Excerpted from The Idle Parent © 2009 Penguin Books. Previously, Tom Hodgkinson explained why saying yes to your kids all the time might actually free up your time.
There can be no more absurd invention of modern industrial society than the family day out. All week you have been stressed out at work, as you have tried to conform to someone else’s idea of who you should be. You are tired, grumpy, and guilty because you have hardly seen your children. It’s time, you reﬂect, to give the kids a treat, to do something together. I know! Let’s chase some fun! Let’s pile everyone into the car and join all the other desperate families at the local theme park! We can spend a pile of cash there, and everything will be all right again.
The trouble starts with the inexpressible headache of getting everybody out of the house. Before children, I just used to stroll out of the house. Now this process cannot be achieved without an hour of screaming, searching for lost socks and shoes, huffing, puffing, shouting, cursing Britax and their cruel inventions in the name of child safety. Then you have to ﬁnd various toys that the children seem to ﬁnd completely indispensable for the journey. Recently we made the terrible mistake of installing one of those DVD players in the back of the car, in the hope that it would keep the kids quiet on long journeys. It can help, I suppose, but the darned thing never seems to work properly, and ﬁxing it is yet another task to add to the interminable torture of leaving the house.
Then the real hell begins. We start to drive to the theme park. The three children, tightly bound in the back of the car, start lashing out at one another. Each child has perfected his or her own uniquely irritating crying noise. Delilah’s is a sort of constant mosquito whine mixed with helpless sobbing that apparently prevents her from being able to articulate the nature of her complaint. Arthur wails as if the world is about to end, and it’s all so unfair and unjust. And Henry makes the sort of noises that the makers of The Exorcist would have been proud to feature in the movie. Both mother and father now start shouting. Mother wheels round and screams: “How many times do I have to tell you? Leave him alone!” Dad bellows: “Right, Arthur, one more time and there’s no ice cream. I mean it.” Dad anxiously glances in the rearview mirror to see what’s going on. For a while I congratulate myself for not losing my temper. Then I suddenly break. I have been known to go berserk, to swear and bang the windshield in my rage. Then, if I lose my temper, Victoria takes this as her cue to seize the moral high ground and say something like, “We’re fed up with you,” thus driving me into a deeper rage, which cannot really be expressed well since we’re all trapped in this blessed motor car.
Next comes the ferocious boredom of queuing up for rides while idly speculating about the other families around you. Are they happy? Do they also go home to door-slamming, screaming, and grumpiness? The theme park is a strangely lonely place. Hundreds mill past one another but rarely speak, like mute zombie families. Lunch is an overpriced, prepackaged nightmare.
The same goes for museums as for theme parks. I took Arthur to the Natural History Museum recently and found the experience to be, in the word much favored by William Morris to describe the low-quality output of industrial society, shoddy. Shoddy exhibits, shoddy design and decoration, silly little walkways that diminish the splendor of the rooms. And there is the same suffocating feeling of containment as at the theme park: the same stiﬂing restriction on movement, with gates and turnstiles and pre-prepared routes to be shuffled along obediently. I feel lost in those places.
Then the hell of the drive home. Now the children and the parents are cross and ﬁdgety. The children always want to stay longer than the parents—”We’re going now.” “Owwwww! Why? Why? Why?” Most likely the children are coming down off a junk-food sugar rush. In the back of the car, they kick, pull one another’s hair, and snatch one another’s new toys. The threat to abandon them at a rest stop does not seem to help matters. Even after I stop the car, they continue ﬁghting. We’ve noticed that the best policy, although very difficult to carry out, is simply to ignore them.
This is not the idle way.
The truly idle delight, instead, in staying at home. At home, you are free. You can create your own fun, at no cost whatsoever. We often now stay at home all day on Saturday and all day on Sunday. We play in the kitchen. We make food together. One happy day, I sat in the armchair reading my William Morris biography while Henry played on the ﬂoor with his toy tractors, Delilah cut up bits of paper, and Arthur read The Beano. Later I found myself making a pair of sunglasses out of a cereal packet with Delilah.
People are scared to stay at home all day because they think the kids will get bored. But things happen of their own accord. You don’t need to leave the house. We think we are enjoying ourselves at the theme park, but really it’s a disabling sort of fun because it’s passive. It actually follows the familiar pattern of 21st-century life: long periods of boredom interspersed with the occasional thrill. And we don’t have to make any effort beyond getting out our wallets. The rides, in return for cash, hurl us around in a parody of real pleasure. At home you can play Scrabble, you can eat on the ﬂoor, the kids can make dens. You can learn how to play together, or you can get on with your own jobs and pleasures and let the children exist around you. And you don’t even have to bother to play with them. My friend James doesn’t play with his son. I asked him to explain himself:
Fertile neglect is the name of that policy: leaving the boy to his own devices so I can pursue mine and he can develop those solitary skills that will serve him in future airports, waiting rooms and prisons. It came about simply because I found actual down-at-his-level waving-tiny-ﬁgurines PLAYING to be, for some reason, soul-destroying—the arbitrary and despotic movements of the child-mind and all that. Bonus side effect: when you do consent, in moments of magnanimity, to lower yourself to their play-level they are incredibly grateful. …
You can also use time with the children to learn things yourself. Now is the time to teach yourself to draw. We give too much responsibility for learning and being creative to the schools. We must learn and teach at home. This need not be a trial but can be a great joy for parent and child.
But you must always make sure that you are genuinely enjoying yourself. Doing things for other people’s sake will lead to feelings of corrosive resentment that will then ﬁnd expression in some unhealthy fashion, like cancer. Your ﬁrst responsibility is to your own happiness. If you are unhappy and you do things merely out of a sense of duty rather than genuine love and generosity, then others will sense that and ugliness will result.