Thursday, 18 September 2014

Busy Doing Nothing

We're a couple of weeks into a new school term and the laisse-faire, unstructured days of summer seem a dim and distant memory. At the school gates there's an almost palpable frisson of anxiety hanging around parents who are remembering just how stressful it is juggling work with school pick up and the multitude of extra-curricular and social activities that somehow sneak their way into our already hectic schedules. As the new term rolls in, we always seem to have to 'be somewhere' at an given point in the day - there's rarely a moment when no demands are placed on us and we can just 'be' instead. How did we get to this point? Why do we feel the need to timetable every second of our children's lives? Who says we have to be quite so busy all the time?

Doing nothing is fun
I've long worried that the modern parenting style of packing our kids' days with extra-curricular activities has a detrimental effect, not least on the average household's finances. There are numerous articles on the web quoting eye-watering figures that parents are apparently willing to shell out to ensure their children have access to a range of hobbies and 'experiences'. I say 'willing' but there is of course a sense amongst many parents that you just to suck it up - everyone else is paying out so their child can play the harp/try street dance/enrol at circus skills, etc, etc - so your child simply won't have a chance of becoming a fully rounded, employable adult if you don't, too.

Somehow this myth has taken root, and of course there are plenty of companies out there happy to take advantage of our middle-class anxieties and push ever-more spurious pursuits in our direction - surely we can find the time to fit in that class on Mandarin for Preschoolers somehow? Our child will be destined for failure if we don't! It's amazing how many rational-thinking parents give into peer pressure when it comes to the perceived 'needs' of their children. But this modus-operandi seems to almost always result in highly stressed parents with rapidly dwindling bank accounts and exhausted children, who - with 6am starts for swimming club before school, followed by tennis class in the evening - are often gaining not much more than a yearning for a 'day off' and a pallid complexion. I nearly came to blows with a mother who was horrified by my opinion that many children just do too much these days. Her response implied that by not taking advantage of every opportunity out there I was doing my children a disservice, and that I was lazy for being reluctant to spend every evening and weekend ferrying my children from one activity to another.

Had said mother's philosophy been driven by a disadvantaged background and a desire to give her own children opportunities that she may not have had, I would have understood her position. But 'helicopter parenting' is a thoroughly middle class obsession, and one which has the unfortunate consequence of further widening the gap between the classes. As middle class parents coach their children to within an inch of their lives and fill their days with expensive educational experiences it becomes patently clear that these kids have got something of an unfair advantage over the child from the poorer background. 

Now, of course hobbies are a good thing. For a child to find an activity they truly love, which perhaps gives them something more than school can offer, and which nurtures their confidence and enjoyment of the wider world, is obviously something parents should encourage. But in between enjoying those hobbies ('enjoying' being the operative word, here) shouldn't we allow our children the time to do absolutely nothing? And is it really indulgent to expect a couple of hours to oneself at the weekend, to sit around drinking coffee and reading the Sunday papers? 

Sadly, as exhausted parents who seem to spend every waking hour dashing from one activity to another, it's all to easy to turn to electronic devices to entertain our children during the few hours that they are actually at home, so desperate are we for a bit of child-free time in between all this hectic activity. What this means, of course, is that our children are becoming increasingly incapable of managing their own free time. Without someone to 'direct' their down time they simply don't know what to do with themselves (unless they have an iPad or mobile to hand...) With school life becoming ever more rigid and restrictive, and the burden of academic expectation on even the youngest school-goers growing each year, it seems that children's concept of 'fun' is becoming muddled - it appears that they don't understand that they can actually make their OWN fun sometimes. 

It's my belief that we should be giving our kids opportunities to rediscover spontaneous, simple activities of their own devising. But to do this, we need to slow down, give them time to just 'be'. Instead of filling their time and supervising their every waking hour, we should step back a bit and give them space to enjoy simple, uncomplicated pleasures. Let them find the things that really, truly interest them rather than foisting activities upon them that we think they should be doing. Not only does this make for a calmer home life, but the health of your bank account will improve, too. 

Forget 'Tiger Parenting', but consider 'Idle Parenting' instead, a philosophy espoused by Tom Hodgkinson in his brilliant book 'The Idle Parent' which I would urge all parents to read. A truly alternative parenting guide, it suggests that a more hands-off style results in happy kids, happy parents, and says we should heed the words of writer DH Lawrence, who wrote in his essay 'Education of the People': 

"How to educate a child. First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone. That is the whole beginning."

You can read an interesting article by Tom Hodgkinson on Idle Parenting here. To buy his book, click here.



  1. Quite. My very favourite thing at the moment is just to sit with the kids whilst watching a bit of TV in the evening and seeing what happens. The times when this results in mutual helpless laughter with the teenage lad are the very best.

    1. And why not? Snuggling up on the sofa, while your youngest doubles up with laughter over You've Been Framed, is one of life's simple pleasures!

  2. I love this post! You have just written down all of the thoughts that are in my head. Thank you for sharing on #ThriftyThursday

  3. Oh yes - I wrote something along those lines a few years ago - and yet now I find myself running from pillar to post with 3 kids' activities going! Not sure what happened!


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