Reply to Tom

My son Tom wonders why, given my style of parenting, that he is not more mentally ill than he actually is.

Yes, he says the nicest things. But when I observe today’s frazzled, exhausted parents ceaselessly arguing with each other, I wonder who had the right idea: me, who tried to escape my children at every turn, or today’s parents who seem to give themselves no respite whatever from their tiny tyrants.

Although Tom has become famous for being an idle parent, or at least, for writing about the idea, it seems to me that his, and his generation’s, notion of idle parenting is to hover over the children all the time and pander to their every whim. 

Modern parents are the fussiest, most indulgent and overprotective ever known. Their non-stop parenting is often combined with one or both trying to earn a living at the same time, often from home. In the olden days, the children were never allowed to disturb Daddy – or more rarely, Mummy – while the parent was composing the great work. Nowadays, they are in and of the home office or study all the time, demanding attention.

These parents give over their entire lives over to their kids and then whinge endlessly about the way they are completely dominated by their little emperors.

The children are allowed to rule the roost and as a result, houses are a complete tip. Toys are never cleared up, food is permanently trodden into the carpets and every spare inch of wall space is lovingly covered with childish scrawls rather than proper, adult artwork.

Each available moment of the day is taken up ferrying the children to ballet, football, kung-fu, computer classes, tennis, violin, piano, trombone, Latin (yes, Latin!) and extra maths. And when the children are stuck at home there is no rest either, as they have to be ceaselessly entertained.

Yet even all this is not enough. To increase their self-imposed martyrdom still further, an ever-increasing number of parents are masochistically considering home schooling! And then, just to make sure home life is totally intolerable, bad behaviour is not only condoned, but actively encouraged.

Children are allowed to interrupt adult conversation. But it’s worse than that; the grown-up talk reverently stops whenever a childish voice barges in.

At mealtimes, today’s children are offered as wide a choice of menu as if they were in an expensive restaurant. “What would you like for supper, darling?” asks harassed Mummy, waiting anxiously for the finicky child to place its order. There is no such thing as table manners, oh no, that would be restricting their freedom. So, they are allowed to keep getting up and down from the table, to reach for things instead of asking politely, and even when – finally, finally – they have been put to bed, they keep slinking back downstairs where they are given a royal welcome as an honoured guest, rather than being sent back upstairs with short shrift.

They whine about wanting something they see on telly; the next day, it is bought for them.

So here, by way of complete contrast, I offer my style of parenting. It may have turned Tom into a basket case but it certainly kept me sane!

I was a genuinely idle mother. Because I wanted as much childfree time to myself as possible, they were, up to the age of five, put to bed at six sharp. They ate what was put in front of them, no messing about, and they had to devise their own entertainment. Certainly I did not see my role as having to provide a non-stop variety and amusement routine. And skulking downstairs at night would never be tolerated.

Unlike today’s kids, they were never, ever allowed into our bedroom. At night, we locked the door on them.

Although I gratefully escaped to my newspaper job as soon as I decently could after giving birth, this did not mean that I eagerly looked forward to reading them a bedtime story when I got home. Far from it - I would drink in the bar with my (mainly male) colleagues after work – until such time as, with any luck, Tom and his brother Will would be in bed, fast asleep, and the toys would be tidied away.

Tom has complained that it was being put to bed so early which turned him into a professional idler.

Be that as it may, I never wasted my time attending a school sports day – often considered to be the benchmark of perfect parenting, especially when the parent has a high-flying career. Maybe I would have made the effort if they had been budding Beckhams but – well, they weren’t.

I could never be persuaded to go to the swings with them and I hated funfairs, circuses and adventure parks as well – in fact all the things that children, and particularly small boys, seem to love so much. In fact, I hated all games, both indoor and out and my idea of hell was a rainy afternoon playing Monopoly or draughts.

Yes, I ignored them as much as possible. But funnily enough, we have a fantastic relationship with each other now. Why? Because, looking back, I have absolutely no resentment about Tom and Will taking up my time and energy. I did my own thing, followed an exciting career and we all flourished as a result. I was happy, my life was full of fun and companionship, and this positivity passed down to the children.

Also, the Fleet Street career – in those days – gave me enough money to be able to make choices in education, and this at least partly made up for my deficiencies as a parent.

Tom used to say to me, cheekily, “Where are the sacrifices?”

Well – nowhere. But I believe that the most important thing in life is to fulfil oneself, not sacrifice oneself on the altar of others. Yes children have to be looked after, and an idle parent should not be a neglectful parent. But you cannot pretend to be something you’re not, or that you are enjoying an activity that is sending you mad inside. The mismatch will soon show, and that is the main problem with today’s parents. So often, they are really only pretending that they enjoy every moment with their children.

That wise old bird Katharine Whitehorn once wrote that parenting is not what you think you ought to do but what you can stand. And most of us, if we’re honest, cannot stand very much of it.

Some people, it is true, have a definite gift with children, in the same way that some have a knack with animals. And a few lucky people have both; my niece Samantha, for example. It was a joy to watch her showing small children how to ride a horse, so that within minutes, child and beast were entirely confident with each other. My six-year old granddaughter nervously mounted a small pony, and was soon happily doing a rising trot and even jumps, thanks to Sam’s gentle tuition.

Unfortunately, this ability to enter the world and consciousness of small children is not given to all of us, and it does not automatically come courtesy of the reproductive organs. Often, it is not something you can know in advance.

I did not possess this enviable empathy as a parent and I have discovered I don’t have it as a grandparent, either. Half an hour in my grandchildren’s company and (dare I admit?) I’m bored. They are cute little people, certainly, but time goes by so slowly when I am with them and I simply do not know what to do with them. I don’t have any bright ideas.

But in speaking out and defending my position as a hands-off parent, I am not just voicing a grandmotherly rant from the sidelines. Today’s overparenting has become so toxic that psychologists, who once advocated free and relaxed routines, are starting to change their tune.

In his latest book, The Spoilt Generation, media psychologist Dr Aric Sigman maintains that today’s ever-indulgent parents are creating a generation of little monsters, programmed to be demanding and with no thought for others. To redress the balance, he is recommending a return to strictness. Mind, he is so retro that he is at the same time saying that mothers should spend more time with their children rather than rushing back to careers, so I can’t say I am wholeheartedly on his side.

Dr Sigman, you try spending more time with small children before glibly ordering anybody else to do so. But I’m all in favour of a return to discipline and definite boundaries between adults and children.

And – if you’re not a natural parent, don’t make life miserable for yourself by pretending otherwise.

The Lady magazine