books lifestyle

The Idle Parent, by Tom Hodgkinson

“I am a disaster prone and chaotic layabout and so should warn you not to listen to my advice” says Tom Hodgkinson at the beginning of his book about parenting.

This is, of course, a book about parenting from the editor of The Idler. It is fairly clear what direction this will be going in – leave the children alone. Teach them self-reliance, give them their independence, and then you’ll have more time for yourself. Lie in bed for long enough, and they will not only learn to get their own breakfast, but maybe even bring you yours. “My idea of childcare is a large field” says Tom. “At one side of the field is a marquee with a bar serving local ales. This is where the parents gather. On the other side of the field, somewhere in the distance, the children play.”

Spurning modern day parenting gurus, The Idle Parent draws from John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the medieval era, punk. It’s funny, personal, full of exasperation at the state of modern childhood, and a little tongue in cheek.

As always with Hodgkinson, there is a subversive and counter-cultural undercurrent to his musing on being idle and having a good time. This is parenting for the consumer age, full of refusals to commodify childhood and buy your children’s love. Don’t reward children with things, he argues. Play outside. Limit screen time and avoid the shops. No plastic toys, and if you must buy toys at all, let them be few and good quality. Raise children together. “We believe in community” he writes, “the more the merrier.”

For the most part, I agree. Not least, I agree because this is how I was brought up. We had few toys, hundreds of books and minimal TV. Mum looked after us and Dad worked from home, both were always around. There were five of us, and we looked out for each other. Our favourite things were our bikes, a barrel, a hammock, and the climbing frame that was made for us by a local carpenter to our own design. Our education was part home-school, part local primary and then boarding school. We all helped wash up, took turns cooking, and I fed the sixteen chickens every morning. Putting aside Hodgkinson’s antipathy towards Lego, the book pretty much describes my upbringing.

There was a good reason for this, and it wasn’t that my parents were idlers – I grew up in Madagascar. There was no choice. Toys were not on sale, and the TV showed one cartoon a week (Lucky Luke on Tuesday nights.) As far as I’m concerned, it was a great childhood, and I’d gladly raise little Zachary and any of his subsequent siblings in a similar fashion. But can it be done here, in the face of a consumer culture? I don’t know. I certainly hope so.

What I do know is that childhood can be rubbish in this country, maybe even the worst in Europe, if surveys are to be believed. (see The Good Childhood report). We burden our kids with targets, subject them to relentless advertising, keep them indoors and over-schedule their little lives with activities. If it can claw back a little of the joy of childhood, and ease the pressure of parenting in a competitive culture, then fetch me a local ale and call me an idle parent.

4 comments

  1. I’d love to read the book. Hopefully, this year I’ll study in England and I will remember what the last paragraph talks about.

  2. Good post – sounds fascinating.

    Glad you made the point about the Lego – ours are mad for it and the family keep wanting to buy stuff for them so I point them that way. Actually, I rather enjoy it too and I think it helps them be creative! Perhaps it’s a question of picking ones enemies…

    1. We had crates of the stuff. It’s a great creative outlet, and we had all kinds of little characters and stories going on with what we were building. It’s a shame Lego comes themed these days, with Indiana Jones and Harry Potter, so there’s not so much room for the imagination, but you can always stick to the basics. I also like the way it gets more clever as you get older. You keep adding new elements until you can make robotics and all sorts, but around those new parts, you’re still using the same bits you had when you were six. So it’s timeless and grows with you, unlike all the toys that get thrown away or sent to the charity shop.

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