The Idle Parent

Tom Hodgkinson presents a fascinating contradiction: on the one hand, his “idle parenting” school of thought involves minimizing parental burden on a day-to-day basis (e.g., “The problem is that we’re putting too much work into parenting, not too little.”); on the other, he urges parents to base major life decisions on their children’s development (“Better to be penniless and at home than rich and absent, certainly during the first three or four years of each child’s life. There will be plenty of time for hard work for you when they grow up.”). This seeming ideological conflict permeates his practical advice as well. Designing games that you can play without getting up off the couch sounds great for parental relaxation, but how does getting pets decrease the workload for any parent but the most rural? And therein lies the answer: Hodgkinson lives on a farm. His ruminations about what decisions have worked for his family aren’t the value offered. Rather, he suggests that each couple reason to their own policies by applying his overarching ethos: “[l]ower your standards” and encourage children to do things for themselves (brilliantly combined as “[d]o not suffocate them and do not allow yourself to be suffocated”).

Unfortunately, this message could have been much better communicated in one tight, funny article – rather than a rambling, uneven book. In particular, I could have done with fewer quotes from Locke and Rousseau; less anti-consumerism and technophobia (I’m also an anti-brand, anti-TV gal, but, “everything that a computer can do can be done with more pleasure by the old ways,” really?!?!); more of the dry wit for which Hodgkinson is apparently famous (my favorite line: “You have to have rules, otherwise they will mess up your house.”); and more editing out of mediocre content in favor of astute observations like the following:

  • “Music and dancing should be woven back into the fabric of everyday life.”
  • “[W]hining is an expression of powerlessness and dependence . . . [and] repeated requests . . . [a]re a sort of demand for recompense for earlier love starvation.”
  • Modern lack of community support is, in part, owed to the fact that more grandparents have shit going on in their own lives these days than in times past.
  • “[W]hen kids dawdle, it is not they who are at fault but the system that attempts to regiment them so strictly.”

On that last note, I was quite taken with the following passage in which Hodgkinson starts with the rally cry of modern feminists critiquing stay-at-home motherhood and then swoops in with a common sense take that resonates with my own opinions and choices (though, again, is a bit too rage-against-the-machine for my taste):

[H]istorically, philosophically and socially there are many different conceptions of what being a parent is all about, and probably one of the least common is the lonely, stay-at-home mother of the Western imagination. Things do not have to be like this. You can choose your own way. Motherhood is not a role. It should not actually be a full-time job. The children don’t need so much mothering. . . . Today, we commonly see family life where the husband leaves at 8:00 a.m. and returns at 7:00 p.m. and all the company the mother has during the day is a washing machine and daytime television. . . . The boredom of the full-time mother is compounded by her own guilt: she feels guilty because she is not enjoying the company of her own baby, her own children. She feels a failure for not enjoying motherhood. . . . [M]otherhood is a myth and woman was not made to shop, clean and burble at baby all day on her own. She needs to combine motherhood with other creative activities and sociability. . . . So the idle mother does not actually avoid work. On the contrary, like the idle father, she embraces it. Work of her own choosing, that is, independent work, autonomous work, creative work. What she avoids is that terrible, fearful, spirit-sapping invention of the industrial age: the full-time job. For the idle mother, it is not a choice between ‘going back to work’ or ‘staying at home.’ She explores that vast and rich territory between those two barren poles. She creates her own job, one that she can fit around her children or even stop doing for a few years. And having made the conscious decision to both work and look after the children, she enjoys both.

That said, I can’t recommend the book. If Hodgkinson had separated the wheat from the chaff and produced a kick-ass article, or dropped the philosophers in favor of making the chaff more amusing, I’d be a huge fan. As is, reading this book is like dating a guy who could be so awesome! But isn’t.

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