Keep The Clutter

You probably saw this article float across your Facebook feed, or have seen others like it. It has an attention-grabbing title. It’s catchy. It hits us in our fears and gives us a simple action step. I can see why this article caught the attention of so many parents.

Unfortunately, in spite of the well-thought-out title, the rest of the article makes several leaps and assumptions that strike me as counterproductive if better mental health for children is what we are aiming for. As a homeschooler, I also find that it is critical to add an extra layer of analysis when reading parenting articles -- and this article is a great example of one written with conventional parenting in mind. Conventional parenting is quite often limited in creativity and in finding solutions for what they clearly identify as a problem. It is bizarre to me how many seemingly obvious solutions that the writers of this (and other similar articles) don’t even consider. But, I’ll get there. Homeschoolers, beware. Read conventional parenting articles with a whole shakerfull of salt. Remember their limited resources and lack of creative solutions and problem solving. Remember that we chose NOT TO DO IT THE SAME WAY.

And now, my rebuttal.

The article starts with a well-worn tale of children playing in empty lots and culs-de-sac until the street lights come on. I’m tired of this story. I don’t need to point out the changing shape of the landscape of childhood, working parents, and how that memory only applies to a small segment of privileged people anyway, right?

I take issue with this brand of nostalgia and the emotional manipulation of tying that to the concept of “simplification.”

Let’s keep going. That was just the intro.

The article then points to parents who provide "too much" for their kids and states that “normal personality quirks combined with the stress of too much can propel children into the realm of disorder."

First - that is painting with a very broad brush. Do you know how many disorders there are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V)? To even suggest that all, most, or many of them have the same cause is foolish. It is quite tempting to try to find one universal cause of mental disorders, and I understand how as a parent you want to know what that one thing is that you can do to prevent your child’s unhappiness. I see that every time there’s a new trend: Kale will cure everything! No, quinoa will! No, the secret is going for a 10 minute walk every day! If your kids play with clay daily, they will never be unhappy again! It would be SO NICE if it were that simple. It just is not.

The article cites a study which “simplified the lives” of children with ADHD and noted marked reductions in their diagnosis-based behavior. My first thought is --  "Oh really? Kids with ADHD got extra attention and focus from the people doing the study so of course there was an effect on their attitude. Homeschoolers know that if you remove the public school setting ADHD often virtually disappears. I would not let this study be a piece of evidence for getting rid of all of your toys. It doesn’t apply to you. You’re already doing things differently.

“We officially have a massive opportunity and responsibility to provide an environment in which our children can thrive physically, emotionally and mentally.”

Yes. I totally agree. But I don’t agree on what that type of environment looks like.

To this homeschooling-therapist-mama, providing an environment in which my child can best thrive looks like offering a house full of books, art supplies, maps, plastic itty-bitty toys and farm animals, bubble stuff, Play-Doh, butcher paper, Playstation and Wii remotes, footballs, bikes, DVDs, and puzzles. It is providing space to play inside and outside. It is changing the environment pretty frequently and going to lots of different parks, other homes, amusement parks, campgrounds, toy stores, movie theaters, restaurants. It is having crummy furniture so I don’t worry about it getting ruined, It is having the TV on in the background. It is paying attention to what my child is interested in so that I get that stuff down off the top shelf and put it where it can be easily reached.

The ideal environment is one in which children have access to the things they want and that will make their life happier and easier. It is an environment in which they don’t even have to justify wanting something (maybe it is just pretty, or cool, or they like collections, but I’m going to go ahead and trust their opinion). It is an environment in which they don’t get interrupted a lot. It is an environment that fosters conversation, silence, reflection, humor, and connection. I think *stuff,* actual physical *stuff,* is a great stimulant for all of that.

If mental health is the goal, then a big part of achieving that is helping children learn to trust themselves, feel they have self-worth, build their self-esteem, decrease depression and anxiety, and provide them with the opportunity to have an internal locus of control.

Scenario: Your kid likes Shopkins. They’re tiny little plastic toys with zero real-world purpose. They want a lot of them, because that’s what you do with Shopkins, you collect them. They make a mess. They take over. You step on them and they hurt. Parent A decides that they want to “simplify” their life and gets rid of all the Shopkins. The child does NOT learn that “simplification” is better for their well-being, but that Parent A does not value what they value and therefore that there must be something wrong with them for valuing it to begin with. Now, I’m not saying that self-worth plummets the first time you take away a toy - but a pattern of disrespecting what your child likes? That road leads to depression and low self-esteem.
Scenario 2: The child likes Shopkins - same mess, same number as the first scenario. Parent B watches their child with delight at their delight. They go out of their way to find the newest, coolest little Shopkins toy. They look online together. They make stories up together and play make-believe. They talk about space and money budgeting. They create a storage system. Parent B doesn’t belittle or just “tolerate” this toy, but actively looks for what’s valuable and appealing about it. The parent and child build their relationship through this, which is a HUGE factor in developing mental health in children. The child feels built up, supported, and trusts the parent. They know that their interests are important which creates more trust in themselves.

I know which parent I want to be. And I know which type of parenting is likely to lead to raising higher-functioning adults.

In addition to claiming that too much material stuff is harmful to mental health, the article also talks about children dealing with too much information. I can see their point. I think about public schooled students who are faced with all the information so easily available today, and who also spend six hours a day in a classroom being constantly given even more information, and then are occupied with organized activities after school. They don’t have very much processing time, it’s true. They don’t have much unstructured time to spend with their parents or people of other ages to converse, reflect, and dive deep into issues that might interest or trouble them. Homeschoolers are already living differently. I also think that homeschooling parents tend to be better at keeping up with the barrage of information as well - homeschooling parents are advocates and researchers by nature, so good job, you!

Developmental psychologist David Elkins reports that kids have lost more than 12 hours of free time per week in the last two decades, meaning the opportunity for free play is scarce. Even preschools and kindergartens have become more academically oriented. Many schools have eliminated recess to create more teaching time.

This is so terrible that I almost find myself at a loss for words. But, what I don’t see is the connection between this and having lots of available stuff. Toys do not inhibit free play, they can add to it. If your child has a problem with creativity, it is not the fault of that plastic inanimate object - there are other things going on. Toys can bridge gaps between children, can aid in their imaginative play, can be their pride and joy, can connect worlds they see on TV and in movies to their play lives, can represent them and help them process problems through play as a metaphor, can stand in as monsters or scary things in their lives, can be a comfort, a companion, can be just plain neat.

The loss of free time among conventionally schooled children is terrible. Recess is not mandated by the government, it is determined by individual school districts, schools, principals, or even teachers. That means that individual teachers can take recess away as punishment - and very often do. They take free play away from kids who need it the most, for being wiggly in class. They take it away because test scores are down, and their salaries are linked to test scores, and so they think they need the extra 15 minutes a day for test prep. They figure that children already have PE and after-school sports, so recess is redundant. We know that children expend more energy and get more physical, social, and creative benefits from free play at recess than they do through PE or organized sports. We also know that free play leads to improved problem-solving skills, imagination, and teamwork.

This has nothing to do, again, with having toys or not, and I think it does a disservice to the great cause of children’s well being to link the increasing free play time with decreasing the quantity of toys and other materials.

Also, homeschooling parents, fear not. Look at the numbers. A typical 4th grader goes to school by 8 am, and is there until 2:30 pm. Many of them also go to institutional daycare before and after school. After daycare they have piano, soccer, or dance, or even tutoring sessions. Fourth graders get homework that might take anywhere from 20 minutes to 4 hours a day. They need to eat dinner, say hello to their family members, and get to bed because they’ve got to be up for school again the next morning. If you’re shaking your head and saying, “That’s not how it was for me," then I am glad for you and think you’re a little out of touch. Between school, homework, and extracurricular activities, most of a child’s day is spoken for. Of COURSE they have no time for free play, reflection and processing, or creativity to bloom, and of COURSE we’re seeing mental health patterns that reflect that. It has nothing to do with the number of items in a home, it has FAR more to do with the amount of time pressure those kids are experiencing and the resulting lack of free time.

Want better mental health? Give them stuff and the TIME TO PLAY WITH IT!

The author ends the article with an action step for parents: “How do we help our kids?” “Simple, we say no. We protect our kids and say no, so we can create space for them to be kids. No, Sam can't make the birthday party on Saturday. No, Sophie can't make soccer practice this week." I am going to go ahead and suggest the opposite. We say yes. We protect our kids' decisions, autonomy, sense of control, self-worth, self-respect and say yes to their wants, passions and pursuits. We protect their ideas and their interests. We value their thoughts and their things: Yes, Sam, you can use crayons and paints and pipe cleaners at the same time. Yes, Sophie, you can have that stuffed bear for your collection. Yes, you can have the space you need for your puzzle, dollhouse, or scooters. Yes, you can keep right on doing that activity you chose even though it’s been several hours. We ask and listen to them about the lessons and parties they have scheduled. We invited our children into the world, let’s not act like they are inconveniences. Yes, say yes. There will be logistical issues, I know most people have limited resources. Establish a pattern of saying yes and *meaning it* and your kids will understand that you are on their side. Start by defaulting to yes, and then consider the logistical problems (money, space, time, whatever) and figure out creative solutions together.

The article ends on a sweet note, talking about protecting childhood and not filling it up with too much adulthood too soon. I heartily agree. That’s one of the wonderful things about homeschooling. You have time to let your kids spend hours at play. You have time to spend watching and learning about your children. You have time to develop close relationships with them. Look at that actual, real child in front of you, and don’t let parenting articles strike fear into your heart or lure you into worry with trendy tag-words like simplification.


-Roya Dedeaux is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who was herself homeschooled/unschooled. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and toddler. Roya has a Bachelors degree in Recreation and Leisure Studies and a Masters degree in Counseling. She specializes in narrative, art, and experiential therapies. She is also available to assist homeschoolers all over the world and can be reached through her website.