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Is Idle Parenting Better for You and Your Kids?

A post on Free-Range Kids today drew me to this 2008 idle parenting manifesto published in the Telegraph and written by Tom Hodgkinson, author of the How to be Free and How to be Idle.  In it, he says, “Pushy parents don’t help by making childhood a stress-filled time of striving and competing.”  Sandy posted earlier today about the negative impact competition can have on girls who play only to win, and Helaine reported Monday about the Canadian parents who sued their local hockey team for cutting their sons.  Which is why, when people ask if I’m going to enroll my 4-year-old in dance class, I always say absolutely not.

To be sure, my daughter is a very gifted dancer, and I adore watching her float and bounce around the house like the natural she is.  (As you can see from these videos taken last fall, she’s developed two distinct techniques: “ballet moves” and “rock-and-roll moves.”  On a side note, I can’t believe how much she’s matured since then!)  It’s not that I don’t want to nurture her love of dance, it’s precisely because I want her to continue to love dancing that I haven’t enrolled her in structured class.  I realize Tiger Woods wouldn’t be Tiger Woods were he not trained from age 2 how to be the world’s best golfer, but as we all know, his athletic prowess and (perhaps deserved) grandiose sense of self has lead to other problems.

So maybe we modern parents are doing too much for our kids.  Hodgkinson writes in frighteningly accurate detail about the ways we fritter away our children’s time.  He says, “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.”  Even back in 2008 he was concerned about the overuse of technology, adding, “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.”

Hodgkinson thinks all this overscheduling leads to, as Sierra discussed back in March, the end of play.  He recalls a time when his eldest child was “a victim of chronic over-stimulation by his anxious parents,” and “screamed ‘I need some entertainment!’ during a bored moment.”  For Hodgkinson, that was a turning point, obviously.  The event that led him to create his idle parenting movement and the mantra: “Leave them alone.”

That’s all well and good.  But where does idle parenting fit in with the news that authoritative parenting results in healthy, successful offspring?  Do any of us really know what we’re doing?  Maybe the answer lies in borrowing a bit here and there from opposing parenting styles that compliment each other.

I’m with Hodgkinson to the extent that he argues we “put too much work into parenting, not too little,” and that “by interfering a lot, we are not letting children grow up and learn themselves.”  I have become a somewhat idle parent by default: I don’t have enough money or time as a single mother who works to overly structure my daughter’s every waking moment, and I have seen how creative she is as a result.  When she’s not in school, she’s often home with me while I work, and she never complains of being bored.  She spends her days playing with dolls, stuffed animals, coloring, filling out her various workbooks, and yes, watching TV.  But she spends at least four hours a day entertaining herself without any media at all. 

Hodgkinson explains that he has gotten better at idle parenting as time has gone on and he’s had more children.  He says, “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.”  Many parents probably feel parenting gets easier as children are added to family, no doubt due to some extent that the more children there are, the less time there is to dote (or fret) over them.

“Another great advantage of being idle is that it avoids causing resentment in the parent,” writes Hodgkinson.  He’s clearly onto something there, since as New York magazine’s current cover story points out, parents who spend too much time worrying their kids aren’t perfect feel unhappy.  (Duh.) 

I have to admit, when I first got pregnant, I thought I’d have taken part in more “little nurseries at your house where parents can chat and kids can play while you ignore them” than I have.  Is it so wrong that I dream of sipping wine and eating crackers with a friend while the children play politely at our feet?  (Hodgkinson asks, “Would I be less grumpy if I drank less alcohol?,” a question I often ask myself on days I wake up dehydrated.  Idle parents are apparently also lovable drunks.  You have to embarrass your kids somehow, I guess.)

Maybe it’s not wrong to dream of a charmed life, but it is unrealistic.  While I love Hodgkinson’s philosophy in theory, I think like most philosophies, its practical application can be a bit elusive.  For example, I think he goes a bit too far in saying “We don’t waste money on family days out and holidays,” though my ex would be thrilled to know he’s not alone in his love of thrift.  I’m all for not being lavish, but come on… a day at the zoo is hardly extravagant.  I’m totally up for “filling the house with music and merriment,” but I’m not down with being “down with school.”  I think it’s overly moralistic and simplistic to suggest, as the Puritans do, that idle hands do the devil’s work, but I understand there is a grain of truth in the phrase.  When it comes to parenting, as in all things, it’s probably best to find some kind of middle ground.

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