Charlotte Butterfield is a British freelance journalist and mum of Amelie, six, Rafe, four, and Theo, one
"A whole 11 minutes had passed without one of my three children pulling on my arm and telling me that one of the others had called them a poo-poo head. In that time, I drank a whole cup of tea while it was still warm and read the second chapter from the book my husband had bought me for my birthday, over a year ago. And, unlike the other rare occasions when I had allowed myself a decadent 11 minutes to enjoy a hot beverage and read words that weren’t a shopping list, I didn’t feel a smidgen of guilt, because according to the Idle Parenting technique I was trialling, guilt doesn’t exist.
As a working mum, self-reproach is a fairly constant shoulder buddy of mine. When I’m working I feel I should be with the little ones, and when I step away from the laptop and do a jigsaw, my latest deadline is never far from my thoughts. Tom Hodgkinson, author of The Idle Parent, writes, “There is no ideal mother; make your own rhythm and be confident about it. The babies will be fine.” And you know what? They are.
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The term ‘idle parent’ is a bit misleading. I had grand ambitions of lounging decadently in a robe while my offspring busied themselves, but the title actually refers more to your mindset. By relinquishing control, the children are given the space to just be themselves. The author’s anti-consumerist stance leads him to declare that all toys should be banned, as should TV. I never went as far as to pack away the plasma, but the hours the little ones spend slack-jawed in front of it have certainly decreased. Where Hodgkinson suggests cavorting down country lanes or jumping in muddy puddles, we did our best with lots of park and beach visits, and we’ve practically lived in the garden for the past month. We bought three plastic balls from a supermarket and each day after school we played a game where you kneel, and then lie down if you miss a catch – it kept them entertained for nearly an hour at a time. I also found loads of old herbs and baking supplies, so the kids took mixing bowls into the garden and made cakes and potions, which they loved so much we’ve done it five times now.
The ethos behind Hodgkinson’s approach is simple – basically, leave them be. As an antidote to helicopter-style parenting techniques, the Idle Parent is a gentle parent, just sitting back and letting the kids evolve at their own pace. I’m normally quite an anxious parent, so to hold back and let them assess a situation was really tough for me. Idle parents are meant to warn their children of the dangers in life, and yet not stop them trying things; we give them a sense of responsibility and they should relish the chance to prove themselves. This was certainly the case with my elder two – after years of telling them never to touch the water cooler, I told them to start topping their own bottles up when they’re thirsty and they couldn’t have smiled bigger grins than if I’d just produced new Build-a-Bears.
“The idle parent is spontaneous; joyful, free of resentment and therefore better company,” is a quote from the book that I made my mantra. We had fairy hunts in the garden, made dens out of dining chairs, had our dinner in the lounge, basically I stopped adhering to the unwritten codes that I’d been abiding by – meals must be taken at the table, furniture is not for playing with – and I started seeing life and its possibilities through the eyes of the kids. Hodgkinson says, “When parents make the decision to enjoy their child’s company then what we call ‘childcare’ ceases to be a burden.” And that’s true; when I stopped saying, “I’ll play for five minutes but I’ve just got to check my emails/ put the dinner on/ call the office,” I found out that actually, my kids are pretty awesome."
The Expert View
Dr Yaseen Aslam is a Dubai-based consultant psychiatrist and medical specialist
“I think that the term ‘idle parent’ is not the right term for this sort of parenting. Charlotte is not being ‘idle’, but instead is consciously choosing to step back, and parenting with faith in her children.
“These children, who don’t have a mother hovering over them meeting their every need, will be more encouraged, and have higher self-esteem because they will develop internal resources to entertain themselves, as well as tend to their own needs. By consciously choosing not to ‘do’ she is actually doing a lot for her children’s emotional and social development.
“Another non-idle part of this style is that the mother is engaged in self-care by taking those moments to care for oneself.
“It’s a strange world we live in today that when a mother is not actively doing something for her child or perhaps is even caring for herself (and as a result can be better to be around for her children and families) we call it ‘idle’.”