Here's a post by an unknown author on "idle" parenting, which I agree with wholeheartedly, except for the pursuit of money at the end. My comments on the post to an unschooler list are below the column.
By Tom Hodgkinson
An unhealthy dose of the work ethic is threatening to wreck childhood. Under a tyrannical work-obsessed government, years that should be devoted to play and joyful learning are being stifled by targets and tests. Leisure time is being invaded by the commercial and escapist virtual worlds of the computer.
Pushy parents don't help by making childhood a stress-filled time of striving and competing.
Our children's days are crammed full with activities: ballet, judo, tennis, piano, sport, art projects. At home they are entertained by giant screens and computers. In between, they are strapped into cars and made to listen to educational tapes. Ambitious mothers force hours of homework on bewildered 10-year-olds, hanging the abstract fear of "future employers" over their heads.
Then they buy them a Nintendo Wii, the absurd, costly gadget that's supposed to bring some element of physicality to computer games. It's only a matter of time before children have their own BlackBerrys.
I think of the New Yorker cartoon of two kids in a playground, each staring at a personal organiser and one saying: "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 room for simply mucking about. They have the other unwelcome side effect of making the children incapable of looking after themselves. When they are stimulated by outside agencies, whether that be course leader, computer or television, they lose the ability to create their own games. They forget how to play.
I recall when our eldest child, a victim of chronic over-stimulation by his anxious parents, screamed "I need some entertainment!" during a bored moment. A chilling comment, particularly from a five-year-old. What now? What next? These are the questions our hyper-stimulated kids will ask. What has happened to their own imagination?
There is a way out of this over-zealous parenting trap, a simple solution that will make your life easier and cheaper. It will make your kids' lives more enjoyable and also will 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: "Leave them alone."
The welcome discovery that a lazy parent is a good parent took root when I read the following passage from a DH Lawrence essay, Education of the People, published in 1918: "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 counter-intuitive. Aren't we always told to do more, not less? All parents have a nagging sense that somehow we are doing it all wrong and that more work needs to be done. But the problem is that we put too much work into parenting, not too little. By interfering a lot, we are not letting children grow up and learn themselves. The child who has been overprotected will not know how to look after himself. We are too much in children's faces. 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 the child, both in terms of enjoying everyday life and also for self-reliance and independence. I am not advocating slobbish neglect. (Maybe I went too far with my idle parenting when I dozed off on the sofa in front of the woodburning 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 would be a wonderful thing. It has become obvious to me, watching our three children 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 and most needy (although we're working on it). The second had a little less attention and she is more self-sufficient. 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 19th century, when children as young as five were sent into the factories. The fact that meddlesome liberals have since introduced child labour laws does not need to prevent the idle parents exploiting their own offspring.
One morning, not so long ago, V and I refused to get up. I imagine we were hung over. At about nine o'clock, the bedroom door swung open and in walked Arthur, then six, with two cups of tea. A lot can be achieved by lying in bed. Simply by doing nothing, you can train children to do useful things. During the last holiday, we found we were lying in bed till 10 or 11. By abandoning our kids, they had taught 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 a respect for the child, a trust in another human being. It is the irresponsible parent who hands the child over to various authorities for its education and care, whether that is childminders, schools, CBeebies or the virtual world of Habbo Hotel. Or it is the parent who tries to impose his own vision on the children and does not simply let them be.
Another great advantage of being idle is that it avoids causing 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 go junkie on you. 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: "My kids are happy because we're happy." Do not suffer. Enjoy your life.
The idle parent is a stay-at-home parent. Not for us costly leisure pursuits at the weekend. We reject the cheap thrills of expensive padded plastic fun palaces, zoos and days out in general. We find fun in our own backyards. We make aeroplanes out of cereal packets and it's amazing how many catching and tickling games you can play with your kids while sitting on the sofa.
The idle parent is a thrifty parent. We don't work too hard and therefore we can't expect to be rolling in cash. With thrift comes creativity. "Waste is unpoetic, thrift is creative," as GK Chesterton wrote. With no money, you start to discover your own inner resources. You make things and draw. Put a pile of A4 paper 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 digital gewgaws. Go analogue. It's more fun and a lot cheaper. Put a bird feeder outside the kitchen window. Fun does not need 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 tell their friends in later life that they enjoyed their childhood, I would count that as a great achievement. Better to have a happy childhood than a high-achieving one that brings a big psychiatrist's bill in adult life.
Idle parents are sociable. We recognise the importance of friends. They lighten the burden. A myth of modern society is the idea that "you're on your own in this world". Instead of talking to friends and neighbours, anxious people seek advice in books, websites and internet forums. We resist asking for help or admitting weakness. Be weak! Give up! You can't do everything. Lower your standards. Get friends to help you. Organise little nurseries at your house where parents can chat and kids can play while you ignore them.
I love DH Lawrence's idea of childcare. He says babies should "be given to stupid fat old women who can't be bothered with them… leave the children alone. Pitch them out into the streets or the playgrounds, and take no notice of them." Do not view them as raw material to be moulded into an obedient slave for the workplace of the future. Let them play. And yes, get your friends around. Life is so much easier when the work is shared. Friends bring laughter and joy. There's no sadder sight than the lone parent, pushing her child around the gloomy municipal park, trying to tell herself that she is having a good time.
My idea of childcare is a large field. At one side is a marquee serving local ales. This is where the parents gather. On the other side, somewhere in the distance, the children play. I don't bother them and they don't bother me. I give them as much freedom as possible.
But the life of an idle parent is not so easy. Children do not always adapt to the anti-consumerist model that the natural parent promotes. They want stuff. Children get in your face. They make a terrible mess. They scream and whine. And the mother and father seem to disagree on pretty much everything, from paint colours to mealtime manners, as a matter of marital policy.
There are more worries. Is it mean to deny a child an iPod Nano for his birthday and instead give him a ball of string and The Dangerous Book for Boys? Should I really put a broadband connection in the tree house? Should I work even harder so that they can go skiing and wear expensive trainers? Would I be less grumpy if I drank less alcohol?
Sometimes we doubt our own gospel. So over the coming weeks, I hope to outline an enjoyable parenting philosophy in Weekend, while acknowledging that it isn't always easy.
I will confess my many parenting errors. I am a disaster-prone, chaotic layabout and so should warn you not to listen to my advice. Certainly my friends say the idea of me advising other parents on childcare is absurd.
With that caveat in mind, let us go forth, throw away the rule books, forget what other people think and enjoy family life and all its joys and woes.
The Manifesto of the Idle Parent
We reject the idea that parenting requires hard work
We pledge to leave our children alone
That should mean that they leave us alone, too
We reject the rampant consumerism that invades children from the moment they are born
We read them poetry and fantastic stories without morals
We drink alcohol without guilt
We reject the inner Puritan
We fill the house with music and laughter
We don't waste money on family days out and holidays
We lie in bed for as long as possible
We try not to interfere
We push them into the garden and shut the door so that we can clean the house
We both work as little as possible, particularly when the kids are small
Time is more important than money
Happy mess is better than miserable tidiness
Down with school
We fill the house with music and merriment
This is an amazing column and is dead-on! It should be the manifesto (dare I say that word?) for unschoolers – for all parents.
My ex, Kelly, and I practice this with our daughter, Livy. Kelly and I aren’t layabouts necessarily. We’re both career-oriented – me more so than Kelly. But around the house (or anywhere, for that matter), we don’t push anything on Livy, who is 5 years and 8 months old. Just a year ago, Livy asked to go to soccer, tai quan do, clay-making, ballet, swimming and gymnastics classes. In the last year, she’s dropped all but soccer, and only goes to soccer one in three times. A while back, I asked her why she didn’t want to do all that stuff anymore, and she said, “I don’t know. I just don’t.” Indeed, that is the same answer I have when someone asks why I don’t want to go somewhere. “I don’t know. I just don’t feel like it.” It’s a good answer – and it is one that most parents simply can’t abide because they have goals in their mind for what their children should be doing and accomplishing.
Just an hour ago, Livy and I finished outfitting an aquarium (bought at a garage sale for 3 bucks) with rocks, dirt, grass, bush twigs and more for a lizard we’re going to catch in the yard this week. We caught a lizard the other day, and she decided to let it go, so it would live. She spends her “idle” time doing a hundred different things, and it seems she’s hardly ever still, except to maybe watch SpongeBob SquarePants. She makes our coffee in the morning and cooks a lot of her own food. She likes to spend up to 2 hours in the bathtub playing with toys and talking with imaginary friends (when her 4.5 year old friend Ethan isn’t in there with her and extending the bath to 3 hours).
As the author above says, this type of parenting leaves everyone independent, happy, loving, caring, respectful, unaggressive and playful. When we decide to do stuff together, it’s always tons of fun, and she is funny, witty, imaginative and a prankster.
I can’t imagine *having* to parent. Ha!