with us in our Washington, D.C. Ladies thank you all so much.

BEY: Thank you.

DORNFEST: Thank you.

KOH: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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