An Idle Parent is A Good Parent

Hi Readers — You may enjoy this essay from The Telegraph by Tom Hodgkinson, author of The Idle Parent. His  points basically boil down to: Stay home on the weekends. Let your kids bring you breakfast in bed (they’ll want to do this because they are bored and it’s something fun to do). Don’t spend money on fancy kiddie entertainment (including everything from children’s carnivals to electronics), make your kids entertain themselves. But when you want to be involved, remember: There are lots of tickle games you can play while sitting on the couch.

The piece even includes an Idle Parent Manifesto at the end. A nice essay for a boiling July day. — Lenore (who intends to take more of this essay to heart)

44 Responses

  1. My favorite quote, and the motto of our life:

    Another great advantage of being idle is that it avoids causing resentment in the parent…… Our happiness comes first. And that is the right way round. As a cab driver said to me the other day: My kids are happy because we’re happy. Do not suffer. Enjoy your life.

    Amen, amen, AMEN!!

    Naturally people think I’m selfish. No, my kids are, if they expect me to ditch all that I enjoy solely for their entertainment. I love them and act goofy to make them laugh and I enjoy it, but beyond that, I’m not their Nintendo Wii, I am their parent. These people I speak of, I love them, but these people need to read this site, and buy some John Rosemond books. Then they’ll get it.

  2. This made my day! Thank you thank you… I’m off to get the book.

    Idleness is my instinct, and I am so sick of reading about all of the other things I should be doing. I think I’ll adopt the manifesto and fill my house with laughter, read excellent stories and poetry to my children, and strive for the simplicity of idleness!

  3. Well there goes my friend’s career in children’s theatre!

  4. I assume if you enjoyed having your kid in children’s theatre it would be okay. I parent by benign neglect, which I think is a similar thing. They both get one afterschool thing when I remember to do it. One had bridge club this year (which was heaven.) This year, they are going to play soccer. You should have heard the horror of the coaches when I said they’d be riding their bikes to practice.

  5. I love it. I don’t keep my kids entirely out of afterschool activities, but they’re strictly limited. They’re taking a break for the summer from their one night a week karate class, but they are taking my absolutely insisted upon swimming classes.

    My oldest two are great at getting their own breakfasts. It’s so nice to be able to wait until the baby wakes up to get out of bed. And the older kids love having time on their own.

  6. I have embraced Free Range parenting. Unfortunately my ex-wife and mother of our four children is afraid to let our 8 year old out of her sight, playing the “what if” game – “What if he is attacked by space aliens who want to steal his bike and bully him on the way home from school in our upper-middleclass neighborhood where there is hardly any crime – let alone violent crime – but it COULD happen?”

    How do others deal with an ex-spouse who is anti-Free Range?

  7. Hate to be pedantic, but the article’s from the Telegraph not the Times. Completely separate newspaper🙂

  8. As a youth worker in the U.S. I must absolutely share that I’ve run into many a college graduate stuck on stop because they have had ever decision mandated for them since infancy.

    It seems in our upper middle class community that fear and worry are in abundance. Yet we wonder why we struggle with delayed adolescents in the U.S. Hmmmm….seems simple enough to me.

  9. Chris – you said “stuck on stop” where I’m from we say “stuck on stupid.” Sounds like the same thing.

  10. While I don’t agree with every last little idea put forth in this article, it is refreshing to read! Long live free range parenting!🙂

  11. I’ve recently been introduced to Tom Hodgkinson’s work, he co-produces a yearly magazine “The Idler” which has some fantastic contributors and he has also produced a book I am after called “How to Be Free”. I can’t say I’d subscribe to all his ideas but he certainly presents you with many ways your whole life could be Free Range.

  12. I want to kiss that man all over for his point of view. Thank you Mr. Tom Hodgkinson. I will be sleeping in tomorrow too.

  13. This past school year I began having my 8 year old get up and get herself ready for school in the morning. Her bus came at 8:25 so I told her she needed to be all ready, shower included if she hadn’t taken one in the evening, and the dishwasher unloaded, by 8:20. It took about 2 weeks before she had it down to where I could sleep till 8:15 and get up just in time to say goodbye. The rest of the year went wonderfully and I plan to do the same with my son when he starts school in the fall. I sometimes wondered if she thought I was a bad/lazy mom for not being up with her and making breakfast. Last week she stayed with my parents for a few nights and my mom told me how she told her all about how she gets herself ready all by herself in the morning. My mom said she had such pride about it. That and the article I just read confirm to me that I am on the right track! I just can’t seem to stop myself from taking the kids on fun outing though, I love them myself so much! In the past week and a half we’ve been to Six Flags 4 times, and I’m taking my son back tomorrow🙂

  14. This made my day! Awesome–a name for what I like to do. I don’t agree with all of what he says; for example, I still think that it’s important to get out of the house as a family and do fun things like go to the zoo (which falls into his category of “thrifty” when you have a membership you use a lot), the park (free!), etc. I think it’s important, for my life, at least, to not take “idle parenting” too far, but to use this to remind myself that it is, in fact, okay to leave my daughter to her own devices for awhile each day.

  15. You mean I don’t have to feel guilty about not wanting to get up early on saturdays to make an amazing breakfast? LOL

    My boys learned early on that on the weekends, I get up when I get up and if they’re hungry they should find something to eat. I also send them outside and tell them not to come in until its dusk. Its awesome. They play, they get dirty, the make friends and I have time to do my own thing.

    Cheers for idle parenting!

  16. @Adam – my ex is the same way. He’s a helicopter parent par excellence. It drives me insane.

    I just keep going the way I want to, which is what I did when we were married. He comes to me with his heart attacks – “You mean you let the kids walk to the school playground alone?” Well, yeah, they’d be walking to school alone if I didn’t homeschool. It’s three blocks away, and they’re together, and they’ve been taught how to behave. What’s the problem?

    The funny thing is that he’s from Mexico and he was VERY free range as a kid.

    I’m kind of an idle parent. We do homeschool, But I have my kids help me around the house – they sort laundry, plan and cook meals, clean their own rooms, etc. My 9 year old is a good cook, but my ex had a fit when he realized she used my good chef knives. Well, how else was she going to learn to slice onions?

    I only ask them to let me know where they are when they go out to play, just in case their dad wants to come get them.

  17. I read this in The Times and it made me laugh. It’s basically the way I was brought up, and I suspect how a lot of children of my generation were. Not exactly benign neglect, but certainly a lot of fitting in with parents, rather than the other way around. Hopefully I’ve found something of a common ground. I’m not going to spend the summer filling every second with fun things for the children to do, but hopefully we’ll find things we all like doing – splashing in the sea, kiting in the park and eating lots of picnic food. So please, British summer, be a good one!

  18. Now he tells me! I think I missed my moment.

  19. I thinkmy kids would have some serious arguement in the opposite case! If i wasnt up to make them breakfast! although they are incredibly lazy so maybe it would teach them a thing or two!

  20. Oh man, the stories of free range vs helicopter exes sound like the makings of a reality show. Don’t think I could stomach it as a show, but it’s an interesting topic for discussion!

  21. I’m free range but I can’t buy into all of what he says. I enjoy taking my kid out to do things together. Frankly, I get bored sitting around the house all day.

    I think that mandating lessons that your kid hates for the sake of lessons is a problem. I think over-scheduling your kid so that every waking minute is filled with structured activity is a problem. But don’t see any advantage to children in denying them their genuine interests so that you can be idle.

    I don’t mandate any lessons/sports (except swimming which she loves anyway) or limit the number. Extracurricular activities are 100% child-guided. My daughter’s been asking for ballet for a year so I’ll sign her up in the fall. She loved gymnastics last year and wants to do it again this year and I have no problem with that. She randomly asked to play soccer a couple months ago and we’ll see if she is still interested when the season comes near. On the other hand, I signed her up for trapeze because she is amazingly good at it (we took some drop in classes that she enjoyed) but she didn’t really like the classes so I didn’t sign her up for another session even though she has a strange natural gift.

    I do admit that I am very tempted to go against my own rule and sign her up for t-ball next summer because she is so adamant that it’s only for boys but probably won’t since she will hate it and suck at it if her current catching and throwing abilities are any indication.

  22. @Adam, I have a similar problem, except it’s not my ex-spouse who’s anti-free range. It’s my actual spouse. We get into arguments all the time about how much freedom to give our 2 1/2 year old. I believe in giving him a little space to move around (within reason of course). My husband believes in hovering over him every second he’s home.

    My husband keeps telling me that as our child gets older, I will see a different father. He’ll be a lot less overprotective. My concern is that by that time, our son won’t be able to handle those freedoms because he’ll be so used to being sheltered and controlled.

    And I have no advice except to say keep doing what you’re doing. You can’t control your ex-spouse, but you can control how YOU react.

    As for the article, it made my day. I too could be considered an idle parent. I don’t hover around my kid all day. When he’s playing, I let him be. (This is another area my husband and I disagree on. If our son is playing, he thinks we should be playing with him. I think our son should learn to entertain himself sometimes.) I do try to go places with him; at least once a week I try to take him somewhere – the park, the zoo, a kids museum – mostly because engaging outwardly is good for him AND for me. But other than that, I try to just let him be a kid.

  23. I also wanted to add that I agree with much of what Donna said. I don’t see a problem in taking your kid to after-school activities provided the child has an interest in it and wants to do it.

    This past spring I signed our son up for pre-swimming lessons. He liked it at first but towards the end was getting bored. We signed up for another session, but he didn’t seem to be enjoying it so we stopped. We may pick it up again in the fall, or we may wait until next year when he’s a little older.

  24. bah ha ha!

    though really, i don’t know who these helicopter parents are; i don’t know any. except my own mother, who is an hysteric who insists that people are looking to kidnap and kill your child every second of the day, but then she reads tabloids and passes on those fear-mongering emails. and yet, i was MUCH more free range back in my 70s childhood; she’s actually become more helicoptery with age rather than less.

    i agree about not overscheduling — i don’t do playdates — but i do like putting my daughter in activities on occasion, it’s fun for her and she gets to explore new things. rec center classes are great because they are inexpensive and THEY END — they only go on for six weeks or so. so far she’s taken dance, swimming and soccer, but not back to back, i like long stretches of inactivity.

    oh wait! i do know one helicopter parent! his daughter is one of those gifted and talented kids who is good at everything. and has chronic night terrors. i don’t suggest that’s related, mind you … but it’s interesting.

  25. Now if only I could get the preschool to start instruction later than 9am, I’d be set . . ..

    I totally agree with the “parents first” philosophy. It “sounds” bad but it is great for the kids. My mom was like that. I didn’t always like it as a child, but I am so glad she stuck to it. The whole goal of childhood is to grow up to emulate successful adults. If the adults in our world are slaves to their kids, what kind of example is that? Not the one I want my kids to see.

  26. An example around here of the struggle between “kids first” and “mom first.” I have some CDs in my car. Only the ones I can bear to hear repeatedly. Some of them are huge favorites of my kids, too. One daughter will often request a particular song, and then her sister will make a request, etc. They are pretty good about taking turns. Except when (a) Mom wants a turn and (b) they are tired/cranky. Oh, the pouting that ensues! The one mom chooses might be a favorite of all three of us, but nobody wants to sing along if Mom chose it. It would be easiest to just play their requests and listen to my own favorites when they aren’t in the car. But that would send the wrong message. So I take my turn (or make other unpopular decisions) and let them pout their hearts out. If they can’t take it, the music goes off. (Yes, I take my ball and go home!) I just can’t believe it’s healthy to reward a child for being a selfish brat. Even if the person she’s demanding sacrifice of is her devoted mother.

  27. What do you all do if you have two kids close in age, and one loves sports/physical activities but the other one doesn’t? So far I’ve been putting them both in and they have done fine. Not sure how long this will continue.

  28. There’s always a danger in letting the pendulum swing too far. I think it’s silly to suggest that any planned activities with your kids is “helicoptering” — it’s almost as if there’s a suggestion that taking too much thought about what might benefit your kids, and putting too much energy into it, is what’s the problem.

    But that’s not the problem. The problem is with not letting your kids be kids, not letting them learn to entertain themselves AT ALL, not letting them learn to function without your having all the ideas and all the ability to make things happen. Free- Range parents aren’t lazy parents — they are parents who realize that kids need time and space on their own, because it’s an essential part of their development. Does that mean the lifestyle is a little more laid-back and relaxed than the “helicopter”way, and that it allows a little more mental and physical ease and freedom for the parents? Sure, that’s the effect. But that’s not the GOAL. The goal is balance — kids’ needs, parents’ need, freedom, and appropriate (as opposed to overbearing) structure. We shouldn’t respond to helicopter mentality by claiming that we have few or no responsibilities to our kids, or that they essentially “raise themselves.” That’s going too far the other way. And, I would think that a parent that actually liked her kids would WANT to do some of those entertaining things with them. It’s just that there should be balance. It shouldn’t be all kid-driven, but it shouldn’t be all “avoiding trouble for the parents’ driven, either.

    That said, I pretty much agree with what’s said in the article. I just dislike the approach that says “We don’t want to be helicopters, therefore let’s avoid EVERYTHING helicopter parents do,” rather than deciding what works for our own families and what really IS best for our kids.

    I liked SKL’s example of playing music. That sounds a lot like us — sometimes, we listen to what the kids want, even if it doesn’t thrill us. That’s modeling generosity as well as actually BEING generous with our kids. And other times, it’s other music, or quiet, because WE the parents want it that way.

    SKL, I don’t know how old your kids are, but it may be that you should insist on the one who doesn’t enjoy the activity still doing a given minimal amount of it, because it’s good for them. But certainly over the long term, they shouldn’t be expected to put as much time in as the other one would freely choose to do. If they’re both still quite young and the sports activities aren’t very demanding, then keep them both in for a while. But if the more active one wants to pursue ever more of that kind of activity, the other one should probably be given the freedom not to, except as you might think that a minimal amount should be required for health reasons.

  29. @ SKL – Put the one who likes it in. Do something the other kid likes at other times. Sports kid has to hang out while other kid does his/her activity and vice versa. It may be that both don’t get to do everything that they want to do because you won’t do that much running around but they both get to do some of what they like and they both learn to sacrifice for other family members (which is essentially what we want our kids to learn by putting ourselves first). I would also make sure that the non-sports fan does something physical. If he or she is good about running around outside and going to the playground, fine. But if he or she likes to veg, insist on at least one physical activity for health reasons.

  30. Pentamom, my kids are 3.5 & 3.7. The more “cerebral” one doesn’t seem to mind the activities, but she isn’t exacltly clamoring for more either. She’s a little behind the curve as far as physical development goes, so I do want her in those activities. Ideally she’ll identify one or two that she loves and will want to practice most days, while the other, more “athletic” kid spreads herself out more. I just hope the logistics don’t get too complicated.

    By happy chance, our favorite park has a library next door. This may help keep the peace for years to come.

  31. @Donna (the other one) and @DMT – thank you for your replies. It’s good to know I’m not alone. I didn’t explicitly say it, but part of the problem is the ex-spouse can run to the court and the judge will say “you must ensure he is with an adult on the trip to and from school” and “you cannot allow him to go to the park alone”. Thankfully, she hasn’t done that – yet.

  32. @adam — if she hasn’t done that yet, hopefully that’s a sign that she’s more of the mind that “what happens at daddy’s stays at daddy’s” ? so long as that is the case, your kids will do just fine w/ two sets of rules — these creatures are smarter than we think. my 3 yr old has oreos and chips for dinner at dad’s… but knows to not even look for them at home.

    as for your ex being a helicopter… I’ll add that she may learn best just from your example. I certainly know that watching my son’s dad let him try things I wouldn’t have (like carrying him up on to the roof), and having nothing terrible happen, started convincing me (now i just cover my eyes when they’re up to something crazy). Your children proudly telling her how they walked to school all by themselves might just go a long way!

  33. Shortly after I read this, I listened to a podcast (This American Life: Notes on Camp) where a caller told fondly about how her German immigrant mother, misunderstanding the American tradition of summer camp, took her and her younger brothers to a camp site, set their camp up, gave them some groceries, and left them for a WEEK. Talk about benevolent neglect! The kids were fine (obviously since the woman called to talk about it) but what struck me (aside from the fact that mom left a 12 yo alone to care for a 8 & 6 yo for a week) was how nostalgic and happy the woman sounded while recounting the memory. She even laughed about having to convince other adult campers that her parents were there. I’d never recommend doing something like that, but I bet that experience taught those kids a lot about independence, self sufficiency and survival. The episode is free until the next one is released. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/109/Notes-on-Camp

  34. @SKL I think it is unfair to make Child B participate in an ongoing activity because the Child A wants to. Is there something child B wants to do?, does s/he get to do it? Does Child A have to participate because Child B wants to? If the answers to the last 2 questions is no – you are heading into favoritism territory.

    My sister was an athlete. I have problems with both fine and gross motor skills because of several unrelated medical conditions. (Skin condition, pigeon toed, LD, cross over (not one side dominate)).

    When they signed sis on for sports, I was given the option. I said no – and elaborated that I was tired of getting yelled at because things were upside down and backwards. (The yelling was the school PE teacher and one uncle not my parents. I was punished at school for bleeding on the ball when the coach a) wouldn’t let me use my glove, b) tried to peg me with a very hard throw that she didn’t expect me to catch that split the skin on my hand open).

    I am forever thankful that my parents let sis and I take our own paths. I would have hated hers she would have despised mine. I think one of the reasons we are fast friends now is we didn’t resent each other as kids.

    I’m also glad they raise 9 types of hell with the school when I came home that day and told them what happened.

  35. @mvb – I certainly hope she learns from my example, but I’m not holding my breath. She has made it very clear that she does think she should be able to control what happens at my house during my parenting time. I can still do what I want, and hopefully the worst that will happen is I’ll be told to stop by the courts. But she has family who lives 20 miles away who will come to pick up our precious buttercup from school so he doesn’t have the burden of independence and exercise. I think it’s ridiculous, totally unnecessary, and actually detrimental to his health and maturity.

  36. kherbert, right now they get all the activities other than swimming at the daycare. (And yes, both kids love swimming.) So it’s not like I’m dragging them both around for the whims of one. The coaches come and take them out of class and I assume they would rather hang together than be separated, at least for now. So far I’ve gotten no compliants.

    Miss “B” does have her “things” too, though I don’t necessarily pay separately for them. She is more interested in the preschool academics and French, and she is the one who’s crazy about our ex-Nanny coming on Saturdays to do art/Spanish class. Miss B is the one I’m targeting when I frequently point out words and signs as part of her learning to read, which is of little interest to Miss A at this point. I don’t think it’s about favoritism; it’s just that it’s easier for me to teach Miss B the things she’s most interested in (book learning) compared to Miss A. I am a literacy expert but I know nothing about kiddy sports/movement, so she can only get those skills from outside activities.

    As long as it’s easy and nobody complains, I will probably keep them together. I have seen clear improvement in Miss B’s strength and coordination, which in turn seems to improve her motivation. But yes, eventually she may tell me “gymnastics isn’t my cup of tea, Mom, can I go to the library instead?” It will be hard to make one child quit an activity because it is logistically difficult to accommodate the other one. Since I’m a single mom and we have no public transportation here and don’t live in walking distance of anything, it’s complicated to have two young kids in different places at the same time.

  37. […] post on Free-Range Kids today drew me to this 2008 idle parenting manifesto published in the Telegraph and written by Tom […]

  38. I just came across your blog and it’s hilarious! We live in the country and most kids here are free range kids. In fact, we often have the opposite problem with my son’s friends in that there are no parents to be found and the kids almost have too much freedom. That said, at least they are self reliant and not humans who have been treated like veals. Mealy kids are uninspiring.

  39. SKL, if they both like the activities, and it’s no burden on you, I’d keep putting them both in. It won’t harm them any, certainly.

    But if you want more quiet activities for your more quiet kid, maybe a kid art class or music?

  40. SKL It sounds very balanced for your kids. It also sounds like the teachers are balanced and focused on each child improving against themselves – rather than the abusive “coaching” I got at school.

    While I think kids should have a choice in their activities, for me swimming is a nonnegotionable. All children should learn how to swim, basic water safety, and respect for the water. It is actually part of our PE program in my district.

    I was raised respecting the water and still had 2 near drowning experiences 1- I was hit on the head and stunned while in the water. 2nd – Another Person horsing around (not in our group) caused me to be stuck under 2 adults in intertubes in maybe 2 feet of water (water park) but my head was trapped under the water. In both cases the buddy system saved me.

  41. Everyone in my house loves to be idle. Except me, I get stir-crazy if I stay home all weekend. So I’m constantly dragging everyone off on some outing or other – not for their benefit, but for mine. Museums, concerts, walks in the woods etc. They usually make a fuss about leaving behind whatever game or project they are doing on their own, but often enjoy the outing in the end (although, as I said that’s not the primary motivation). Life will be much simpler when I can finally leave the kids at home on their own, but for now, for my sanity, we have to get out of the house more than they would like.

  42. One of the neatest things that’s happened to me as a parent was the first time I slept in, and my then 4 yr old brought me a bowl of cereal and left it on my nightstand (“I made you breakfast, mommy!”). She was so proud and so happy that I decided from now on that if she gets up before me, she can get the cereal and milk or the pop-tarts herself for breakfast. She also wakes up and gets herself dressed and teeth brushed before school every day, giving me a few extra (precious!) moments of sleep.

    My girls are confident and intelligent and independent, my only goal for them from the first day that I found out I was pregnant. Long live Free-Range Kids!!!!

  43. Jen C., I have become a real sap since becoming a parent. The image of your 4-year-old proudly and happily bringing you a bowl of cereal brought tears to my eyes. I can completely picture my lively 4-year-old daughter doing the same thing!

    I loved this article by Tom Hodgkinson. Hilarious and unapologetically free-range.

  44. I agree with pentamom that it is all about balance. I have just as much problem with parents who use the excuse “that their kids are learning to be independent” to let them disrupt the activities of others. I worked in a library and plenty of parents dropped little kids off because they had errands to run and didn’t want to have to bring them. The kids weren’t being independent they were being babysat by the librarian. I think in our quest for our kids to be allowed to be kids we are not making them act line miniadults in the process. I would like my child to not be fearful of everything, and to learn from making mistakes but within a somewhat age appropriate limit.

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