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How to Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson (HarperCollins, 2005)

The Idle Parent by Tom Hodgkinson (Penguin Books, 2009)

Porter recently earned his ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) certification.  Not to be outdone, I read these books to obtain my IDLE certification.  (A joke that only works if you read it out loud, I guess.)  Unlike Porter's efforts, mine required no exam, although How to Be Idle did at times test my patience.

I read the second book first, on Janet's recommendation, and I'm glad I did.  It is by far the better, as evidenced by having over 30 of my sticky notes whereas the other only has eight.  I suspect that parenthood gave Hodgkinson a little more maturity, as it does most of us.  Even though I know he's exaggerating to make a point, in How to Be Idle there's still 'way too much disdain for effort, responsibility, and moral standards, and much too much praise for smoking, excessive drinking, drug use, unlimited sex, and all-night partying.  On the plus side, he mentions Paul Verlaine twice, a poet I'd never heard of till Stephan introduced me to him.  I love to find connections like that.

From the chapter on meditation, a sentiment I can relate to:

It's hard to drift off into nowhereland when your arousal hormones are circulating wildly as a result of your rage at mobile phone users.  Fantasies of hurling their mobile phones from the train window tend to disturb the search for inner calm.

Much of what Hodgkinson praises I cannot relate to, even a "pleasure" as innocent as remaining in bed until noon.  He's not even talking about getting a good night's sleep—as one would need after another of his pleasures, staying awake till three or four in the morning—but of lolling around, simply being idle.  Even if I were a night person for whom a 4 a.m. to noon sleep felt normal, I'd be climbing the walls if I couldn't wake up, get up, and get to work!  I never did get how breakfast in bed was supposed to be a luxury.

On the other hand, this touches on one of the book's best points:  that we have—unnaturally and to our harm—separated work from life.   We focus our educational efforts too much on training our children to get a well-paying job working for someone else, when we should be teaching them how to discover what they love to do and leverage it into self-employment.  Although he quotes  G. K. Chesterton several times, Hodgkinson does not mention one of my favorite of Chesterton's ideas, though I'm sure he would agree with it:  the world does not really have too many capitalists (owners of the tools of production), but too few.

Another important point, hidden in his obsession with what I'd call slothful idleness, is how essential to the creative process are unscheduled time, daydreaming, staring into space, meandering walks to nowhere, and the like.  Yet we feel guilty for these idle times, and others feel free to interrupt them, because we're "not doing anything."

The Idle Parent retains a modicum of the prejudice against Christianity in general and Puritanism in particular (or rather, the author's misinterpretation of them), and a bit too much respect for Rousseau, Locke and others who seem to know more about theoretical children than real ones.  And he still exaggerates at times to make his point.  But there are some real gems here.

Here follows a ridiculously long list of quotations, and I won't blame you if you are put off by the quantity.  But at least half the reason for making the effort to post them here is so that I'll be able to find them again myself, so I don't apologize.  They're worth taking the time to read, really.

Paradoxically, the idle parent is a responsible parent because at the heart of idle parenting is respect for the child, trust in another human being. It is the irresponsible parent who hands the child over to various authorities for its education and care, whether these be childminders, schools, after-school clubs, sports teams, CBeebies, Habbo, Club Penguin or whatever.  [p. xxi; the last several must be something particular to the U.K.  Boy Scout-type organizations?  TV shows?]

Hodgkinson's kids do go to school, so you can see what I mean about his "exaggeration for a purpose."

Children who have too much done for them cannot do things for themselves.  Have you noticed how they expect their parents to know the precise location of all their belongings at any point?  "Where's my Tamagotchi?" the child whines.  "I can't find my socks."  Piano practice is only done if there is a parent guiding him through every step.  He needs his hand held, but we have only ourselves to blame.  [pp. 2-3]

[T]he mollycoddling and overprotection of children has created a nation of "big babies." If we are dependent and impractical ourselves, then what hope for our children?

Well there is hope, because we can learn together.  We can recapture the lost arts of domestic living.  Simple jobs like making bread, jam and preserves can be done with your kids.  Kids love kneading, stirring and licking the bowl.  Learn to look after yourself and you will teach your children to look after themselves, and before too long they will bake bread for you.  [p. 3]

Instead of using a dishwasher, the whole family should wash up after each meal.  One does the washing, one does the drying, one does the putting away.  It takes a mere fifteen minutes. ... [T]he children will learn to help and what's more, they really will make a genuine contribution.  They will be useful.  And it may help to prevent whining....  This is becaue whining in children results from their sense that they are seen as encumbrances and have nothing to offer.  Only the powerless whine.  So make them useful!  [pp. 4-3]

[I]t has become practically an instinct to spend money, rather in the same way that when in need today we find ourselves almost instinctively reaching for the mouse.  The computer, sold as a tool of emancipation, becomes difficult to live without.  There is a power cut at home, the broadband connection is lost and the result is a terrible feeling of helplessness.  We come to depend on the thing that was supposed to free us.  So with money.  [p. 5]

[Quoting Rousseau] "The mother may lavish excessive care on her child instead of neglecting him; she may make an idol of him; she may develop and increase his weakness to prevent him feeling it; she wards off every painful experience in the hope of withdrawing him from the power of nature, and fails to realize that for every trifling ill from which she preserves him the future holds in store many accidents and dangers, and that it is a cruel kindness to prolong the child's weakness when the grown man must bear fatigue.  [p. 7]

Don't hover around [your children] and ask what they want all the time.  I see mothers hovering over two-year-olds like a sycophantic French waiter, saying, "Well, maybe this flavour of juice would suit sir?  Would you like one of these?"  while the two-year-old shouts "No" and throws stuff across the room.  You are in charge, but you need to create a hierarchy without recourse to authority.  As in the old medieval city, the "common good" of the family is paramount.  Much of the strife of the modern household comes because we have a selfish Enlightenment view of individuality and freedom in our heads.  We see freedom as a matter of asserting our own selfish desire in competition with the selfish desires of others. ... But we are living together and pleasures should be shared and bread broken together. ... And we must learn to live in the world—by which I mean the world out there, the consumer society, the world of jobs and money and shopping—while remaining unvictimized by it.  [p. 9]

Hmm.  Eight quotations already and I'm still in single-digit page numbers.  This is going to take a while.

These days we create for ourselves an absurd panoply of "likes and dislikes" and call it freedom.  It's a commodification of the notion of free will. ... Children pick up on this.  They think that when they shout "I HATE pasta" they are asserting their individuality.  [p. 10]

The key is to make work into something enjoyable. ... And you have a responsibility to enjoy your work as well, or else your kids will grow up with the idea of work as simply a necessary burden.  Every moan you make will be listened to by those little ears.  "Daddy works in a job he hates in order to buy you rubbish to fill your time until the day comes when you will work in a job you hate to pay the bills and pay the mortgage." ... You must not give your child the idea that work is suffering.  That idea will only make it easier for the capitalists to exploit your offspring later.  If children are brought up with the idea that work is suffering, then they won't be surprised when they go to work one day and find the experience painful.  And that means that employers need to make little or no effort to make work joyful.  [pp. 10-11]

Another bit of mothering advice in Locke is to tell the kids off in private and praise them in public.  He notices that parents tell their kids off in public in order that they are seen by others to be firm and strict. ... [B]ut this humiliates the child.  Better to praise them in front of others.  [p. 35]

We should all stop beating ourselves up:  there is no ideal mother and the very idea of a perfect mother is a tyrannical concept used as a method of control by the people in power.  [p. 42]

Tether [children] no more, say Locke and Rousseau.  Let them run free.  Help:  I am trying to let them run free but they are self-tethered to the computer.  [p. 53]

One of the greatest nature philosophers of recent times is Masanoubu Fukuoka, author of The One-Straw Revolution, published in 1978.  This remarkable book was written after Fukuoka had spent twenty years on his small farm perfecting what he called "do-nothing farming." ... [He] does not mean that he sits around doing nothing while everything around him turns into a wilderness.  What he means is that he creates situations where nature will do the work with minimum interference from man.  Therefore he does not plough or add chemical fertilizers to the crops.  Instead he simply puts the rice straw back on the ground after harvesting and scatters chicken manure on it.  As other times he sows clover, which works as a green manure.  That's about it, but he says that with these techniques he can equal the yield of fields farmed with modern methods.  [p. 46]

I don't know if Joel Salatin has read Masanoubu Fukuoka or not, but they'd surely get along.

In a similar spirit we must stop interfering with the lives of our children.  This does not mean abandonment, any more than natural farming means that you let the brambles take over.  Neither does it mean that you don't think about what you are doing and take responsibility for it.  You also need to provide good soil for the kids to grow in, for your little seedlings.  The plethora of consumer objects and the non-stop advertising that pushes them on children is a commercial form of interfering.  Consumer objects are like chemical fertilizer:  they seem like a good idea at the time but as each year passes more and more are needed.  And children become reliant on them.   All are diversions from the natural life of the spirit, which can actually rediscover itself on the rocky shores, by the sea, on the moors, in the woodlands, in the wild places or even in the cracks between paving stones.  [p. 48]

The whole purpose of this book is to encourage you to resist the work-hard-in-isolation Puritan culture and its inventions, such as school and the full-time job, and bring back some good, old-fashioned conviviality and providential thinking, in childhood as well as adulthood. [p. 53]

The primary objection to home-schooling, always made by dullards who have not thought the matter through, is that "school provides social life."  The home educators fight back with the convincing argument that the social life they get at school is not necessarily a healthy one:  "The social life of most schools and classrooms is mean-spirited, status-oriented, competitive and snobbish."  They also point out that it's easy for parents to organize a social life for the kids:  friends come and play, learning groups are formed with other home educators in the area, and there are umpteen sport, outdoor and drama classes available.  They point out that these out-of-school relationships are based on mutual interest and emerge from choice rather than necessity.  [pp. 66-67]

Sadly, Hodgkinson here makes the same mistake I did.  While arguments such as these have silenced those who think that the purpose of socialization is to make friends and learn to get along with others, a new twist has arisen:  I first noticed it in Germany, but I've even heard it spoken here, from those who believe (often strongly) that school socialization is necessary in order that all children absorb the values of the prevailing society.  These people (and governments) are not impressed by personally-chosen relationships.

Another alternative is flexi-schooling—school is used as a resource rather than a center of confinement.  ... The most important factor in all this is probably parents' own mental attitude.  If you have respect for your child, if you are not trying to mould the child into some perfect ideal, then all options are valid.  We are not talking about a glib list of rules for you to apply in order to make your children happy.  In fact, we are not aiming for happiness; we are aiming for strength, freedom and joy in our children and in ourselves.  We're aiming for satisfaction.  [pp. 67-68]

People today spend money on cars, holidays, enormous televisions, usury charges and mobile phones but will not spend a single penny on their children's education.  Most families could save £10,000 a year at a stroke by cutting out all such luxuries.  Think about your priorities.  [pp. 72-73]

Only the hard-working and talented tend to continue with music beyond primary age.  And then unless they get really good, they might be put off for life.  Victoria [his daughter], for example, reached Grade 6 on the piano, but she never goes near one (even though we have a piano in the kitchen) because she still has no confidence.  Grade 6 seems not really very good to her (it seems like genius to me).  Schools tend to turn out adults with many skills and lots of fear.  There is a wrong-headed notion that something's not worth doing unless you're the very best at it, which leads to most of us doing nothing at all.  [pp. 107-108]

Wrestling Time:  This, though I say so myself, has been a great success.  We now do it every evening after tea.  My motivation was that the boys, in particular, seemed to have an abundance of pent-up energy, which was being expressed in unhelpful ways, such as screaming and tantrums and generally smashing things up.  But wrestling is also great fun, for kids and for Dad, and leaves Mum free to do some jobs without being hassled. lt's me against them.  The three children stand on one corner of the rug in the sitting room, with me at the other corner.  I say:  "Round One, three, two, one," and then Henry says, "Ding ding."  We then prowl around one another in the ring.  I lock arms with Arthur, making growling noises, and then hurl him into the air.  The other two jump on my back, like little monkeys trying to bring down a bear.  The game is either that I hold all three of them for ten seconds, in which case I have won that round, or they hold me down for ten seconds.  We absolutely love it.  Henry wants to do it all day:  "Daddy, can we do Wessling Time?" he asks me while I'm working.  It's just really good to holler and shout, and to watch their faces flush red with excitement.  It tires them out and I hope provides an outlet for the wild thing within.  [pp. 125-126]

[W]hen a child is in charge of some part of the household economy, such as the egg production, it means that they are actively and helpfully contributing to the household economy, which they love to do.  A burden and a hindrance no more.  They become a useful addition to the domestic labour force.  And, what is also important to the idle parent, they are learning that "getting a job" is not the only way to make money.  As I have said elsewhere in the book, I will consider my education of the children to have been a success if they end up being self-employed in some way or other.  [pp. 155-156]

If you don't want your children to spend all their time on the computer, then don't spend all your time at the computer.  Teach by example, not authority.  [p. 162]

Be careful, too, of excessive praise and blame.  Act like what they do is normal and expected when it's good.  Too often we eject a torrent of praise so hyperbolic it sounds like surprise. ... The idle parent, in contrast to the shrieking praising-and-blaming parent, should pay it cool and expect the child to be cool as well.  [p. 162]

[Jean Liedloff, author of The Continuum Concept] suggests that "children ought to be able to accompany adults wherever they go."  This, of course, is not easy with our modern working lives. So change the situation.  Are full-time jobs for both parents and high-cost nurseries the only way we can imagine to organize our lives?  It seems crazy to me.  [p. 163]

The dialectic of work=bad and life=good is one of Western society's most pernicious and controlling myths and must be smashed without delay.  Incorporate your children into your life.  Do what you want to do and let them follow. l I have never found for a moment that having children stopped me doing what I wanted to do—bar going out to the odd dinner party, and who cares about that? [p. 164]

Children are forgetting how to play.  Or they are never learning in the first place.  This is the great concern of those of us who worry about our screen-dominated age.  Over-stimulated almost from birth via the telly and the computer, children become accustomed to an intense blast of colour, sound, music and words—and to living life at one remove.  Frightened by neurotic parents who believe what they read in the papers and consider the real world to be fraught with danger, kids retreat into "safe" virtual worlds where there is no knee-grazing, no frozen water, no trees, no wood, no nails.  Just a screen and a mouse and splendid isolation.  Is this our vision of the future?

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, December 29, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Edit
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For more quotations, check out Janet's review.

Posted by SursumCorda on Sunday, December 29, 2013 at 10:46 pm

"Act like what they do is normal and expected when it's good."

Ah - this is the answer to something I've been wondering about recently. I remember reading not to praise your child when he does what you expect, and agreeing with the logic at the time. Then recently, thinking that just makes them the "unworthy servants" doing their duty, and that is not how I want to treat my children.

But acting like it's normal doesn't have to mean not thanking them! If I ask Jon to get me something from a high shelf, yes, it's normal, and yes, it's even expected, that he would do that for me. But it's also still normal for me to thank him for doing it.

So, from now on I will freely thank my children for doing what I ask and expect without some weird guilt feeling. Ha ha!

Posted by joyful on Thursday, January 02, 2014 at 9:04 am

Congratulations on a victory won! You make an excellent point, I think, in considering how you treat Jon. And how you would want to be treated, I would add -- didn't someone once say "Do unto others...." :)

You don't thank Jon by exclaiming, "What a great husband you are! You are so considerate! And how wonderful that you are tall enough to reach the shelf! I'm so PROUD of you!" Nor would you want to have someone say of the dinner you just cooked, "Oh, wow, this is fantastic! This is such a great meal! You're amazing!" Well, actually, we all want to know that others think we're amazing, a good cook, a considerate husband, etc., and that they are proud of us, but the trouble with excessive praise is that it feels false. Or worse, as if we've just done something that's good in contrast to our usual behavior. Over-praising one meal can lead the cook to infer that most of her meals are not much appreciated.

But a brief "thank you" and calm praise are important. No one wants to be taken for granted. As chief-cook-and-bottle-washer around here, I don't expect a thank-you for every meal and every load of laundry done, but positive reinforcement is what keeps the work from being mere drudgery. (On the other hand,I did hear of a household in which the children, on their own accord, started a ritual of publicly thanking the cook after every dinner. Not a bad tradition, I'd say!)

Excessive praise can be condescending and even manipulative. Nobody likes that. Genuine appreciation and gratitude, however, are meat and drink to the soul.

Posted by SursumCorda on Thursday, January 02, 2014 at 10:18 am