Authors: Tom Hodgkinson
The Idle Parent
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First published 2009
Copyright © Tom Hodgkinson, 2009
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For Arthur, Delilah Rose and Henry
Leave the child alone
D. H. Lawrence, ‘Education of the People’, 1918
An unhealthy dose of the work ethic is threatening to wreck childhood. Under tyrannical work-obsessed governments, years that should be devoted to play and joyful learning are being stifled by targets and tests and long school hours. Kids’ leisure time is invaded by commercial interests in the form of fun-sellers and computer games. Pushy parents don’t help by making childhood into a stress-filled period of anxious striving and competing. Our kids’ days are crammed full with adult-organized activities: ballet, judo, tennis, piano, sports fixtures, art projects. At home they are entertained by giant screens and computers. In between they are strapped into confining cars and forced to listen to educational tapes. Ambitious mothers force hours of homework on bewildered ten-year-olds, hanging the abstract fear of ‘future employers’ over their
heads. Then they buy them Nintendo Wiis, the absurd and costly gadget that is supposed to bring some element of physicality into computer games. It’s only a matter of time before kids with busy schedules will have their own BlackBerries.
What happened to play? I think of the
cartoon which showed two kids in the playground, each staring at their personal organizers. One is saying to the other: ‘I can fit you in for unscheduled play next Thursday at four.’
All these activities impose a huge burden of cost and time on the already harried parent. They leave no time for simply mucking about, for free play. They have the other unwelcome side effect of making children incapable of looking after themselves. When they are stimulated by outside agencies, whether that be course leader, computer or telly, children lose the ability to create their own games. They forget how to play. I remember when our eldest child, a victim of chronic over-stimulation by his anxious parents, screamed: ‘I… need… some…
!’ in a bored moment. A chilling comment, particularly from a five-year-old. What now? What next? These are the questions our hyper-stimulated kids ask. What has happened to their own imagination, to their own resources?
There is a way out of this over-zealous parenting trap. There is a simple solution that will make your life easier and cheaper. It will make your kids’ lives more enjoyable and also help to produce happy, self-sufficient children who can create their own lives without depending on a mummy substitute. I call it idle parenting, and our mantra is simply: ‘Leave them alone.’ The very welcome discovery that a lazy parent is a good parent was rooted in me by the following passage from a D. H. Lawrence essay, published in 1918, called ‘Education
of the People’: ‘How to begin to educate a child. First rule, leave him alone. Second rule, leave him alone. Third rule, leave him alone. That is the whole beginning.’
To the busy modern parent, this idea seems counterintuitive. Aren’t we always being told to do more, not less? All parents wander round with a nagging sense that somehow we are doing it all wrong, and that more work needs to be done. Well, no. The problem is that we are putting too much work into parenting, not too little. By over-interfering, we are not allowing the kid grow up itself and learn itself. The child that has been too much looked after will not know how to look after itself. We need to retreat. Let them live. Welcome to the school of inactive parenting. It’s a win-win situation: less work for you and better for your child, both in terms of enjoying its everyday life and also for its self-reliance and independence.
Now, I am not, of course, advocating slobbish neglect. Maybe I went too far with my idle parenting when I dozed off on the sofa in front of the wood-burning stove while ‘doing the childcare’, as the ugly modern phrase has it, to be woken by the screams of a toddler who had placed his hands squarely on the hot metal and burned his fingertips. Clearly we don’t let our children jump out of windows or go about with unchanged nappies. There is carefree and there is careless, and there is a difference.
But to create a household free of care: that would be a wonderful thing. It’s been obvious to me watching our three kids grow up that the more they have been ignored, the better. The eldest had a surfeit of anxious parental supervision and is still the trickiest. The second had a little less attention, and she is more self-sufficient. Finally, the third was born on the bathroom floor and has had to get on with his own life.
And he is perhaps the best of all three at playing. Certainly he is the most comical.
The great thing about children is that they like being busy. Since parents like being lazy, it makes sense for the children to do the work. This idea was partly explored in the nineteenth century, when children as young as five were sent into the manufactories. The fact that meddlesome liberals have since introduced child-labour laws need not prevent the idle parent exploiting their own offspring.
I remember my friend John lying in a hammock one sunny afternoon in our garden. He successfully manipulated his four-year-old daughter into bringing him a beer and his fags while he lay there. Yes, it’s a little-known fact that much can be achieved by lying down. Simply by doing nothing, you can train them to do useful things. During the most recent school holiday we found we were lying in bed till ten or eleven. My brother has done even better: one morning he and his wife were lying in bed when their eight-year-old son came in. ‘Well done,’ he said. ‘It’s your new record. It’s twelve.’ When kids are abandoned they teach themselves how to get up, make themselves breakfast and play.
Paradoxically, the idle parent is a responsible parent because at the heart of idle parenting is respect for the child, trust in another human being. It is the irresponsible parent who hands the child over to various authorities for its education and care, whether these be childminders, schools, after-school clubs, sports teams, CBeebies, Habbo, Club Penguin or whatever. Or tries to impose their own vision on the children and does not simply let them be.
Now, another great advantage of idle parenting is that it avoids the stimulation of resentment in the parent. There is nothing so corrosive or pestilent as resentment stewing in the
breast. Imagine making all those sacrifices, putting yourself out for your children, going without – and then they turn round and go junkie on you in some kind of Amy Winehouse/Pete Doherty nightmare. No, there is no room for martyrs in the world of the idle parent. Our happiness comes first. And that is the right way round: as a cab driver said to me the other day of his kids: ‘They’re happy because we’re happy.’ Do not suffer. Enjoy your life.
The idle parent is a stay-at-home parent. Not for us a host of costly leisure pursuits at the weekend. We reject the costly thrills of antiseptic plastic fun palaces, zoos, theme parks and family days out in general. We sit on the sofa and let things happen and find fun in our own backyards. We make aeroplanes out of cereal packets. It’s amazing how many catching and tickling games you can play with your kids while sitting on the sofa. We have one called Tickle or Trap: the child runs towards me, yells ‘Tickle!’ or ‘Trap!’, and I carry out their instruction. Much hilarity.
The idle parent is a thrifty parent. We don’t work too hard and therefore we can’t expect to be rolling in cash. And with thrift comes creativity. ‘Thrift is poetic because it is creative;’ as the great thunderer G. K. Chesterton wrote, ‘waste is un-poetic because it is waste.’ When you sit around at home with no money you start to discover your own inner resources. You make things and draw. Put a pile of A4 on the kitchen table, along with a stapler, scissors, crayons and glue, and you’ll be amazed at what your children come up with. Forget Leap Pads and digital gewgaws. Go analogue. It’s more fun and it’s a lot cheaper. Put a bird-feeder outside the kitchen window. Fun does not have to be expensive.
We don’t care about status and career advancement and how we are perceived by others. We are free of all of that
rubbish. We simply want to enjoy our lives and to give our children a happy childhood. What greater gift could there be from a parent? If our children will say: ‘I enjoyed my childhood,’ to their friends, then I would count that as a great achievement. Better to have a happy childhood than a high-achieving one with a huge shrink bill to pay in adult life.