Why Laid-Back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids

Parenthood today is a whole different ball of wax than when our parents raised us.

From the virtual war one has to wage to get your kid into a good preschool, to keeping their dance card full to the brim with “play dates” and other “enrichment” activities, it can be a lot of work. It’s no surprise that many parents end up feeling exhausted, resentful, and often depressed. But what if, instead of revolving around our children like planets in orbit, we decided to take a more laid-back approach to the whole enterprise?

In his wry and liberating new book, THE IDLE PARENT: Why Laid-Back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids (Tarcher/Penguin paperback, on sale May 13, 2010), journalist and parenting columnist Tom Hodgkinson claims that the “helicopter” style of parenting currently en vogue actually does more harm to our children than good. Not only does it exhaust and frustrate the parent, but it prevents the child from becoming a self-sufficient, confident, and empowered adult. Rather, Hodgkinson suggests that if parents let kids be, they will learn how to be resourceful, creative, and independent. Among the suggestions he provides to the fatigued and fed-up parent are:

  • Get children involved in housework. And make it fun. You get the job done faster, and they learn that work doesn’t have to be suffering.
  • Just say “no.” And avoid situations that will lead to whining. It is not an act of unkindness to deny your child’s every whim.
  • Gather with other parents and kids. The kids will entertain each other, and you get the adult interaction and relaxation you need.
  • Resist the demand to go to expensive theme parks and children’s shows during your time off. Staying home gives you the rest you need, saves money, and helps children discover their own inner resources.
  • Do what makes you happy. The best quality a parent can offer his or her child is their own personal happiness, contentment, and independence.

Drawing on his own experience as a parent of three, Hodgkinson helps readers learn how to foster an environment where children can grow up confident and happy and where parents can become responsibly lazy. A wise, devilishly funny, and wholly practical approach to childcare, ‘THE IDLE PARENT’ teaches parents how to leave kids alone, and in turn become better (and happier!) parents.

Q. What inspired you to write The Idle Parent?

It was an essay by DH Lawrence where he said that the three rules of raising children were: “leave the child alone, leave the child alone, and leave the child alone.” This struck me as excellent advice: it should mean less work for the parents and a better outcome for the child.

Q. What is the difference between an idle parent and a careless parent?

“Careless” means sitting on the couch watching TV all day and allowing your children to turn into ill-mannered monsters with no respect. “Idle” means allowing them a lot more freedom to play than is generally the case today, and also allowing yourself a lot more time to do nothing, to sleep, to read and to enjoy yourself. But “idle” does not mean giving up responsibility.

Q. How does the idle parent approach discipline?

I think the idle parent needs to be very strict. Children should be trained in good manners, courtesy and respect. They should also do what you say, not that I manage this all the time with my own children!

Q. What, in your opinion, are some of the biggest mistakes that parents make?

Doing too much for the child. Spoiling it. Giving it too much choice. Asking it what it wants and how it feels. Asking it if it is happy. Apologizing to it if you have lost your temper. Buying too many toys and letting them play on computer games too much. Filling their time with too many activities. Controlling their movements and not giving them enough idle time.

Q.In your book, you state that “in order to best educate your child, you must give him/her as little education as possible.” What do you mean by that?

I think that there is a paradox in that state education systems and schools in general do not educate very well. You could teach your child far more in two hours at home at the kitchen table than they learn in a week at school. I think we should have two or three hours of hard intellectual lessons each day and that the rest of the day should be free for sport, playing in the woods and learning practical skills like cooking. That would be the ideal. I went to one of the best schools in the UK and the terms are short, and so are the days. There is a lot of self-education going on.

Q. Some of your suggestions for the idle parent seem like more work than not. For example, you suggest that parents shun television and find other ways to engage their children. How is this “idle parenting?”

My mother says that idle parenting sounds like hard work! I really hate the television because of all the advertising. It appears to give you a break at the time, but what sorts of ideas are being thrust into their little brains? Children are seen by TV as no more than a commodity, a target market. This will make your life hell later when they demand stuff from the shops, and idle parenting is all about saving money, so that you can get out of debt and therefore find more freedom. But I do think it can have its uses when you need to clean the kitchen! And here are some great movies and TV shows out there. Therefore, at home we have a DVD player but are not connected to the wider network.

Q. You suggest that parents find a means of working less, especially while their kids are small. What suggestions would you give to single parents or others who would like to become idle parents, but feel trapped by financial pressures?

Cut down on the outgoings: eg car, travel, TV, entertainment. Get out of debt. Change your lifestyle. Share housework with friends. Build a supportive community around yourself. I think one of the problems of modern life is the loneliness. But we are not alone and there is no point living as if we were alone. Get help!

Q. You state that “mothering should not actually be a full-time job.” What do you mean by this?

I mean that women were not made to be only mothers. They are creative people too! They have an intellect. They would often like to make an economic contribution. Although I think that mothers should stay at home for the first two or three years if possible, and if not then hire a nanny rather than use daycare centers, I think it is dangerous when a woman gives up her identity to her children, and subsumes her own self. That can be damaging (not in all cases, of course). I do not mean to say that being a mother is not important – of course it is! But there is a danger that if you become a mother to the exclusion of all else, then you might grow resentful. I don’t mean that you have to have a job: you could do gardening, making crafts at home, writing blogs etc etc. Just don’t become a slave to the children.

Q. In many ways, you are advocating a return to an old-fashioned way of life, where parents and kids engage more with each other and where there are fewer technological distractions. Do you think children brought up by idle parents will be at any disadvantage, having not been exposed to the same media as their peers?

No. The weirder your childhood, the better. Then you will stand out from the herd and you will be free (and you can make money by writing about it!). They will be superior beings to their peers (in my eyes) as a result of not having been exposed to all the rubbish out there, or exposed less at any rate. By the way, I should say that in all these things I advocate moderation: there is a danger of becoming a tyrannical idle parent, with all sorts of rules! So our children can and go play on the computer, but they sit in the kitchen drawing as well.

Q. Why do you feel that organized activities and sports are not beneficial for children?

Well, I can see that they enjoy them a lot, and I would not ban them or anything like that. It’s good to learn the discipline of playing in a team. I just worry a little that the competitive Dad may damage the child (e.g. Death of a Salesman) through sport. I also worry that they are too adult-organized, e.g. Little League. And that too much of this sort of thing might take away from the carefree Huckleberry Finn type days that every child needs.

Q. What would you like readers to take away from your book?

Don’t worry. Do less. Sleep more. Enjoy yourself. Do your own thing. Be unafraid. Be eccentric. Don’t feel guilty – they will be all right!

About the Author: Tom Hodgkinson is the author of The Freedom Manifesto and How to be Idle. Editor of the Idler (a hip and fun British magazine), he also contributes a parenting column to the Daily Telegraph and writes for various newspapers and magazines in England. He lives on a farm in Devon with his family.

By Tom Hodgkinson