Friday, November 23, 2012

The Idle Parent

The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids

The kids and I were at the local pool, playing ring-a-rosy. I was having a ball pulling them underwater; judging from their giggles and shrieks, they were having a ball too. Behind us some older kids were fooling around, aged maybe nine, ten and eleven. Above us strode an anxious lined middle class mother, watching them like a hawk and shouting an instruction every few seconds. ‘Stop that! Leave him alone! Go left! Watch out! Be careful! Move to the right!’. On and on and on it went.

I felt myself cringing at her, and then at myself as I rebuked my six-year-old for launching herself into a group of toddlers. ‘For heaven’s sake,’ I wanted to shout – both at her and myself – , ‘leave them alone!’

How can kids enjoy themselves when their every move is noticed and critiqued? How can parents enjoy themselves when they are convinced that every move their kids make will result in disaster? And yet that is the tone of so much middle-class parenting, and so much parenting material. For the most part I avoid parenting books. Sanctimonious and puritanical things, I want nothing of them. But at right angles to the essay section of my local bookshop is the parenting shelf; and catching my eye the other week was The Idle Parent.

What a title! It sang out to me. I have three kids, aged nine, six and four, and I just can’t be bothered being a proper energetically hovering middle class parent like the woman at the pool. As all the other mums rush their kids off to karate / jazz ballet / Chinese / drawing / whatever, I certainly do feel idle; even so, I don’t have the energy or interest to do likewise. The thought of watching some six-year-old learn a dance move makes me want to scream with boredom; worse, standing over them as they leap about the local swimming pool makes me want to slit my throat. I want to fool around in the pool myself, or I want to read a book; either way, moderating their fun is not my idea of a good time. So I picked up The Idle Parent, and devoured it overnight.

The book’s thesis is simple: Leave them alone! We are not kids, and kids are not adults. Our interests only sometimes overlap. So, suggests the author, the simplest recipe for a healthy happy family life is to give your kids the freedom to do their thing while you go and do your thing. Be there when they need you, but don’t hover. Just let them be. His ideal parenting situation is a large field, many kids romping at one end and many parents drinking beer at the other. Everyone’s safe, and everyone’s happy!

Such a scenario brought a big smile to my face, because I have often thought that my ideal parenting situation is a house party, with twenty kids running around and twenty adults drinking wine and talking their heads off. My kids tend to agree, which is why they beg for such events. Who are you inviting over? they ask most Saturdays, There must be someone!

(For that matter, our other favourite parenting environment is a large field at a friend’s block, as long as we have a couple of extra kids with us. The kids run down the hill and over the next ridge, and we can talk, enjoy the view and inspect the new growth while they’re gone. Last time the horde came charging back up the hill, screeching and laughing themselves silly, dangling leeches from the ends of their fingers and waggling them about. It was hilarious.)

By now any non-parents must be rolling their eyes; do we really need a book to be told to leave the kids alone, even if it is to get sucked by leeches? But those among us with children know just how hard it is. Our culture highly values present and attentive parents, lest little Johnny have his fragile ego squashed because Mummy is more interested in a book than in him, or lest little Cindy have her hopes of being a professional ballerina dashed because Mummy couldn’t be bothered with dancing lessons. Even the author of one of the more interesting recent books about child raising, Last Child in the Woods, which is about the urgent need to get children back in touch with the natural world, admits that he never lets his sons out of sight when they’re hiking. (When I read that, I didn’t know whether to throw the book across the room, or cry.)

In that light, I am a wicked mummy. I have friends and interests that have nothing to do with my kids; I remind the kids about snakes then let them roam through field and forest; and so it is a great relief to read a book which backs up my more carefree approach.

Of course, Hodkingson doesn’t advocate absolute freedom. He has strong ideas about what is and is not helpful as kids explore the world. Television gets the thumbs down, as do plastic toys and having too much stuff; inside isn’t the best place; and neat clean tidy places aren’t ideal, either. He argues kids need space to roam, lots of access to trees, bushes and wild spaces, and things to make stuff with. Good books, wrestling on the floor, a bit of dirt and mess... it all sounds about right to me. The result of such an approach is resilient, creative, competent children (and parents) who are resistant to the lies of consumerism.

The book draws from a broad range of thinkers, from John Locke, Rousseau and DH Lawrence to AS Neill (Summerhill School); ideas from more recent authors, including Skenazy (Free Range Kids) and Louv also surface. The synthesis is cheerful, intelligent and convincing. Above all, I appreciate that it is not just about kids (and therefore about what parents should do (and fail to do) in raising them); instead, The Idle Parent is really about families. Hodgkinson asks good questions about what parents want from life, and encourages the reader to critique his or her own approach, and to recognise and critique the at times suffocating limitations of the dominant culture.

For example, he asks what is enough – do both parents need to work full time or could they both be home with kids more? Why do we live where we do: could we live elsewhere and pay less rent or mortgage? Could we live in a smaller house closer to work and spend less time commuting? What do we spend our money on, and why – do kids really need or want manicured houses, expensive holidays, amusement parks and fancy toys, or are they consumerist furphies? What do we enjoy doing as a family, and what do we hate doing together? Do we enjoy holidaying together, or are there times when separate vacations would be more restorative? Do we need more adults around to contribute to family life, and if so, who can we call on: friends, family, paid employees? In short, he questions how we adults constrain our lives (particularly with regards to happiness) and how we might liberate ourselves, using a refreshingly utilitarian approach.

It’s a lovely book and terrifically opinionated. It opens with a manifesto ‘We pledge to leave our children alone / We reject the rampant consumerism that invades our children’s lives from the moment they are born / We drink alcohol without guilt / We reject the inner Puritan...’, and follows with chapters including ‘Seek not Perfection’, ‘The Myth of Toys’, ‘Down with School’, and ‘Let Us Sleep’, familiar territory for most parents. Best of all, he offers no one-size-fits-all solution, but encourages each family to find what works – or, in the words of the Manifesto, ‘There are many paths’. Hodgkinson has strong opinions about what doesn’t work – long hours at work, large mortgages, too many toys and bits of plastic, guilt – and many suggestions about what could.

I happened to go on a family holiday right after reading the book. I was going to spend the first week largely alone with my girls in a beach house twenty minutes’ walk from town, with no car. It had the potential to be fantastic, which is why I had organised it so; but it also had the potential to collapse into nightmare. I’m not overly fond of the beach. I’ve had little kids for so long that it feels like I spend my whole time hovering there. I don’t get to sit, and I don’t get to swim; and I don’t like building sand castles or helping anyone else do so, either. But this time, I was determined it would be different. The kids are a bit older, the beach was on a shallow bay, and I was going to be Idle. The holiday wasn’t going to be just for my kids – I was going to have a holiday too.

Day One. Resolve and book firmly in hand I sat in the sand, ignored my girls, and read while they built sandcastles and splashed in the shallows. Nobody drowned. I was so relaxed that after fifty pages I shut my book and went and dreamily dug a moat out of pleasure, not duty. My girls were delighted. We went home for lunch, then I taught them how to do the dishes, explaining that I would do the cooking and the dinner dishes and this was a fair division of labour. When they kicked up, I pointed out I would take them back to the beach after the dishes were done, then walked out. I lay on my bed and read my novel; and after a while I heard the sounds of them washing, drying and putting things away. I also heard them make up a dishes song that lasted them through every batch of dishes for the entire two week holiday. And then I heard them each find a book and a quiet corner and read too, for an hour. Bliss.

So each day went. They did stuff they wanted to do; they did a bit of housework; I did stuff I wanted to do; I did a bit of housework; and sometimes we overlapped. I didn’t shout at them or watch over them closely; and because I was reading and dozing and feeling relaxed, when I did spend time with them it wasn’t a duty but a pleasure – and so it was fun.

And this, I think, is Hodgkinson’s point. We are born free, and everywhere we are in chains. Parenting is a prime example of this; it sometimes feels impossible to have a conversation about parenting without whinging or listening to others whinge. But Hodgkinson reminds us that we in the Western world are free. We choose to partner and we choose to have children; we choose where we live and how we work; and so on. As free adults we should take responsibility for our choices, stop whining about them, and start finding ways to enjoy ourselves while we and the kids co-exist. And if we do so, we will all find ourselves having a lot more fun.

With his words (‘I am free! We are all free! I am being Idle!!’) ringing in my ears I found many ways to enjoy myself that holiday. I read a dozen books, and we all caught up on a heap of Japanese anime. My legs lost their ghostly winter pallor. The kids learned French cricket and how to dig for crabs, catch, cook and eat a fish, and wash the dishes afterwards. There was very little yelling by anyone. I came home renewed and ready to step even further back as a parent. It mostly works, and that’s good enough. Oh idle me!

Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Childern from Nature-deficit Disorder Summerhill School


  1. This is a beautiful article Alison - and exactly how I feel about parenting. I remember pitching an idea to my agent for a parenting book called 'Slack-Arsed Parenting - Or How To Relax And Just Enjoy Your Kids'. She didn't go for it. But I think there are plenty of us out there. :-)
    PS your holiday sounds divine.

    1. Oh I'd buy a book called slack-arsed parenting in an instant!!! Not so many slack arsed parents around my area, I'm afraid; I feel like I'm leading the charge. Most kids we know do four to six after school activities a week. Sigh.