Rating:The Idle Parent: Why Laid-back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids, by Tom Hodgkinson. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin (2010), 251 pages.
The Idle Parent is getting a fair amount of press right now, which is a good thing because I don’t know how much more “helicoptering” parenting I (or our society) can take. The premise here—leave the children alone—is simple, retro, and extremely important. But…251 pages espousing this one simple idea? It’s a bit of a stretch. The author repeats himself a bit too much and goes way off topic in the last third of the book (come now, a whole chapter on what children’s books you like best?) This book would have made more sense as an article in a quality literary magazine that specializes in parenting issues, such as Brain, Child.
I enjoyed the book at first, partly because I was cheering its veracity and partly because I appreciated its unusual use of centuries-old quotations from classic authors and philosophers. It’s a rare parenting book indeed that quotes D. H. Lawrence, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but Hodgkinson has cleverly structured his book around the writings of these three, who seem to have much to offer today’s parents. (“A smooth pebble, a piece of paper, serves as much to divert little children as those more chargeable and curious toys from the shops, which are presently put out of order and broken.”—Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 1693)
Hodgkinson also can have a great sense of humor, particularly when he’s fuming against capitalism:
And have you noticed that many [children’s] books glorify machines and amplify the myth of progress? Henry has one such book that keeps insisting that in the old days everyone had to work very hard, but that today the combine harvester, for instance, can do the work of twenty men and isn’t it wonderful. Pure propaganda. The book doesn’t offer the alternative view, that men used to enjoy working in teams and that the combine harvester has helped destroy farm life by making the work lonely, geared only around making a profit rather than combining work with a pleasurable everyday life.
I remember one particularly chilling episode of Bob the Builder in which Bob gave his machines the day off—but they came to work anyway! Just for fun! So servile were they that they had no idea what to do with themselves when released, and willingly put their time back into the control of their master. What kind of message is that sending to kids?
I didn’t mind, at first, the author’s relentless references to drinking. He continually hypes up the desirability of drinking with other adults while the children are off playing—a fine thing to mention two or three times, but not twenty times, even twice on the same page…I began wondering if he’s actually a raging alcoholic. At a certain point this stops being light-heartedly amusing and begins being odd: “sit around the campfire and drink beer,” “get on with the important things, like drinking beer,” “I had a great time drinking beer,” “this is when I generally drink as much beer as I can,” “save the money for more beer”—all in the space of fifty pages or so. Kind of disconcerting but, as I said, this didn’t ruin the book for me. What ruined the book was Chapter 14.
Chapter 14 is titled “Let the Animals Work for You” and opens with a lovely quotation from 1823: “For a man to be trustworthy…the boy must have been in the habit of being kind and considerate toward animals.” And the chapter ends with the author’s assertion that “Animals bring joy and amusement into family life, they develop compassion in kids, and they connect us all with nature.” In between this opening and ending, you would logically expect that the chapter will talk about how teaching kids to respectfully care for animals produces responsible and empathic citizens. Nope. Actually, the author has no idea what it means to respect animals. I first noticed this fact in the early pages of the book, when he offers up this experiment to introduce youngsters to the bounty of insects in a city garden: “Get a plastic cup, half fill it with vodka, sink it in the flowerbed and look at your catch after a few days.” Children are to find wonder and beauty from the drowned carcasses whose deaths they are responsible for? I couldn’t make any sense of this but I let it go, as I was grateful for the book’s main point about freeing kids from highly structured and supervised activities.
But in the animal chapter Hodgkinson reveals himself to be as blind and cruel as any of the people whose parenting methods he derides. He finds humor in his kids’ torture of the cats Milly and Mandy; after all, kids will be kids—ha ha! “They have been hurled from a first-floor window. They have had their tails cruelly pulled. Milly on one occasion was suspended in midair by her tail. They have been squashed, sat on, chased. But what is wonderful is how little they have retaliated.” These kids also had some bunnies that they loved dearly, but one of them had to be put down and the author notes scornfully that it cost over $150 to do so. He goes on to point out that bunny meat is delicious and great source of cheap food, and the fur is nice enough to sew together and make a little coat for the kids. Is this appropriate for the same kids whose bunny (named Lizzie Molly Flower Fast Bunny) lived in the house with them?
I recommend the first four chapters because the root of the book’s premise really is worthwhile. Borrow this from a friend or the library and be prepared to stop about a third of the way in, before Hodgkinson becomes repetitive, off-topic, and even contradictory. An example of the latter: Although the premise of the book is that children should discover their own amusement—we should not consider ourselves their personal entertainment centers—the last third of the book gets into “fun” activities we should all engage in with our children. He proposes banging on saucepans with wooden spoons. While shouting. That is certainly one of the most undesirable things I would ever like to do with a child, and it really flies against the entire “idle parent” premise of the book.