'The Idle Parent' Is the Most Unconventional Parenting Book I've Ever Read

Screen capture. Amazon

In an odd marriage of attachment and free-range parenting philosophies, the book advocates for responsible laziness on the part of adults.

There is something delightful about the term 'idle parenting.' For someone caught up in the chaos of raising little children, it sounds like an oxymoron. Parenting is, for most, exhausting and full steam ahead, all day long. ‘Idle’ is not a word that usually comes to mind when describing life as a mother. That is why I was curious when I first encountered the term in a 2008 article for The Telegraph written by British author and professional ‘idler’ Tom Hodgkinson. The article contained his captivating “Manifesto for the Idle Parent,” which pleased me so much I immediately shared on TreeHugger.

While reading, I felt as though I’d found a kindred spirit – someone whose views on raising kids align with my own. I’m anti-helicopter, pro-freedom, not yet ready for free range (based on my kids’ ages), so idle parenting is a near-perfect fit.

I’ve since discovered that Hodgkinson wrote an entire book on parenting in 2009. I found a copy of The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids at my local library and have spent the past several days nodding vehemently in agreement and occasionally laughing out loud while reading.

Hodgkinson, father to three school-aged kids at the time of writing (they must be teenagers now, which makes me crave a sequel), brushes off contemporary parenting advice because it advocates for over-interference in children’s lives and prioritizes ‘molding’ kids to a predetermined adult view of what they should be; this is unfair to kids, exhausting for parents, and leaves no one truly happy. Instead, he is inspired by the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose 1762 book, Emile, was a hugely popular “guide to natural education,” and John Locke, who wrote Some Thoughts Concerning Education in 1693.

He has sensible ideas, such as “bringing back child labor,” in the form of getting kids to help out around the house. After all, “the more folding and mending the child can do for itself, the less the adult will have to do for it.” This is perfectly logical, and something I have to remind myself about when responding to kids’ endless requests. All too often, we parents forget that, the older a child gets, the easier housework should become. One must train kids to do it from a young age.

I loved Hodgkinson’s emphasis on finding the fun in raising kids. So often we parents complain about the endless amount of work, the noise, the demands for attention, and so on; but as Hodgkinson points out, we chose this life. We can change aspects of it if we wish, but ultimately it’s a short-lived period of time, and a glorious one to be embraced in all its messiness. We should sing and dance and welcome animals into the home. (He recommends rabbits, cats, and chickens.) We should toss the TV out the window and prioritize outdoor play.

A common theme throughout the idle parenting philosophy is the prioritization of parental pleasure, be it sleeping, drinking, or simply lazing about the house. Hodgkinson’s ideal arrangement for childcare is a beer tent for adults, situated next to a field or woods, where kids can roam. While this may not fit everyone’s ideal, the message is important – that parents must enjoy themselves during these challenging years of raising little people, and that anything that inhibits their enjoyment of life should be done away with. For example, family days out, which H. calls an “absurd invention of modern industrial society”:

“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, 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.”

I wanted to jump up and down for joy when I read that chapter. At last, someone else who is willing to admit that they hated family days out because it inhibits one’s ability to nap!

The book has the tone of a historic political treatise, which is amusing, but I cannot say I agree with the author’s staunchly anti-capitalist views. He advocates for quitting one’s job if it means spending too much time away from one’s child. Nor did I like the outdated views of maternal vs. paternal roles in parenting; occasionally, it sounded like H.’s wife was doing the majority of the work, while he sat around and philosophized.

Still, this was a glorious read, a breath of fresh air in a world where hyper-parenting is the norm. It does a fascinating job of blending free-range parenting with elements of attachment parenting, which sounds impossible, but makes sense when you read it.

Order the book here.