How often have you heard this advice?
Quit all of those extracurricular activities.
Just relax and enjoy the little things!
If you’re a parent steeped in busyness (and aren’t we all?), such prescriptions for happiness probably pop up so often they’re beginning to sound cliché. But, though everyone seems to applaud the benefits of purging toys, quitting soccer class, and embracing unstructured play, very few of us are actually following through to stop and smell the roses.
But what if you don’t know how to smell the roses?
Most “slow down and smell the roses” experts seem to assume that living simply – once the actual work of simplification is out of the way – is second nature for us all. They act like the only barriers standing between us and purposeful, joyful parenting are smartphones, busy schedules, and too-large toy piles.
And, look, I’m sure that’s true for some of us. Perhaps, given the time and space, some parents can effortlessly transform an afternoon at the park into a fantastical adventure complete with treasure hunts and impromptu science experiments. Others can look at a box of random art supplies and immediately envision beautiful and kid-appropriate craft projects.
But for me personally, that is not the reality. After a life of chasing achievement – in high school, college, the professional world, and beyond – I had no idea how to enjoy quiet, empty hours in an uncluttered home with nothing on the schedule and only a small child for company.
The Most Productive Parent on the Block
For as long as I remember, I’ve had an innate tendency to keep a busy schedule. During the week, one full-time job didn’t suffice: I filled up evenings with freelance projects. On weekends, I planned regular outings with friends and visits to see family. If, God forbid, my calendar was ever empty, I’d whip up an impromptu mini-adventure, searching for new restaurants, art exhibits, neighborhoods, and performances.
Even the tiny nooks and crannies of each day were fair game for productivity-enhancing techniques: I read on the bus, answered emails while waiting in line, and shopped online in the bathroom. Needless to say, spending an afternoon by the TV or people-watching at the park was anathema to me.
After my daughter was born, we quickly fell into a busy routine. I hired a nanny so I could return to work right away. After work, my baby and I would head to a playdate, attend a mommy group gathering, or run errands. On weekends, we kept a full schedule of birthday parties, social events, and exploring every kid-friendly corner of our city.
Moments of unstructured time still snuck up on me, of course. And what do you think I did? Luxuriated in the calm? Enjoyed my little girl? Nope. I decided to start a blog for local moms, reviewing playgrounds, baby classes, indoor playspaces, and so on.
With the blog, I’d found a way to give a clear purpose to nearly every moment I spent with my child. A day at the park was no longer just a day at the park; it was a fact-finding mission.
My lifestyle was full, productive, and efficient. But, deep down, I knew that my self-imposed busyness stemmed at least partly from my fear of the emptiness of an unstructured day.
Around this time, I’d started reading books like Kim John Payne’s Simplicity Parenting, which eloquently outlines how kids and adults both suffer from overloaded lifestyles. The book described the chronic stress, constant dissatisfaction, even physical symptoms that stem from too much information, too much stuff, and too many activities. The solution? A radically simpler and infinitely more fulfilling lifestyle.
I wanted this joyful, simple life for myself…but I had no idea how to get it.
Struggling With Forced Simplicity
Then suddenly, when a cross-country move unexpectedly reduced my life to the essentials, I felt absolutely lost. My initial euphoria at the chance to make my purposeful living dreams a reality melted away within days. Instead, I felt trapped. Alone. Inadequate.
What’s wrong with me? I wondered. Simplifying was supposed to make me happy. Where is this joy that I’m supposed to find in the little things? What are these alleged “little things” anyway? And is it really only 9:30 in the morning, because it feels like I’ve been sitting here for hours!
This went on for several pitiful weeks. Until I had an epiphany that changed my entire attitude toward parenthood and purposeful living. If not for this one simple insight, I’d probably still be sitting listlessly on my couch watching my kid play, feeling bored and unfulfilled.
I tried to look on the bright side. The move was the perfect opportunity to purge. I was forced to go through every possession and donate or toss numerous boxes of “stuff”. In our new house, we had the space and opportunity to start from scratch and arrange items thoughtfully.
An even bigger transformation concerned our calendar. In our new hometown, I had no nannies, sitters, mom groups, or playdate buddies. I’d also swapped my full-time job for part-time freelance work.
All this translated into many, many long hours alone with my toddler. And I had to face the fact that, despite having three degrees from Ivy League schools, I was apparently incapable of enjoying a simple day at home.
Learning to Enjoy the Calm
When I realized how much I hated “empty” days at home, my first instinct was to – surprise! – fill my calendar back up. I sought out childcare, started working more, enrolled in classes, and found playgroups.
But I couldn’t help wondering: was there another way? The research clearly showed that unstructured time was good for my child and me. Was I really incapable of shedding my discomfort with quiet time at home? Couldn’t I just learn to enjoy relaxing with my daughter?
And, just like that, it hit me. Enjoying unstructured time isn’t necessarily an ingrained talent. It’s a skill that can be learned by anyone…even by me.
All the books and blog posts had been telling me that it would come naturally. But, for me, it absolutely didn’t work that way. And that was okay.
After recasting my struggle as a skill gap instead of a character flaw, I knew exactly what to do – and it looked similar to the process I followed to learn any other skill.
A Step-by-Step Method for Embracing the Simple Life
One of the most empowering parenting messages I’ve ever read came from Rahima Baldwin Dancy’s book You Are Your Child’s First Teacher. Dancy’s book describes the Waldorf philosophy, which is all about a simple, purposeful family life (the aforementioned Simplicity Parenting is also inspired by the Waldorf approach).
Dancy writes that it’s unrealistic to expect an adult, especially an educated professional, to find total fulfillment from interaction with a young child. So, instead of trying to spend every waking minute educating, entertaining, or caring for our kids, it makes sense to set aside time to work on our own pursuits while the children play nearby.
I later found this sentiment echoed in Janet Lansbury’s excellent blog, which discusses the Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) philosophy. Rather than splitting their attention between their children and their to-do lists, RIE encourages parents to carve out separate times for each. When you’re on the phone, throwing together a meal, or finishing an email, your child can play alone in a safe, age-appropriate space. But when you’re with your child, you’re all in – no phones, no distractions, no rushing.
I found this concept hugely liberating! Having a quiet day at home didn’t mean I had to spend 10 hours playing with my two-year-old! So much pressure melted away and enjoying the little things began to feel actually achievable.
With my new outlook, I replaced vague guilt with specific goals. I started with an hour of unstructured playtime and worked my way up. For the periods when my toddler played on her own, I found my own activities that brought me joy – exercise videos, crafts, new recipes, little projects around the house.
Do your research
For me, this next step was a game-changer, significantly increasing the quality of my time with my daughter. In the past, I’d tried to think of games and activities on the spot, while sitting in the playroom or on the playground. I rarely came up with anything that held my kid’s attention – or mine – for more than a few minutes.
I’d also shrugged off mommy blogs with activity ideas because they looked too complicated. I had no artistic talent, few supplies (especially in my newly-purged home), and little patience for complicated crafts.
Now, I committed to setting aside some time each evening to plan ahead by searching the digital universe for inspiration. And, among all the impossibly complex Pinterest masterpieces, I began finding simple, age-appropriate activities for my toddler.
Because I focused on projects that involved minimal prep time and supplies – from sensory play with flour to pillow jumping to expanding soap in the microwave, this preparation took just a few minutes per day. But these minutes were an excellent investment – rather than approaching quiet days with dread, I found myself looking forward to sharing new activities with my little girl.
Practice, practice, practice
Of course, reading about how to play with toddlers is one thing, and implementing your ideas is another. Some of our projects were stellar successes, some turned out to be abysmal failures, and others fell somewhere in between.
There were days when my daughter rejected every suggestion I’d come up with. But far more often, at least one of the activities I’d suggested sparked her interest. We’d start playing and, before we knew it, we’d both be engrossed in discovery, creation, or overall silliness.
The more we played, the easier and more enjoyable it became. It didn’t take long for me to begin suggesting new variations on our activities. Soon after, I started creating completely new ideas from scratch. Even my two-year-old took to inventing new games and projects, as well as asking me to repeat her favorites from my rotation.
Track your progress
For years, I’d I gauged the success of each day by counting my accomplishments. Work completed, rooms cleaned, dishes cooked, playgrounds explored. This may have made sense for my earlier focus on filling each day to the brim. But, with my new approach, more wasn’t necessarily better.
So, I found new benchmarks – toddler giggles, works of art created, moments when time seemed to stand still. I asked myself, “Was I able to spend quality time with my daughter today? Did I truly have a chance to relax? Did I have fun? Did she?”
I won’t lie – taking this new perspective doesn’t come naturally. But by explicitly reminding myself to focus on these alternative yardsticks – to gauge joy rather than efficiency – I am getting there, step by step.
Today, I am still very much a work in progress. I still get caught up in the fear that I’m wasting time or not achieving enough. I still fight the compulsion to cram my days full of productive tasks. But, I am immeasurably more comfortable with a simpler lifestyle. I’ve learned to find joy in those “little things” that used to be a complete mystery. And my daughter and I have shared countless magical moments that I will treasure forever.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Next time you have a few minutes free, resist the temptation to check your phone or cross a task off your to-do list. Instead, consider these questions:
- How often do you get the chance to simply play with your child? To relax alone? To enjoy an unhurried afternoon – no schedules or time constraints?
- When you do have unstructured time with your child, what do you typically do? Do you honestly enjoy this time?
- In an ideal world, how would you change or improve downtime in your family? Would you increase it? Unplug from your devices? Do different types of activities? Spend more time together as a family? One-on-one with each child? On your own?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
If you feel that you’re not taking full advantage of unhurried, joyful family time, fear not. This is a skill that can be learned – and, with some practice, become almost second nature.
Start by setting realistic goals. If you’re a stay-at-home parent, think about quieter times of the day when you can set aside an hour or two to simply play. If you’re a working parent, you might want to start by eliminating some weekend or evening commitments to create periods of quiet family time at home.
Next, spend some time looking for activity ideas online. When you’re just starting out, keep it simple – you don’t want your motivation to take a hit from struggling with a complex project. You can also ask for ideas in any parenting groups you’re part of (on social media or in real life).
When it’s time to relax with your kids, suggest a few of the ideas you’ve come up with, and see what strikes their fancy. Don’t force activities on kids – it’s supposed to be unstructured play, after all! Follow their lead – perhaps you’ll want to switch up an activity to better fit your family’s interests.
Don’t give up – if the mere thought of a quiet afternoon with your child makes you nervous, or if your child rejects your ideas, just keep trying. Like with any skill, practice makes perfect.
And finally, don’t forget about yourself. Focus part of your downtime on activities for yourself. Think of hobbies you can work on while your kids play nearby (Hint: If your hobbies involve screens, it’s going to be hard to convince your child to play instead of interrupting you or requesting a screen of her own). Crafts, cooking, decorating or fixing up something at home, or even reading a book could all work.
Before you know it, you’ll be relaxing like a pro while your kids reap the many benefits of unstructured play. And, perhaps, the taste of those simple but essential joys will inspire you to keep simplifying, building a purposeful, balanced family life for you and those you love most.