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Toby Young
Sunday 29th March 2009

The Idle Parent by Tom Hodgkinson

Hamish Hamilton, £14.99, pp.233

On the face of it, Tom Hodgkinson is a harmless English eccentric. The editor of a magazine called 'The Idler', he is a passionate critic of the frenetic pace of modern life and believes we would be much better off if we spent our days living in yurts, tending vegetable patches and playing the ukulele. In person, he is immensely likable. At last year's Hay Literary Festival, he hosted a star-studded dinner party that ended with him urging the guests to accompany him in a singsong. Jeremy Clarkson was so embarrassed he hid under the table, but I joined in with gusto.

Hodgkinson has already written two books urging us to drop out - 'How to be Idle' and 'How to be Free' -- and 'The Idle Parent' extends this hippy philosophy to hearth and home. According to him, modern parents spend far too much time fussing over their children. Instead of constantly policing their behaviour, we should leave them to their own devices and they will quickly develop into independent, self-reliant little people. He claims to have experimented with this approach on his own three children, aged three, six and eight, and they are all thriving.

As the father of four young children myself, I can testify that much of what Hodgkinson says makes sense. For instance, he describes the futility of trying to use your "puny authority" to coerce children into doing their chores and recommends leading by example. "To escape from a master/slave duality is crucial, because kids naturally rebel when compelled to do things by authority," he writes.

Unfortunately, not all of Hodgkinson's advice is helpful to those who wish to put their feet up and do less around the house. The problem is, he wants us to rid our homes of virtually all modern technology. In Chapter One, for instance, he urges us to throw out the dishwasher and turn washing-up into an activity that all the family can enjoy. "One does the washing, one does the drying, one does the putting away," he writes.

Before long, the dishwasher is joined by the fridge. Rather than rely on "big supermarkets" for our food, we should take up gardening and encourage our children to do the same.

He also recommends chucking out the children's toys. "You can take your Pop-Up Pirates and your Hungry Hippos, with their huge cleaning-up time and mess-making potential, and their unbiodegradable oil-based ugliness, and consign them to the bin," he writes. From now on, all toys should be home made. "You - the parents: you can make your own toys," he writes. "Yes, you can. This is a noble calling for the dad of the family. Buy a saw and a chisel ..."

Inevitably, he urges us to get rid of the television, too. At first, he hesitates before suggesting an outright ban. "Who wants to ban things?" he writes. "That's what Puritans and governments do." But a few pages later he has overcome these scruples. "Throw the telly out of the window," he writes. "It is a great liberation."

By the end of the book it is clear that, far from being a laid-back hippy, Hodgkinson is an anti-capitalist fanatic who wants to ban almost everything, including newspapers, magazines, computers, advertising and non-natural fibres.

No doubt some of these measures would pay dividends. I can imagine my own children being much less spoilt if they were never allowed to watch television and the only toys they had to play with were ones I made myself. But to call this approach to parenting "idle" is a bit of a misnomer. A parent who followed Hodgkinson's philosophy would scarcely have a moment to himself, what with the washing up, the gardening and the toy-making. Without all the trappings of modernity to distract my children - computers, video games, television - they would be constantly tugging at my shirttails, demanding to be entertained.

In fairness to Hodgkinson, he considers this argument and points out that children in Africa are perfectly capable of amusing themselves. "African children rarely cry," he writes, and claims this is because "they have more control over their lives". That is a little naïve considering the average life expectancy in Swaziland is 32.23, but like all critics of modernity he has a romantic view of pre-industrial life.

As I say, Tom Hodgkinson is a charming fellow and this is an original, thought-provoking book. But because I'm a genuinely idle parent, I think I'll hang on to the dishwasher and the television for the time being.

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