I’ve known for my whole life that I want to have kids. But part of me dreads it.
I’m not afraid of the dirty diapers, sleepless nights, privacy lost, marital stress, or ballooning costs of raising a child. In fact, I’m not afraid of the kids at all. I’m afraid of the other parents.
Here’s why: It’s clear to me that among the Western middle class families, parenting is not just a relationship: it’s a job. And I’m afraid that, despite my best attempts, other parents will force me to accept that job.
When I look at the modern parenting landscape, I see a goal-oriented, mission-driven, extrinsically-focused competition in which parents attempt to control every aspect of a child’s environment and development in order to render life predictable, as one eloquent critic puts it—to reduce life to an “orderly succession of achievements that will guarantee security and comfort.”
We want to give “the best” to our kids, but in the process, we’ve turned parenting into a full-time profession with insane requirements. The author Bunmi Laditan sums it up in two brilliant paragraphs:
How To Be A Parent in 2017: Make sure your children’s academic, emotional, psychological, mental, spiritual, physical, nutritional, and social needs are met while being careful not to overstimulate, understimulate, improperly medicate, helicopter, or neglect them in a screen-free, processed foods-free, GMO-free, negative energy-free, plastic-free, body positive, socially conscious, egalitarian but also authoritative, nurturing but fostering of independence, gentle but not overly permissive, pesticide-free two-story, multilingual home preferably in a cul-de-sac with a backyard and 1.5 siblings spaced at least two year apart for proper development, also don’t forget the coconut oil.
How To Be A Parent In Literally Every Generation Before Ours: Feed them sometimes.
Intellectually, I know there’s little evidence for the long-term effects of parenting—genetics and peer groups play more significant roles.
In my gut, I believe Alison Gopnik’s advice: “Instead of thinking about caring for children as a kind of work, aimed at producing smart or happy or successful adults, we should think of it as a kind of love.”
But I’m also aware that culture is a powerful force, and I fear my inability to resist the culture of control-oriented parenting. I fear that, in the face of overwhelming peer pressure, I might turn parenting into a job, turn my kids into projects, and burn them (and myself) out in the process.
This is why I loved Tom Hodgkinson’s 2009 book, The Idle Parent: Why Laid-back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids.
The Idle Parent is not a book about neglecting your kids or evading your basic responsibilities as a parent. It’s a book about taking the job description of modern, overbearing parenting—the invisible contract that tell us to control and direct every aspect of our children’s lives—and tearing it to shreds. It’s a powerful toolkit for every parent (or future parent, in my case) seeking reassurance that it’s okay to just be a parent (as a noun) instead of incessantly parenting (as a verb).
In this article, the latest installment in my Self-Directed Bookworm series, I summarize Hodgkinson’s wonderful and entertaining book, share his practical advice, and add some of my own thoughts along the way.
Do More With Less
Welcome to the school of inactive parenting. It’s a win-win situation: less work for you and better for your children, in terms of their enjoying their everyday lives and also for their self-reliance and independence.
Geographically, Tom Hodgkinson is British—and his cheeky British humor shines through in each page. Philosophically, he’s harder to pin down. Throughout The Idle Parent Hodgkinson variably preaches anarchism, communalism, Luddism, libertarianism, hedonism, and Thoreauvian simplicity. He loves the concept of benign neglect, he rails against the idea of the nuclear family, and he absolutely hates mindless consumerism. If you’re a fan of Mister Money Mustache or Captain Fantastic, you’ll probably love The Idle Parent.
In a nutshell, the message of the book is: Stop trying so hard. Stop fretting, stop interfering, and stop intervening. Become a better parent by parenting less. Through detachment you will find salvation: it’s an argument with almost Taoist or Buddhist overtones.
Hodgkinson grounds his arguments in the belief that most children are basically competent beings who deserve freedom, dignity, and respect. While he argues for a sometimes shockingly hands-off approach, never does he advocate for true parental neglectful: “There is carefree and there is careless, and there is a difference.” Nor does his version of hands-off parenting simply outsource the responsibility of child-rearing to child-care providers, schools, or electronic devices. Kids still need us to be their parents,—just not as much as we commonly assume.
Ultimately, he spends much of the book focusing on the well-being of parents themselves—because if you let the job of parenting consume you, then resentment will quickly follow:
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.
Hodgkinson encourages us to live our own lives fully and thereby inspire our kids to do the same. Don’t sacrifice everything, because then you have nothing left to give them. The beginning of your child’s life mustn’t—and shouldn’t—mean the end of your own.
Bring Back Child Labor
Put them to work! No, not as chimney sweeps or paper mill workers. We’re talking about basic cooking, cleaning, and organizing tasks. Hodgkinson doesn’t advocate for forcing kids into domestic labor with threats and bribes. Rather, he encourages us to deliberately create situations where young people naturally want to take care of themselves.
As an example, Hodgkinson tells the story of how he and his wife stayed in bed till 9am one morning, simply because they were tired. Unexpectedly, the door opened and his 8-year-old son walked in carrying two cups of hot tea. “The boy was clearly loving the fact that he was making a practical contribution to the running of the household, and we, of course were delighted. Now, if we had been up early, he would never have carried out this important domestic task. It was precisely through us being useless that he became useful.”
Taken too far, idle parenting can look like selfish parenting. But that’s not always a bad thing. Hodgkinson’s mission is to remind us that sometimes selfishness is be a positive thing. Self-sacrificing “super-parents,” he reminds us, may just as capable of inflicting harm as neglectful ones: both on themselves (in the form of control and resentment) and on their children (in the form of lost opportunities for self-reliance).
Rational selfishness isn’t just for parents, though—it’s for kids too! Hodgkinson argues that promoting a work ethic in children works best when children see it as a means to personal independence:
[D.H. Lawrence], like Rousseau, was keen to stress that we should not promote a work ethic—i.e., the idea of work as a necessary suffering—in kids or try to make them help out of altruism or pity for parents. The purpose of work, he wrote, is “not to ‘help,’ nor the ethical religious service of mankind. Nor is it the greedy piling up of stupid possessions. An individual works for his own pleasure and independence: but chiefly in the happy pride of personal independence, personal liberty.”
I’ve spent enough time working with teenagers to know that almost none of them care about being “responsible,” but virtually all of them care about maximizing their opportunities for freedom and independence; Hodgkinson’s hands-off approach therefore speaks to me. We stand a better chance of inspiring young people to do real work—internships, apprenticeships, self-employment, and paid employment—by helping them see how such work will selfishly enrich their lives, rather than insisting on work as an abstract “duty.”
Practically speaking, of course, the easiest way to encourage children to work is to make it more fun. At the Writing Retreats I previously organized, where 25 teenagers and 4 adult staffers took over a youth hostel for an entire month, the best cleaning method we found for deep-cleaning the hostel was to get everyone involved at the same time, to make it as brief as possible, and to always, always play loud music. Essentially, we turned it into a party. How could you rebel against cleaning the dishes, sweeping the floors, or wiping the toilet seats when everyone else was doing it, it would be over soon, and you’re dancing at the same time?
Hodgkinson takes a similar approach to dinner dishes, encouraging families to ditch the dishwasher in favor of three-person cleaning crews: one to wash the dishes, one to dry them, and one to put them away. And throw in some singing while you’re at it:
Yes, sing! You must not give your child the idea that work is suffering. That idea will only make it easier for the capitalists to exploit your offspring later. If children are brought up with the idea that work is suffering, then they won’t be surprised they go to work one day and find the experience painful. And that means that employers need make little or no effort to make work joyful. But encourage the idea that all forms of work can be enjoyable and they will naturally create their own path through life rather than dumbly and meekly accepting a future that’s been mapped out for them.
If you’ve never thought of the political implications of doing the dishes, this book will help. These little nuggets of intriguing and entertaining philosophizing are scattered across the book, making it a pleasure to read. Preach it, Tom!
Stay at Home
As a rabid anti-consumerist, the author paints an optimistic picture of frugal domestic existence. He shows little tolerance for “family-friendly” money pits (like shopping malls and amusement parks) and advocates instead for cheap and old-school forms of entertainment: going on family walks, building stuff out of junk, and hanging around the living room. Interestingly, he doesn’t have a clear opinion on television, computers, and video games, for which he proposes strict time limits while also admitting their practical utility for hands-off parenting.
In terms of career and financial planning, Hodgkinson offers this advice for parents: If you don’t waste your money on expensive crap, then you don’t have to work as much, and you can stay home and enjoy your children more!
Just ask yourself: would you rather spend your child’s first few years playing with them or working for the mega-corp in order to dull the pain of overwork? The mega-corp doesn’t need you; the kids do. Better to be penniless and at home than rich and absent.
But Tom, can I really just quit my job and stay home with the kids?
This is not to say that between them parents do not need to work and earn some sort of income. They surely do. And the idle parent aims to make the money-earning something enjoyable and creative. So be clever about it.
These are true words, and hard ones to implement. Everyone wants a more time-flexible, location-flexible, meaningful, and enjoyable career: one that will enable you to stay home more, be more of a role model for your kids, and actually be present for their lives, especially if you’re a homeschooling or unschooling parent. But creating such a job for yourself isn’t as easy as just being “clever about it.” (For practical guidance, I recommend The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau.)
Hodgkinson doesn’t have a problem with schools per se, he just thinks there’s far too much wasted in them. He advocates for a 3- to 4-hour school day followed by leisure, self-directed pursuits, and opportunities for practical work. He believes that homeschooling, alternative schools, and public school are all equally valid options as long as “you have respect for your child [and] you are not trying to mold the child into some perfect ideal.”
For parents who still want their kids to follow a standard academic curriculum, I don’t think Hodgkinson’s vision of a 3-hour school day is unreasonable. When you remove the distractions and politics associated with typical schools and classrooms, accelerated learning becomes the norm rather than the exception. For one example of how this looks in the homeschooling world, check out the micro-schooling movement in the San Francisco bay area.
Sleep, Sing, Dance
Yes, you can have it all! Hodgkinson rebels against the idea that you must sacrifice all adult pleasures for your children, most notably your sleep, hobbies, and sex life. With a careful dosage of benign neglect, he believes that you can continue caring for yourself while caring for the young people in your household.
Hodgkinson considers sleep so important—and the effects of sleep deprivation so pernicious—that napping is almost a holy ritual. If you lose sleep at home, then you should nap at work. If you have a job that won’t let you nap, he pronounces, then you should quit that job. That’s not a feasible option for most parents, of course, but you’ll certainly identify with the consequences:
Sleep-deprived people lack reason. They are dark shadows of gloom. They become tetchy and irritable. Everyone seems an idiot, and the world is hostile. . . . We are always banging on about how rich we are in the West, yet we cannot organize our time efficiently enough to allow ourselves a nap in the day. What fools. Let us sleep.
The same goes for teenagers who require 9-10 hours of sleep a night and face constant sleep deprivation thanks to early school start times.
If sleep holds a primordial power to transform our lives, the author argues, then so does singing, dancing, and playing music. Hodgkinson himself plays the ukulele and teaches ukulele classes at his local primary school. While he admits his own inability to sing, that doesn’t stop him from doing it regularly. Despite the fact that “our singing confidence has been removed by the American Idol judges in our heads,” he proclaims, you must “be joyful, be cheerful, cast resentment from your heart” by singing and dancing as often as possible, with your children, with reckless abandon.
Lead by Example
Ultimately, Tom Hodgkinson wants us to be happy so we can teach our children through example, not through arbitrary authority or “parenting” in the modern sense:
If we are happy, or at least cheerful and satisfied with life, then the child will naturally assume happiness to be the normal state. A manifestly unhappy parent telling her child what to do is not a very good advertisement for her own system. “If that’s what you think, then I’m going to do the opposite so I don’t turn out like you.” Don’t lay down rules. Then your children cannot be rebellious.
And therein lies the big lesson of The Idle Parent: Relax more, embrace idleness, and quit trying to be a super-parent. When you live your life as a joyful, curious, and rationally self-interested adult, then your offspring will not feel manipulated or coerced. They will respect you for being yourself and for encouraging them to do the same. Everyone wins.