The Idle Parent

We had children, and then we complained.

Excerpted from The Idle Parent © 2009 Penguin Books.In Part 2, Tom Hodgkinson explains why you should just stay at home  and never take your kids to amusement parks or museums.

Oh, how we whinge, we pampered parents of the West, attacked by choices, condemned to strive always to do the right thing, to get it right. We complain about money; we complain about lack of sleep; we complain about our partners, our co-workers, the newspapers, social networking sites, the government. We stamp our feet and shout at the usurers in the banking corporations and the swindlers and avaricious cheats on Wall Street, but most of all we complain about our own children.

The first few months after the birth of the first baby are fairly blissful. Then the competing elements of the artificial constructions that we grandly call our “lives” become locked in mortal combat. We try to “get the balance right” between unenjoyable and enjoyable activities. But we are moaning about the very lives that we have created for ourselves. We took that job, we bought that house, we chose that boyfriend or girlfriend, we had that baby, we bought that car, we live in this city, we live in this country. We were free to go and retire alone in Goa and live on the beach for the rest of our lives, childless and free. But we chose not to do that. And then we complained!

What we so often observe in the old-fashioned cultures is a stoical attitude to life, an inspiring lack of self-pity. What you get in rich societies, by contrast, is a hell of a lot of moaning. My friend John Lloyd, the producer of such TV shows as Blackadder and Spitting Image, has observed a phenomenon at dinner parties which he calls “moasting,” an unpleasant combination of moaning and boasting. Complaining about the chalet girl in Gstaad, or about poor treatment at the hands of Virgin Upper Class, or how the Eton English master is not up to scratch. To bring two unpleasant phenomena into one intensely awful new form of whinge takes a particularly British form of negative genius.

Both should be avoided at all costs by the idle parent. (As with all these suggestions, bear in mind that the idle parent is against fanaticism in all its forms. A bit of whingeing in moderation will not have the idle police knocking.) Whingeing is the adult’s mirror image of the child’s whining. When they hear us whingeing about things, they assume that it’s normal to complain, and therefore they whine. Indeed, we encourage them to whine and complain by continually probing them for their judgment on things: “Did you have a good time? Was it fun? Is it a good book? What did you think of the film? How was school?’”

It’s what the ancient Chinese called the “discriminating mind,” the false setting up of good things and bad things. This discriminating mind is really a way of making children into consumers, because consumers are the biggest whingers of all, always ready to fire off complaints and always ready to buy better products.

We are not obliged to have children. We choose to have them. Now, instead of whingeing and moaning and wishing that things would somehow change, take my advice and learn to say “Yes!” to your kids. This very simple idea was suggested to me by the aforementioned John Lloyd. He said that he had noticed in his own life how much he was fobbing off his kids: from the early days, when he would linger late at the office because that seemed preferable to facing the mewling infant and general chaos of home, to later, when the kids were a little older, when he would become angry if disturbed by a child in the middle of a phone call.

I have noticed this tendency in myself: Sometimes I am staring at my computer screen and a child comes into my study and asks to play a game: “Will you play Tractor Ted with me?” Self-importantly, I sigh and say something along the lines of: “I’m working” or worse, a querulous: “Can’t you see I’m working?” The child persists for a while and then gives up. I then look at my screen again and wonder whether checking the Amazon ranking of my last book can really be considered to be important work. Can it not be left for five minutes?

Lloyd pondered these questions and decided to start saying “Yes” to his children when he was on the phone or working and they asked him for something. He realized too that their repeated requests and irritating behavior toward him were a sort of demand for recompense for earlier love starvation. So he would put the phone down and go and play with the child. Isn’t this rather a lot of work for the idle parent? Not really. The child will be delighted with its five minutes of mucking about. And in any case, it’s actually a pleasure for the parent. After all, you’ll have plenty of time to work and stare at the screen as they grow older and less interested in you.

John also points out that saying “Yes” can be seen as a sort of investment for the idle parent. After you have made a habit of saying “Yes” for a while, say, a year or two, the kids will stop bothering you in the same way. Your yay-saying will have installed security in their hearts, so that they will no longer have the need to test your love and continually press for it. Let us call this method the Lloyd Plan for Happy, Stress-Free Parenting. Here it is:

Despite the way it looks to those of us who are already parents—and making the customary hash of it—parenting is actually a glorious opportunity for a lifetime of idleness. There’s a really simple knack to this. Give children whatever they want, whenever they want it, as soon as they ask. If children know they can have your undivided attention for any reason, no matter how paltry, at any time of day or night, lo and behold, miracle of miracles, they stop asking. This leaves you free to fart around doing whatever it was you formerly considered more important.

The idle parent needs to harmonize the two at-first-sight different attitudes of doing nothing and saying “Yes.” Let them come to you, but when they do come to you, be there for them and try not to fob them off. This way, you will have plenty of time to pursue your own business, whatever that may be, and the child will learn self-reliance and the feeling of being loved from the beginning. Being loved but being free. Do less! Passive parenting is responsible parenting.