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In Praise of Idleness?

We were quite lucky because by chance we were the first of all our various groups of friends of our generation - school, university, work -to become parents, and so we were going into it totally blind. The amount we knew about bringing up a baby could literally have been written on a postcard.

I read an interesting article by Tom Hodgkinson this morning, shared by a friend on Facebook. You can read it yourself, but the main gist is that modern parents over-stimulate their children with a constant stream of entertainment and electronic activities, and that in order to let kids really enjoy themselves we should just leave them alone. He calls this 'idle parenting', and argues that it is a win-win situation for everyone, giving parents that elusive 'time to themselves' and fostering independence, creativity and self-reliance in children.

In many ways it is an attractive proposition. I definitely think that many parents of my generation over-theorise parenting, rather than relying on gut instinct. It starts antenatally - to home birth or not? Are epidurals safe? Should you enrol in hypno-birthing classes, or NCT ones, or hire a doula? The early days with a newborn are even more fraught. To breast-feed or not to breast-feed? To co-sleep or not to co-sleep? Is attachment parenting the way to go, or is it Gina Ford all the way? There are a plethora of books, websites, magazines and television programmes bombarding parents with information and advice, much of it directly conflicting, all of it implying that your parenting is somehow inadequate if you're not following a carefully thought out plan.

We were quite lucky because by chance we were the first of all our various groups of friends of our generation - school, university, work -to become parents, and so we were going into it totally blind. The amount we knew about bringing up a baby could literally have been written on a postcard. No-one we spoke to before Anna was born had any fixed views on the rights and wrongs of different parenting styles, so we just hazily fudged something together between us. I'd picked up from somewhere that NCT classes were considered A Good Thing, so off we went to them. My birth plan indicated I'd like to consider a water-birth in the midwife led unit, but I had no immutable ideas, so when it became clear I needed an emergency c-section, my only concern was getting the baby out quickly and safely. Some months later at a mother and baby group someone asked me if I was disappointed not to have given birth 'properly'. I didn't know what to say, because it had never for a single second occurred to me that I hadn't done it 'properly' - I grew her in my body for nine months, and she came out safe and well, what's not proper about that? Having no expectations proved very liberating.

I'd worked in public health and so was well versed in the physiological benefits of breastfeeding, and was determined to give it a go, at least initially. Actually it turned out that I absolutely loved breastfeeding, and continued for 18 months - brilliant if you're lazy, as there's no faffing around with measuring formula or sterilising bottles, and you don't have to plan things in advance. Having said all that, if I'd found breastfeeding physically or emotionally difficult for more than the first few days then I would have stopped. I didn't have any sense that I would have failed if I didn't carry on, and I find it really upsetting when mums who are coping with all the hormones and sleep deprivation of early parenthood also end up beating themselves up about the way they feed their baby.

And before I start sounding too smug about instinctive parenting and not seeking external validation, I will say that there were many 'crises' in Anna's first few months (hiccups, wind, funny coloured nappies etc) which saw me barking instructions at my husband - "Right, you look it up in Miriam Stoppard, and I'll look on the NHS website" - as, frankly, our instincts at that point seemed woefully inadequate. The first time Anna got a cold, at about six months, I phoned my mum in abject panic. "What do I DO?". She was slightly bemused. "Well...nothing much. It's a cold. You could give her some Calpol if her temperature goes up."

However, it was only really as Anna got a bit older, and I started taking her to groups at the Children's Centre, or to the park, and got chatting to other parents that I realised how many 'oughts' and 'musts' and 'shoulds' seemed to surround parenting, and how inexorable people become on their own theories. Sleeping and sleep routines, food and feeding, television, sugar, extra-curricular activities, gender stereotyping and many more besides are all hotly contested parenting issues. Very recently I have come across a mother who will not allow her 3 year old daughter to wear or own anything pink whatsoever, because she is worried about re-enforcing gender stereotypes, and another woman who turned down the offer of a free baby bath for her newborn "because it's blue, and I've got a little girl, so it's not really suitable". I probably have more sympathy with the pink avoider than the pink enforcer, but both positions seem to be making life unnecessarily difficult, and being of dubious ultimate benefit to the child.

In some ways I fulfil the article's ideal of an idle parent. I'm not keen on bright plastic children themed soft play centres, and have always resisted spending vast amounts of money on extra-curricular activities which are meant to educate and stimulate. I like having a cuppa and a gossip with another mum while our children entertain each other on a play date, rather than laying on complicated activities. I get very irritated when Anna complains that she's bored, especially when it's less than two minutes after I finished reading her a story/playing a game with her. On the other hand, I absolutely hate and loathe so-called minimum intervention activities like 'making aeroplanes out of cereal packets' - just the thought brings me out in a cold sweat, and I'd far rather get on the bus and take Anna to one of London's many free, child-friendly and, yes, I admit it, educational museums if we have a free afternoon. I'm also, however much I might wish I was, far from being immune to sudden flashes of panic that my failure to enrol Anna in ballet school or music lessons or drama classes is going to blight her entire future. So far I've been able to talk myself down from them, but as she gets older I think it gets harder.

Tom Hodgkinson also has a fairly niche definition of idleness, which includes scorning the modern lifesaving miracle that is Cbeebies, in favour of reading poetry to your children. Now, I'm all for poetry, and Anna has had her fair share read to her, but at the end of a long hard day, it is far from being the idle option compared to a nice bit of Charlie and Lola.

I suppose, really, that's my main gripe with this article. Not that I broadly disagree with the principles discussed, I think children probably are over-stimulated and parents over-worried, and it would be easier if we could step back a little. But in creating a 'manifesto for idle parents', Tom Hodgkinson has, in reality, created another stick to beat the over-anxious parents he is discussing. I jokingly remarked on Facebook that the problem was I would feel the need to set 'idleness' targets, but actually it's not really a joke. As soon as you lay down a set of rules pertaining to a parenting theory you are instantly creating a right and wrong. Rather than condemning parents for 'wasting' money on days out, or implying criticism of parents who have no choice but to work fulltime with 'work as little as possible while your children are small', why not just stick with my manifesto of 'trust your instincts'. I always say to my friends who've had new babies and are worried about how to care for them, that all they need is love, cuddles and food. And actually, when I consider it, I think that 'rule' might actually apply to toddlers and much older children as well. Heap on the love and cuddles, feed them, and then whatever else you do or don't do might not matter so much after all.

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