Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: THE IDLE PARENT by Tom Hodgkinson [Vol. 3, #22]

“A Sabbath-infused Way of Life
for Families”

A Review of
The Idle Parent:
Why Laid-Back Parents Raise
Happier and Healthier Kids
By Tom Hodgkinson.

Reviewed by
Chris Smith.

The Idle Parent:
Why Laid-Back Parents Raise
Happier and Healthier Kids
Tom Hodgkinson.

Paperback: Tarcher, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

THE IDLE PARENT - Tom HodgkinsonI’ll admit that I was a little skeptical when I first heard about Tom Hodgkinson’s newest book, The Idle Parent.  I have appreciated Hodgkinson’s work in previous books (e.g., How to be Idle and The Freedom Manifesto) and will occasionally read The Idler, the magazine for which he is the editor, but the idea of idle parenting didn’t sit well with me at first, as I have seen far too many self-absorbed, idle parents here in this urban neighborhood who don’t care at all where their kids are or what they are doing.  However, by the time I had wandered leisurely through the pages of this new book Hodgkinson had won me over.

The roots of this philosophy of idle parenting lie not with any of the familiar parenting gurus of the hour, but with noted enlightenment philosophers Locke and Rousseau (though Hodgkinson is quick to note his points of disagreement).  Freedom lies at the heart of Hodgkinson’s approach – freedom from the oppressive forces of television, toys, school and other cultural expectations – and indeed one gets the sense, though Hodgkinson himself wouldn’t likely use this sort of language, of what a sabbath-infused way of life might look like for families.  In a world where the struggle against the oppressive powers of greed, isolation and consumption too often grinds us down, Hodgkinson suggests a life of joy that is marked by virtues that resonate with Christian tradition: simplicity, rest and community.  Many readers might prejudge this book, as I admittedly did, as driven more by the vice of sloth than by any virtue, but what Hodgkinson is advocating here is not complete apathy, but rather freedom from over-parenting.  Consider, for instance, his take on family routines:

[A] routine, applied with a light touch and flexibility, can be a friend to the Idler.  I’m not recommending a von Trapp-style military regime.  … [N]aughtiness is the child’s attempt to resist tyranny.  The more tyranny, the more naughtiness. The more rules, the more rules there are to be broken. … Children resist tyranny at every turn.  Do not become a Captain Bligh, ruling through fear, hunger and the lash until the men can see no other option but mutiny (30).

At the heart of Hodgkinson’s Idle Parenting approach is the perennial philosophical distinction – one cannot be too surprised here given his penchant for Locke and Rousseau – between being and doing.  The important aspect of parenting is not what we do (or don’t do) with our kids, but rather our relationship with them, and Hodgkinson is quick to point out that there is mutuality to this relationship.  There is much that we can learn from our kids, he says; for instance:

  • Living in the present
  • Being silly and laughing the face of disaster
  • Drawing and playing tricks and games
  • Discovering that work and play can be the same thing
  • Learning the pleasure of dens
  • The pleasure of making noise
  • Loving liberty

Hodgkinson’s approach is also centered on leaving much room for the sort of creativity and play that comes naturally to children.  He is particularly critical here of toys, and especially store-bought ones.  “Left alone, children will make their own toys,” he says, “and in the process will develop their creativity rather than relying on entertainment from costly gadgets made by greedy toy manufacturers.”  Engaging nature is particularly important as well.   Let the kids be outside, explore, make up games, grow things.  Reading with your children is also particularly important for Hodgkinson, and his chapter on “Good Books and Bad Books” – which thankfully is mostly about good books — will undoubtedly be of much interest to readers of The Englewood Review.  I won’t spoil this chapter for you, but I was pleased to find much of what I would call classic children’s literature here (C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll and more…) as well as his emphasis on poetry (“Reading good poetry to your kids,” he says, “is a way of reigniting your own pleasure in it.”)

The Idle Parent is a refreshing read, not only in the ideas that it offers us, but also in Hodgkinson’s laid-back, narrative writing style that is full of wit and wonder.  One wonders, however, how much the element of privilege plays into Hodgkinson’s approach to parenting.  I can appreciate the wisdom of not being obsessed with one’s career, but working “as little as possible” simply is not an option for most of the people that I know.  I fully agree with Hodgkinson that we need to think creatively about how we work and provide for ourselves, and to paraphrase Wendell Berry that we need to be more concerned with making a life than making a living.  However, it seems that the life of leisure that Hodgkinson imagines could easily be confused, whether he intends it or not, with the extension of Western privilege.  Furthermore, much of what he has to say about letting kids roam and explore outside is much easier to consider when one owns or has access a bit of land for them to be free to explore.   There are many factors in an urban setting like mine that would pose a significant challenge to some of the ideas that Hodgkinson poses.  These concerns notwithstanding, there is much in The Idle Parent for all parents to reflect upon and indeed, it seems to me that if we are attentive to Hogkinson’s message we will learn much about the sort of freedom and delight for which we were created!

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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