Book of the Week: Why Ignoring Your Children…

10 Jun

This photograph shows the wrong approach to parenting

Tom Hodgkinson introduces his new audiobook, a parenting guide for the lazy and imperfect

MANY YEARS ago, when my children were small, I sat on a sunny bank on the wilds of Exmoor and opened a dusty old copy of a book called Phoenix, the collected papers of D. H. Lawrence. In this weighty tome, published after his death, I found an essay called ‘Education of the People’.

At the time I was completely exhausted by childcare and confused by parenting manuals. Having children seemed like a lot of hard work for which you get no gratitude. Worse, they would probably grow up to hate you. Socrates’ wife Xanthippe had this problem. After caring for her son Lamprocles, changing his nappies and educating him, he turned against her when he was a teenager, because she was liable to lose it and scream at him.

‘No one could put up with her vile temper,’ Lamprocles complained to his philosophical dad, when Socrates was imploring him to be a bit more appreciative of his poor mum . After all, said father to son, she fed him when he was a baby and raised him into a young man, all at no benefit to herself.

‘Which do you think is the harder to bear,’ asked Socrates rhetorically, ‘a wild beast’s brutality or a mother’s?’

‘I should say a mother’s, when she is like mine,’ answers the surly ingrate.

But Lawrence’s long essay, written in 1919, helped me enormously. It contains the following piece of rather startling and counterintuitive parenting advice, which could be summarised as, ‘Don’t even bother’:

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

These simple words appeared to contradict every piece of advice I had picked up on the subject. If there was one thing you were not to do as a parent, it was to leave them alone. On the contrary, you are expected to be terribly busy at all times, involving the children in edifying after- school activities while telling them all the while how amazing and special they are.

This on top of feeding them organic quinoa berries, finding them suitably sophisticated playmates and an infinitely enormous pile of laundry. While also trying to earn some money.

And the advice you get. Everyone bothers you with their crappy tips. The experts, of course, start bothering you well before the child is born. Earnest parenting manuals, often written by puritanical Americans, include titles like the famous What To Expect When You’re Expecting, with their passive-aggressive snippets such as, ‘It’s fine if you have been drinking alcohol up to now, but now would be a great time to stop.’ Been taking cocaine? No problem! But maybe stop now, you evil, selfish mother.

Later, shelf-loads of advisors pitch in with their thoughts and all insist on a high level of parental input. You must play with the child, you must limit its screen time, you must help it to be creative, you must hold it tightly, you must tell it how great it is . . . put simply, you must be the perfect parent.
Naturally this drive towards perfectionism causes rows between the two extremely knackered and inevitably imperfect parents. The mothers are torn between being career women and domestic paragons. The fathers are drawn in to help by the mothers and are no better at striking the right balance. Both, mystifyingly, seek solace from the overlords of Silicon Valley, and go to ad sales scams like Facebook and Google for help and support in the midst of their isolation.

The grandparents are nowhere to be seen, of course. They are playing tennis, going on cruises or dating. The poor young parents are stranded and alone. To make matters worse, other rival parents, in an astonishingly impolite move, post happy pictures of themselves on Instagram which show them cuddling their babies and enjoying every moment of parenthood.

This is an extract from Tom’s new audiobook. To take a quick listen, click on the play button below:

Why Ignoring Your Children Will Make Everyone Happier by Tom Hodgkinson is published by Hodder. To buy the book for only £2.99, click here