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!

47 comments:

  1. Superb! I quite agree with you!

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  2. Fantastic! Found you via that Sonya ^^ up there and v glad I did too. Love the post and going to blogpin it xx

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    1. Dunno what blogpin means, but thanks very much for it and I'm thrilled to be found by you!

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  3. *Big sigh of relief* I am just soooo pleased that someone else thinks like me! I am constantly driven by guilt and what I SHOULD be doing as a parent, that I don't get on and do what comes naturally - underparenting! I totally agree that society tells us that we can no longer do this, although that is exactly what our parents did and on the whole, we all turned out ok! Underparenting rules!

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    1. I guess it's a final balance: to Be There as a reassuring presence should they need you, but not to be continually organising and interfering.

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    1. Secretly I admire the overparent. They work so muchharder and more selflessly than I do!

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  5. Too true. I agree with you entirely, My children are brilliant at relaxing (when they're not trying to kill one another, but hey, isn't that two boys' nature?). I always feel guilty for not making many plans, but we're happy.

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    1. I'm sure Overparents feel even guiltier that they're still not doing enough. Or, worse, they feel smug that they're doing it so much better than we are.

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  6. Woop, we are definitely masters of the art of underparenting round here. Mind you it does bite you on the bottom occasionally. Like yesterday when I realised my youngest had a HEADFUL of lice, and I had to spend an hour crouched over the bath trying to get the nitty gritty comb through her appalling tangles. See...if I'd have JUST attended to her grooming needs a TAD sooner, I wouldn't have had either problem. Ah well....

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    1. My son frequently complains of an itchy head but I can never face the trauma of a comb out so I take the view that, like so many problems, if I ignore it it'll pass. And so it always has - so far>

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  7. "Constructive freeplay" .... love it! This is a fantastic post, I think one of my aging matron favourites. When Little A was a baby, I did alot of the attachment stuff, but now she is 2.5 years, I have really slacked off. You've made me breathe a sigh of guilt free relief - as I write this reply up in the kitchen (its in the roof) my daughter is downstairs happily playing with her dolls house - she is role playing and growing her imgaination and does not need my hoovering over her to do that! :o).

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    1. You're selflessly training her up for when she's 18 and needs to face wider horizons without Mummy always at her side!

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  8. This was my childhood and I loved it :) However as a result I barely remember my mother at all, which is not so good. I was able to practice a bit of this with number one daughter, but special needs meant that 2 and 3 have been helicopter parented. Oh well.

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    1. Goodness, how sad not to remember your mother. Underparenting is clearly a delicate balancing act and it sounds as though you know when to lay on and off very well.

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  9. Ah a woman after my own heart. I even wrote an article on this and outed myself as a lazy parent in the national press :0

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    1. I think I remember that. But you're not lazy- you cuddle yours to sleep every night as I remembered guiltily while bullying mine to bed from my laptop last night.

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  10. Thank you thank you thank you
    Sanity saved.
    See today's blog post for exactly this dilemma!

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  11. Yet again, I'm astounded by your wiseness. Is that even a word? My mother was too busy under parenting me to teach me basic vocab...

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    1. Wisdom, dear. A quality I've never possessed. The wisdom you're alluding to is entirely borrowed from other people. Natural idleness motivated me down this apparently valuable path!

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  12. Just super, all of what you have said is spot on :)

    I am trying to raise 'free range kids' for want of a better term.

    I occasionally get pangs of guilt when my daughter (3.5) compares notes with best friend next door (also 3.5) who goes to every class possible but then I think 'no' my Bella is having a whale of a time, even if that does involve smashing a dozen eggs round the garden which were pinched from the side in my kitchen when I was 'underparenting'! hahaha

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    1. Free range kids is a marvellous term. 3.5 year olds do not need a lot of classes!

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  13. This is the best way to go. This is the way I raised my two, and they are both independent and capable young men. One had a minor scrape with the law, however, he was old enough to know that what he was doing was wrong.
    I fully intend to help to raise any grandchildren I may be lucky enough to have in exactly the same way. Mud pies, walks in the forest, bike rides, and constructive free play in the garden. They will go to A&E, they will get hurt, BUT they will have fun!!

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    1. You sound as though you'll be the perfect grandmother! Wish you lived near me...

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  14. Is it possible to be an Overparent and an Underparent at the same time? For instance, I am definitely an Underparent between 7.30am and midday. I Overparent between about midday and 5.30pm to compensate. The picture is further complicated by hormonal swings. I Underparent during PMS and Overparent whilst ovulating. There are also seasonal permutations. I think I probably practice AllOverTheShop Parenting, x

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  15. Hmmm. I should imagine that it's quite usual for underparents to be propelled by a surge of guilt into sudden overparenting and then slide, through apathy back into underparenting again. Hopefully it all averages out and makes you a perfect mix.

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  16. Wonderful advice and something I have adhered to while not raising my children and they've turned out....well, relatively normal.

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    1. I'm amazed at how many closet underparents are lurking out there!

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  17. Dear Anna - This has cheered me up considerably as currently facing my Dad being so ill in hospital. I know it is nothing to do with that issue but I underparent and often want to blog about it but then think I will be adversely judged for it. So you are more courageous than I am and also this is more evidence that we need to meet in t'flesh!

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    1. I'm so sorry to hear about your father. Such a worry to confront ones parents' mortality. I'm sure your underparenting is like mine; you're there for your children when they need you and a good tranche of time interacting, but you're not afraid to back off and get on with your stuff while they get on with theirs.

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  18. I think I've been the over parent, under parent and now I'm wombling free.
    Brilliant. :-)

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    1. In your situation, anyone would overparent like mad to make the most of them. Your joy in your kids always makes me question my own short temper.

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  19. Brilliant post. I think I've found my new parenting mentor ;-)

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    1. Thank you. I think I've merely been brazen enough to articulate what everyone already secretly knows!

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  20. Thank FARK someone has acknowledged this underparenting stuff. When I worked in an infant school, I thought it was mental the amount of activities some of the children were engaged in after school and at the weekend. Stressed themselves out, the poor buggers. These are INFANT school children.

    There is no danger Moo will be overparented. None at all.

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    1. It stresses the parents out too - trying to keep up with the most dogged overparents. A couple of 6yos in my daughter's first school were subjected to French lessons and kumon maths after tennis and gym on Saturdays.

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  21. you're damned if you do....damned if you don't....but a happy mummy surely equals a happy family no??!!

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    1. Absolutely right. Some people's underparenting is other people's overparenting and I tend to feel guilty what ever I do - or don't do. The key, I guess, is to enjoy your kids as much as possible and not be a slave to prescriptive influences.

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  22. Love this post! I feel that our parenting styles are very similar and I too vacillate between feeling guilty and thinking 'sure, they're grand!'

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    1. Such a comfort, when other parents look so confident in public, to know that so many of us are the same!

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  23. Beautiful. And how true. No matter what you do, you will be blamed. Give them guidance, but allow them to grow into the people they will become. "Your parents, they give you your life, but then they try to give you their life." ~~ Chuck Palahniuk

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    1. Very wise. I so love to have my natural sloth vindicated!

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  24. By the time I finished my degree I was married with two children..1 October 2012 at 19:24

    Finally. Hear hear. I don't remember ever being 'parented' but had an idyllic childhood. The loveliest thing was being thrown bits of bread dough in the mornings when my mother made the bread and being allowed to make my own mini bread shapes - which went into the oven and emerged to provide elevenses...

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