Don't Retract Pack

Idle Parenting: Leaving Kids Alone

By Tom Hodgkinson
posted with permission

An unhealthy dose of the work ethic is threatening to wreck childhood. Under a tyrannical work-obsessed government, years that should be devoted to play and joyful learning are being stifled by targets and tests. Leisure time is being invaded by the commercial and escapist virtual worlds of the computer.

Pushy parents don't help by making childhood a stress-filled time of striving and competing.

Our children's days are crammed full with activities: ballet, judo, tennis, piano, sport, art projects. At home they are entertained by giant screens and computers. In between, they are strapped into cars and made to listen to educational tapes. Ambitious mothers force hours of homework on bewildered 10-year-olds, hanging the abstract fear of "future employers" over their heads.

Then they buy them a Nintendo Wii, the absurd, costly gadget that's supposed to bring some element of physicality to computer games. It's only a matter of time before children have their own BlackBerrys.

I think of the New Yorker cartoon of two kids in a playground, each staring at a personal organiser and one saying: "I can fit you in for unscheduled play next Thursday at four." All these activities impose a huge burden of cost and time on the already harried parent. They leave no room for simply mucking about. They have the other unwelcome side effect of making the children incapable of looking after themselves. When they are stimulated by outside agencies, whether that be course leader, computer or television, they lose the ability to create their own games. They forget how to play.

I recall when our eldest child, a victim of chronic over-stimulation by his anxious parents, screamed "I need some entertainment!" during a bored moment. A chilling comment, particularly from a five-year-old. What now? What next? These are the questions our hyper-stimulated kids will ask. What has happened to their own imagination?

There is a way out of this over-zealous parenting trap, a simple solution that will make your life easier and cheaper. It will make your kids' lives more enjoyable and also will help to produce happy, self-sufficient children, who can create their own lives without depending on a Mummy substitute. I call it idle parenting and our mantra is: "Leave them alone."

The welcome discovery that a lazy parent is a good parent took root when I read the following passage from a DH Lawrence essay, Education of the People, published in 1918: "How to begin to educate a child. First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone. That is the whole beginning."

To the busy modern parent, this idea seems counter-intuitive. Aren't we always told to do more, not less? All parents have a nagging sense that somehow we are doing it all wrong and that more work needs to be done. But the problem is that we put too much work into parenting, not too little. By interfering a lot, we are not letting children grow up and learn themselves. The child who has been overprotected will not know how to look after himself. We are too much in children's faces. We need to retreat. Let them live.

Welcome to the school of inactive parenting. It's a win-win situation: less work for you and better for the child, both in terms of enjoying everyday life and also for self-reliance and independence. I am not advocating slobbish neglect. (Maybe I went too far with my idle parenting when I dozed off on the sofa in front of the woodburning stove, while "doing the childcare", as the ugly modern phrase has it, to be woken by the screams of a toddler who had placed his hands squarely on the hot metal and burned his fingertips.) Clearly we don't let our children jump out of windows or go about with unchanged nappies. There is carefree and there is careless, and there is a difference.

But to create a household free of care would be a wonderful thing. It has become obvious to me, watching our three children grow up, that the more they have been ignored, the better. The eldest had a surfeit of anxious parental supervision and is still the trickiest and most needy (although we're working on it). The second had a little less attention and she is more self-sufficient. The third was born on the bathroom floor and has had to get on with his own life. And he is perhaps the best of all three at playing. Certainly he is the most comical.

The great thing about children is that they like being busy. Since parents like being lazy, it makes sense for the children to do the work. This idea was partly explored in the 19th century, when children as young as five were sent into the factories. The fact that meddlesome liberals have since introduced child labour laws does not need to prevent the idle parents exploiting their own offspring.

One morning, not so long ago, V and I refused to get up. I imagine we were hung over. At about nine o'clock, the bedroom door swung open and in walked Arthur, then six, with two cups of tea. A lot can be achieved by lying in bed. Simply by doing nothing, you can train children to do useful things. During the last holiday, we found we were lying in bed till 10 or 11. By abandoning our kids, they had taught themselves how to get up, make themselves breakfast and play.

Paradoxically, the idle parent is a responsible parent because at the heart of idle parenting is a respect for the child, a trust in another human being. It is the irresponsible parent who hands the child over to various authorities for its education and care, whether that is childminders, schools, CBeebies or the virtual world of Habbo Hotel. Or it is the parent who tries to impose his own vision on the children and does not simply let them be.

Another great advantage of being idle is that it avoids causing resentment in the parent. There is nothing so corrosive or pestilent as resentment stewing in the breast. Imagine making all those sacrifices, putting yourself out for your children, going without, and then they go junkie on you. No, there is no room for martyrs in the world of the idle 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.

The idle parent is a stay-at-home parent. Not for us costly leisure pursuits at the weekend. We reject the cheap thrills of expensive padded plastic fun palaces, zoos and days out in general. We find fun in our own backyards. We make aeroplanes out of cereal packets and it's amazing how many catching and tickling games you can play with your kids while sitting on the sofa.

The idle parent is a thrifty parent. We don't work too hard and therefore we can't expect to be rolling in cash. With thrift comes creativity. "Waste is unpoetic, thrift is creative," as GK Chesterton wrote. With no money, you start to discover your own inner resources. You make things and draw. Put a pile of A4 paper on the kitchen table, along with a stapler, scissors, crayons and glue, and you'll be amazed at what your children come up with. Forget digital gewgaws. Go analogue. It's more fun and a lot cheaper. Put a bird feeder outside the kitchen window. Fun does not need to be expensive.

We don't care about status and career advancement and how we are perceived by others. We are free of all of that rubbish. We simply want to enjoy our lives and to give our children a happy childhood. What greater gift could there be from a parent? If our children tell their friends in later life that they enjoyed their childhood, I would count that as a great achievement. Better to have a happy childhood than a high-achieving one that brings a big psychiatrist's bill in adult life.

Idle parents are sociable. We recognise the importance of friends. They lighten the burden. A myth of modern society is the idea that "you're on your own in this world". Instead of talking to friends and neighbours, anxious people seek advice in books, websites and internet forums. We resist asking for help or admitting weakness. Be weak! Give up! You can't do everything. Lower your standards. Get friends to help you. Organise little nurseries at your house where parents can chat and kids can play while you ignore them.

I love DH Lawrence's idea of childcare. He says babies should "be given to stupid fat old women who can't be bothered with them… leave the children alone. Pitch them out into the streets or the playgrounds, and take no notice of them." Do not view them as raw material to be moulded into an obedient slave for the workplace of the future. Let them play. And yes, get your friends around. Life is so much easier when the work is shared. Friends bring laughter and joy. There's no sadder sight than the lone parent, pushing her child around the gloomy municipal park, trying to tell herself that she is having a good time.

My idea of childcare is a large field. At one side is a marquee serving local ales. This is where the parents gather. On the other side, somewhere in the distance, the children play. I don't bother them and they don't bother me. I give them as much freedom as possible.

But the life of an idle parent is not so easy. Children do not always adapt to the anti-consumerist model that the natural parent promotes. They want stuff. Children get in your face. They make a terrible mess. They scream and whine. And the mother and father seem to disagree on pretty much everything, from paint colours to mealtime manners, as a matter of marital policy.

There are more worries. Is it mean to deny a child an iPod Nano for his birthday and instead give him a ball of string and The Dangerous Book for Boys? Should I really put a broadband connection in the tree house? Should I work even harder so that they can go skiing and wear expensive trainers? Would I be less grumpy if I drank less alcohol?

Sometimes we doubt our own gospel. So over the coming weeks, I hope to outline an enjoyable parenting philosophy in Weekend, while acknowledging that it isn't always easy.

I will confess my many parenting errors. I am a disaster-prone, chaotic layabout and so should warn you not to listen to my advice. Certainly my friends say the idea of me advising other parents on childcare is absurd.

With that caveat in mind, let us go forth, throw away the rule books, forget what other people think and enjoy family life and all its joys and woes.

Manifesto of the idle parent

We reject the idea that parenting requires hard work
We pledge to leave our children alone
That should mean that they leave us alone, too
We reject the rampant consumerism that invades children from the moment they are born
We read them poetry and fantastic stories without morals
We drink alcohol without guilt
We reject the inner Puritan
We fill the house with music and laughter
We don't waste money on family days out and holidays
We lie in bed for as long as possible
We try not to interfere
We push them into the garden and shut the door so that we can clean the house
We both work as little as possible, particularly when the kids are small
Time is more important than money
Happy mess is better than miserable tidiness
Down with school
We fill the house with music and merriment

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of The Idler magazine (U.K.) and author of the books, The Idle Parent, How to be Free and How to be Idle.


  1. wonderful! the ale-filled marquee in a field sounds like heaven.

  2. Here's what I said when a friend posted this on Facebook:

    Y'know, I like the manifesto, and I whole-heartedly embrace free-range/idle/continuum style parenting as a philosophy, and some parts of that essay amused me, but there was too much parent-blaming and not enough acknowledgment of the barriers to that kind of parenting for me to like the article as a whole. Especially the dig against the lonely mother in the park: not all of us have a readily-available tribe we can drop our kids into, and all too often if we want our kids to be able to play outside (good!), we only have a playground as an option (okay), and we may be the only ones there, or the only ones willing to be playmates for our child at all (bad).

    Also not fond of the dig against virtual community building. For some of us, that's the way we build our in-person community, and for some of us, that's the only community available to us, especially if we're looking for like-minded folk. No, it doesn't replace someone who can drop over for a cuppa or swap childcare, but that doesn't make those communities any less real or valuable for what they do provide for us.

  3. Hmmm, I have a mixed reaction to this one. I imagine it is a bit tongue in cheek but some of it I found mildly offensive.
    Yes, I think rejecting consumerism where possible is probably in a kids best interests. However, ignoring your children is not good. Parenting should be an active role in regards to stimulating your child and meeting their needs. There is no mention here as to nurturing.
    Leaving a child to thier own devices in a supported environment can stimulate creativity. In an unsupported environment where a parent is truly "ignoring" the child, it could engender feelings of neglect and abandonment. It takes a mature parent (and a sober one) to determine when your child will benefit from being left alone and when they need nurturing.
    To me some of these ideas go directly against an attachment approach and this is probably where I would disagree. Having said that I can see the benefit to parents to realize they don't have to overschedule activities when sometimes simple family time will meet their needs. But to me this means an attached family environment, it can be completely low tech, low budget but NOT low touch. To me "ignoring" your child and leaving them alone is bound to be low touch. Sure, this approach could work if you ensured you were available to them when they need you. However, I question whether it is possible to do this responsibly and mindfully while drunk!

  4. I Love this guys ideas. I just finished reading his book "The Freedom Manifesto" and LOVED it. Yes - he can be a bit "in your face" but sometimes that's what it takes to shake up people's thinking a bit about things that are so taken for granted in our culture. Our main goal as a family now if to find/create our tribe - I think it's one of the most important things we will do for our and our children's happiness and well being. GREAT great great ideas!! (and I am a totally attachment mama nursing both her kids!)

  5. This is hilarious and totally refreshing in times like these. I too believe children should be given freedom to imagine and to play without adult intervention.

    And so much of this is tongue and cheek, not meant to be taken so seriously, sorry if you are the lonely lady in the park pushing your kid around, find a play group!!! That is how you can use those online forums.

    BTW I am also an attachment parenter, I just try and have a sense of humor about it and often have wine playdates with my girlfriends.

  6. I love Tom Hodgkinson. This is the best parenting advice available.

  7. Hmm. Does this make anyone else uneasy? As an unschooler, I am all about trusting my kids and honoring and encouraging their independence. But the tone of this disturbs me--such as his imaginary field where the parents and kids are separated. I'd rather be playing *with* the kids than drinking ale in isolation from them.

  8. Ronnie, I'm with you. I do believe children should be left to their own devices more than they are but I don't think that also means that children should leave their parents alone. I would much prefer to play with them and participate in their lives, to KNOW them.

  9. LOVE LOVE LOVE this article

  10. I think, having read the whole book, that he is merely trying to encourage people to step back from crowding their children and allow them to have unsupervised play. Even at 2.5 and 3.5 I ask my children if they want some alone time or some mummy time after a busy time out of doors taking the dog for a walk or some such activity and quite often, they need to have some down time to themselves even at that age. His analogy isn't necessarily the best but I think you need to take it a bit tongue in cheek.

    Obviously not realistic for younger children but I remember days of my childhood where all the kids in the street got together, made dens, went blackberry picking etc etc - left alone unsupervised and trusted to do so.

  11. Hahahaha! This had me in stitches. :) Love it. Sounds like my house some days... and here I thought I was just lazy!

  12. I think he is saying that a parent must quit being the director of all play time. I see parents who 'play' with their kids, but it is always the parent deciding what is 'play'. I prefer that my children play with other children.

  13. I wonder if Hodgkinson and Neufeld & Mate (authors of "Hold Onto Your Kids" would agree with each other in general... or if they would have opposing parenting philosophies overall.

  14. I often wish that my kids could have my childhood.... we were always outside unsupervised, playing in the dirt, riding bikes, building forts, exploring and imagining.
    There's just no safe place for my kids to do that presently. It makes me sad.

  15. Sharon- I so feel the same way. It is nice to see an 'idle parenting manifesto' cuz I too thought I was just a lazy drunk at times, lol!!

  16. LOL me too... minus the drunk, but same idea. I have my coffee. hahaha

  17. To be present for one's children is what matters... guiding them through life without burdening them with our own fears and limitations...allowing and, in fact, encouraging their imaginations. Wonderful post...

  18. I have never read anything like this before. I feel like I do sometimes get resentful...and I often notice that T* will sit in front of the t.v. rather than create a game. Can I undo what I have already done without confusing/upsetting her? I had already decided I wanted to throw out the t.v...this is just what I needed to make the decision concrete!

  19. I understand the concept, but the way its written. It just seems like he's saying ''sit back and ignore your children.'' I generally let my children lead with what they would like to do, but oftentimes I am playing along with them.

  20. I do get weary of one set of children my kids play with, whose parents are constantly nattering, the kids are constantly telling tales and someone being "disciplined".

    I've yet to see these kids develop relationship skills whereby they're able to sort minor tiffs themselves !

  21. And here I thought I was doing something wrong by simply letting herself play without TV, music, or me as a distraction. Obv I don't let her run into walls, but she has learned that she is more then capable in herself. While I am always in the same room and watching, my husband has long been hounding me to just 'PUT HER DOWN AND LET HER PLAY'.

  22. Play is the means by which children's brains wire and develop, and yet everything about our society, especially school, runs contrary to this natural process, pushing children younger and younger to be cogs in our consumeristic, money-obsessed society!

  23. @Laurie - have a look at Steiner Waldorf and get yourself a copy of Dot Males The Parent and Child Group Handbook. Sx

  24. I agree with this to an extent but I think the author might be going a bit overboard and bordering on neglect. Which is not good parenting no matter how you rationalize it.

    The story about being hung over was neither cute or good parenting. I'm sure being occasionally hung over and parenting isn't going to ruin your kids but again it's not the best parenting move.

    My kids do what they want to do most of the day. They don't take any classes, I do not nor have I ever structured their play, I rarely play with them but I do not and will not ignore them that's absurd to me (and it's not clever either).

  25. I agree with most of the sentiment in here, though there is much that troubles me. I agree that we should not structure our child's playtime because it can limit creativity, and I agree that consumerism is an empty pursuit. Though, I agree with Heather, Ronnie & Tara that there are some troubling things in here. A parent taking a nap while their child burns their hand is not a good example of healthy parenting, nor is sleeping in because you have a hang-over.

    Also, this bothers me: 'I love DH Lawrence's idea of childcare. He says babies should "be given to stupid fat old women who can't be bothered with them… leave the children alone. Pitch them out into the streets or the playgrounds, and take no notice of them."' Take no notice of them is not the same as allowing a child to be a creative free spirit. We choose to bring children into this world, and they are NOT a bother. That makes me want to throw up.

    I don't think parenting styles need to be in competition with one another & there is room for us to disagree and parent the way we believe works best for our own families. I am not judging, it is just that this parenting style would not work for me.

  26. I can't see anywhere where it advocates neglect.

    I can see where it says that as parents sometimes we can be guilty of thinking we are helping by bombarding our children.

    I imagine most of us are old enough that we were in the era where no one freaked out about pedophiles,where germs were picky and where the long hot summers were spent ice lolly in hand riding a bike with dodgy brakes screaming here I coooooooooooooooome! :D

    sadly we've given in to the rather bizarre thoughts there's someone in every corner lusting after our children and that by not going to extra this or that we'll raise failed children.

    By them having every new thing available they will love us forever more and never feel they deserved more.

    by only eating packeted foods they will consume no germs,and we then have FULL control of what they consume.

    if we start to realize the best bits of our childhoods was the carefree running about the games we made up.

    the luscious fruit we picked the dirty hands we wiped on our t shirt as we wrecked shoes to get up "that" tree.

    the hard bit of learning to ride on two wheels - the moment when you were actually balanced and the knee scabs had healed!

    the shrugging at dusk and everyone going home because we all had to be back at dark.

    parenting doesn't have to be this hideous serious thing full of frets and regrets.

    we all learned by trial and error we did something it either hurt,broke or didn't work - so we found out how to avoid that maybe once maybe 100 times but we then knew how to!

  27. The sentiment reminded me of the Free Range Kids blog, which I really like. I am somewhere in the middle on both but while I do play with my children, I also let them/encourage them/sometimes flat out tell them to come up with their own play too. I think it's too easy for parents (especially well meaning AP types -- including myself!) to get too involved and wind up directing where a child plays. I want to nurture my kids kids' imaginations too and frequently the best way to do that is to leave them alone.

  28. @sarah - totally agree! :0)

  29. I got frustrated with the computer and gaming hate and didn't finish it. :/

  30. @Sarah - thank you, I agree as well. I think it's taking the writing a bit too literally to say he is advocating neglect. I think parents as a whole need to stand back, take a deep breath and relax.

    Interestingly, we continually hear how horrible our world is now, stranger danger, paedophiles on every corner...yet the town I grew up in has the same crime rate per capita. In fact according to the US census bureau (1st link) Violent crime was significantly less in 2005 than it was in 1980. How is it then, that it is 'more' dangerous than when I was running around with my friends, walking to school by myself at the age of 7yo, , checking in only at lunch and dinner time? What has changed is media. Today's media is far reaching through radio, cable/satellite, internet, blackberries. It's bold flashing headlines are hard to miss, but sure to frighten the most secure level headed folk.

    I think the author's point is surely not to neglect out children, but to take a step back from them. Dump the schedules. Drop some planned activities. Take some time for yourself. Let them play. They will be okay:)

  31. I don't think he is saying ignore them. for me I am a work at home mum - my eldest is nearly 8, for years I was single.

    so for a lot of the time she'd occupy herself while I tried to crack on a bit.

    I worried and fretted a bit, but I was the one who had a child that I could say ok sweetie just hang on a sec please and she'd understand and follow. then when I was finished I'd get what she needed.

    These days she has respect for my time our time and her time.
    no one is saying ignore them no one is saying neglect them, they are saying letting the find their own boundaries use their own mind does all the things we pay toy companies to "do" for us!

    my son today at 20 months has worked out he is NOT a cat, he can't just climb along the sofa top,he fell off lay on the floor laughed got picked up and promptly ran after the cat using the floor this time. maybe,next time he'll recall what happened.

    exactly right Mindy - I'm in the UK
    at 6,7,8 I was "out the front all through the school holidays and every afterschool time the only time we stopped in was if it was POURING!

    I quite often get up a bit later at the weekend more often than not my daughter is awake before us she makes her breakfast and she'll watch a bit of TV.

    as a rule it's rarely on,but it's her time if anything is wrong we're just there.

    we come down have coffee & breakfast the TV goes off and saturday is our "nothing" day she'll play in the garden go to a friend's house or have a friend over easy lunch easy tea.

  32. I completely agree with most of the article. Parents involve their kids in too much. They start preschool too young, sports too young, everything. They push and try and make them the best, when all they should really be is kids.

  33. I agree with some stuff but overall a very disturbing article. I actually scrolled down to see if it was a joke.

  34. This was very, "out there." I actually love and enjoy playing with my kids. I kept thinking to myself, "was this written to see how many sheep will follow and then exclaim it was a joke?"

  35. I agree with most of this article, except the statement "It is the irresponsible parent who hands the child over to various authorities for its education and care..." I would not consider myself or my husband irresponsible parents because we choose to send our kids to school outside our home at this point in time.

  36. That's scary... still my daughter has her own DS and prefers it to any other activity and outside play :(

  37. Dont agree with some of it, we all parent differently but there is a lot to be said of leaving kids to play, learn, and work things out on their own as long as they are willing and able.

  38. I was personally a highly neglected child to an alcoholic mother... so some of this article was a bit disturbing to me. Im now a mother of 4. And if I dont find things to keep my ADD son busy he harasses me, LITERALLY like a monkey on my back which causes resentment. Lesson, This article MAY work for a (healthy, nurturing parent &) child who is genetically wired to take what they need from the world for proper development. For my other 3 kids, my motto is play and walk away. You MUST engage your children, and sure, give them room for SOME independence. Children need structure, guidance, and love. Nothing else should matter much.

    Balance is key

  39. Some of the comments here serve to remind me of the sheer gulf that exists between American sense of humour and British: Please remember this guy is British, therefore his sense of humour is British. You are taking him too literally, and too seriously. Get the book, it's a laugh.

  40. I don't understand how ignoring your kids so you can get drunk is Attachment Parenting. I find this quite frightening, in fact.

  41. I am american but have lived in the UK for over 5 years and I think that argument is pure rubbush! There is a very strong drink culture here and that might explain the comments around drinking but it certainly doesn't make them any more acceptable.It may be tongue in cheek but if so it's still in poor taste in my opinion!

  42. I find some good points in this article and some bad points. I don't think that parents should get wasted while their children play far away and unsupervised. However it is true that our kids are often over booked and not enough attention is given to simple play time.

    I totally agree with the thriftiness aspect. There is nothing better than making pudding and smearing it all over the table, finger painting, and licking said fingers! Much better than going to the movies (consumerism!!!). And kids do not spend enough time outside! Its ridiculous. I give my daughter a little spade and she is content wandering around the yard while I get my weeding done!

  43. I don't think that I've seen anyone mention that this was written by a man. Just sayin'.

  44. Great British humour that has a serious point in it's message.....perhaps folk should just see this for what it is. Modern day parents do need to back off in more ways than one.

  45. when my son was 5 yrs he was allowed to take his brother down the forest road to the swing set... at 6 yrs old I let him out of the car to pick wild raspberries with his friends(ages 5 to 9)and did not see him for at least 1 hr that 7 he was allowed to take his brother(4.5) down the forest path, across the field, around the corner to the parkette... Now he is 8 yrs and all his teachers have said he is the only child in his class that can carry on a conversation with an adult(without mentioning Pokemon or bey blades)... of course I will only do that at my cottage that has a large community where all parents watch out for all the kids... was he being neglected at the time? NO! he was learning so many lessons that most children will never learn anymore due to the Loss of Play that has plagued North America for generations... let the children play, and in doing so they will learn...

  46. funny. except the part about the park...I LOVE the park! I AM having a good time! But yes, kids do need time to play by themselves! But heck, playing WITH your kids is A LOT of fun too!

  47. My husband is British and when we go to England, going to the pub..where children are not only allowed, but there are actual fenced playgrounds there..was the greatest thing I've ever seen. I wish Canada would do that! And yes, some of you are definitely taking this too seriously.

  48. love this, says to me "relax and enjoy life, enjoy your children"