Thursday, 16 August 2012

Lazy Parenting

I'm a mother who does things by the book. If I can't find a book that says what I want it to, I search out another one. When Penelope Leach told me to keep nightly vigil by my crying infants and to permit ice cream when their spinach had been flung at the ceiling, I switched to Gina Ford who allowed me to pour a beer in front of Poirot, while they cried themselves to sleep, and to scoff their Maltesers when they spurned my liver and cabbage stew.

When Tiger Mother advised us to drill three-year-olds in arpeggios, I embraced The Idle Parent which reckons that after-school activities stifle infant creativity. Appalled by the new philosophy of Attachment Parenting, which required me to devote both waking and sleeping hours to anticipating my kids' unmet needs, I signed up to Slow Parenting which recommended herding offspring into the garden and shutting the door on them

The notion that parents have to devote their attentions to their progeny, and the guilt we all feel when we fail to, is pretty new. In past centuries, poor parents were too busy keeping their families alive to worry about quality time and rich ones were too grand to linger in the nursery. Until the technological liberations of the 1960s, youngsters were stowed in play pens or packed off with sandwiches while mothers got on with the interminable business of of housework.

In the vicarage we embrace neglect. At nine months my daughter would sift for an hour through her basket of treasures while I read Harry Potter on the sofa. At nine she is self-reliant. Naturally, I feel guilty. Every hour that I dawdle over my blog or my herb garden I fear I should spend playing Junior Cranium. Every year that I fail to take my pair to Legoland I fear that they'll grow up stunted.

But now research confirms that my indolence has, all along, been an altruistic service to my children. Teach Your Children Well argues that children should be out from under our feet as much as possible in order to achieve the resilience, courage, flexibility and creativity that top employers require. Over-vigilant parents have bred of generation of neurotics, it reckons, and the cure is 'underparenting'. Or, as a teacher friend once reassuringly termed my neglect: constructive freeplay.

I am inspired by a well-remembered passage from a forgotten someone's autobiography. In it the author remembered the idyll of childhood summers spent playing in woods. His mother, he recalled, was key to their glee, for she would perch on a log reading a novel - a reliable background presence who never  interfered in their games. Underparenting in action.

I've researched the subject thoroughly and here's my brief DIY guide to this newly rediscovered art.

Calamity Jane coincides with an episode of Tracy Beaker. What do you do?
The Overparent forsakes Doris Day's finest hour, settles her offspring before the care-home heroine and brings a plate of home-baked biscuits for them to munch while they watch.

The Underparent turfs the kids out of the sitting room with an assortment of loo roll tubes and double-sided sticky tape and leaves them to construct a NASA space station while she drink Peroni before the plasma screen.

Your child comes home with a school project to research on African wildlife.
The Overparent lays out £60 on a family trip to Whipsnade Zoo, spends an hour downloading the life cycles of sub-Saharan predators and takes the child to sketch mandibles at the Natural History Museum.

The Underparent rips out a photograph of a baboon from a Daily Mirror abandoned on a bus seat and goes off to write a blog post while their child gets on with it.

You run out of the chocolate with which you bribe your under tens to eat their greens.
The Overparent sacrifices the last of her Bendicks Bittermints and lets them off the broccoli because there's a worrying yellow bit on one of the florets.

The Underparent gives the kids a quid and tells them to hoof the half mile to the newsagent by the tattoo parlour once they've digested the broccoli stalk that the cat licked.

See? Nothing to it. Admittedly I've already had ten years of experience of underparenting. Novices might need gradual breaking in. Start by ditching half your children's after-school clubs, leave off hovering over their homework, get them to swab the downstairs loo and catch up on Twitter whilst they delve their inner resources in the garden. And the magic of it is that while you're lying with your feet up, you know it's with your children's very best interests at heart!

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Worst Journey in the World

Legacy is the prompt for this week's 100-word Challenge. The centenary of Captain Scott's fatal expedition to the South Pole is commemorated in an exhibition at London's Natural History Museum. The optimism that drove them onwards, the despair of defeat, the deadly return are as stirring as you'd expect. But the story that struck me most concerned three of his companions who left base, some months before the main expedition started, to seek out the eggs of Emperor penguins. Scientists believed that the study of these embryos could reveal an evolutionary link between birds and reptiles. As the penguins lay their eggs in winter, the men had to haul their sledges over ravines and ice cliffs in perpetual darkness. Two of the five eggs they managed to grab smashed and it's thought that, for five weeks, they endured conditions more extreme than any human had survived before. It was science, not personal glory, that drove them. They called it 'the worst journey in the world'.

It's the colours of the Antarctic snowscapes that energise explorers. Jade cliffs, crimson sunsets and the hypnotic blue of icebergs. But this killing beauty was extinguished when the trio set out. In the frigid darkness of winter, teeth splintered and sleeping bags were propped open before they solidified. Crevasses swallowed them, blizzards claimed their tent, but they fought on, broken bodies shielding their fragile cargo. Before the research on the eggs was published, their evolutionary significance had been discredited. The sacrifice failed to further science, but it left a nobler legacy: the selfless endurance man will undergo to aid human understanding.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Saturday is Caption Day...

over at Mammasaurus. This is a very unusual sight - my daughter studiously doing her homework, that is.

Your captions could inspire her to continue in the same scholarly vein, so please give it your all...

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

High Street Espionage

'Postcode!' drawls the woman behind the counter.
I recite it.
'Road name?'
I recite it.
'What's the house number there, please?'
I hesitate.

I would be happy to provide my address if I were renewing my car tax disc. I would be happy to provide it if I were drawing up a will, buying a mortgage or stocking the larder online. I do not, however, expect to provide it when I am buying a top from White Stuff. I have to, explains the woman, so that she can check I'm on their database. And I need to be on the database to ensure that I receive regular postcards of new catalogues and special offers so that my single guilty indulgence can be multiplied into a dangerous weekly shopping habit.

Next I visit my bank to pay in a cheque. 'Postcode?' says the woman behind the counter. I recite it. I assume it's a security safeguard. As I turn to go, her face irradiates. 'The screen is telling me that you live in an area that qualifies for a low insurance premium.'

This surprises me since two neighbours' cars have just their windows smashed in. I decline to be excited and her face falls. Then it ignites again. 'The screen is telling me that you qualify for a loan at reduced rates,' she says.

This surprises me too. Banks clearly have learned nothing from the credit crunch. At the next counter a customer's postcode has prompted the same happy tidings and she tells the cashier that a loan might realise her dream of a new kitchen.

I step into Body Shop to buy the glutinous unguents that shore up my face. I am told that if I provide my address and an extra fistful of cash I can acquire a membership card and that, with the stroke of a biro, I can help end child sex trafficking.

Finally I reach Greggs and buy a loaf. I hand over my loose change and the assistant hands over the bread. She has not the slightest interest in my postcode or my commitment to global injustice.

Man, the good Book tells you, cannot exist on bread alone, but after this shopping experience I shall jolly well give it a try.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Secret to Happiness

Would seven prove to be too much? is the prompt for the latest 100 Word Challenge. It's a question that's been bugging me this summer as I toil to thrill the nation's frogs:

Men derive happiness from washing dishes, reveals one report. 
Women, says another, achieve it through being women. They are healthier, better educated and less often murdered. And, naturally, they enjoy a blissful routine of dirty dishes. 
Different research claims rose-tinted spectacles are an essential ingredient of bliss. 

These studies omit one crucial truth. The secret to happiness is digging. Whenever I need a boost, I hack out a pond. The vicarage lawn is vanishing beneath my pickaxe. 
During the relentless school holidays I feel my serenity teetering. I know, before August is out, I'll be assaulting the London clay. But would seven prove to be too much?

The first of many...

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Church is Pants

I am sitting on a pew composing myself for the Sunday service when the church sideswoman darts across the nave. She holds out a brown envelope with my name on. It's a note, she explains, from the elderly lay-reader.

I assume that it's an acknowledgment sent to everyone who filled out an attendance card at her husband's funeral last week. Or a request for an additional supply of grapefruit segments.

At least, I hope it is. The lay reader is a retired deputy head teacher and has a reputation for severity. I'm worried that it may be a reprimand for fidgeting during a sermon, or a summons to bible class.

The service begins and I open the envelope behind my hymn book. There's no note inside, just a newspaper clipping. It shows a picture of a ragged bra and a pair of frayed lace knickers. The story explains that these saucy scanties date from the 15th-century and suggest to historians that Ann Summers had medieval predecessors.

I'm uncertain whether this is a discreet reminder that the smalls on the vicarage washing line need renewing; an assumption that I'm the sort of woman whose mind is on knickers during the Vicar's sermons, or a hint that the lay reader would prefer lingerie to grapefruit segments when next I pay a call.

When Mass is over I consult the churchwarden. She peers at the pictures through her bi-focals and looks up radiant. 'Tell you what,' she says. 'I wouldn't mind buying a set like those!'

That seems to settle it. My puritan thermals are obviously the wrong kind of underwear for Anglican worship. I'm off to Ann Summers before next week's family service.

Saturday, 4 August 2012


Here, for me, is the essence of childhood. It's encapsulated in:

The sheltering, matching, multi-hued brollies. The childish world is a Technicolored one in which things are more vivid, more vital, more entrancing than in the monochrome landscapes of midlife. Within this rainbow world they are shielded from the colder blasts of reality. And fortunate children in fortunate families are sheltered by the strong ties of belonging; the certainty that they are interconnected and indispensable.

The motionless wonderment. A doorbell button, an excavated worm, a snowy walk to school are marvels to minds unsullied by experience.

The freedom. It's my problem, not theirs, if they get cold and wet.

The trust. In that pause before following the footsteps into wider horizons, they rely on my judgement that they are equal to the adventure and my intervention if it menaces them.

This is part of a blog-hop organised by Patch of Puddles to highlight the plight of West African children who have been deprived by drought and poverty of such a childhood. The charity Worldvision has until 30th August to raise funds that will be matched £1 for £1 by the British government. Donations will provide food, sanitation, health services and long-term development programmes for destitute families. I tag Midlifesinglemum and Older Mum to choose a photo that they think sums up childhood to help spread the word.

Saturday is Caption Day...

over at Mammasaurus. Anyone who knows me twigs that I do not have a sound relationship with telephones. I don't even know my own mobile number. I find the pressure of modern communications oppressive. So, as you can see, do my children:

Blog comments are my chief source of gratification, so don't wait for wit; I'll rejoice in any caption here!