The many benefits of parental laziness

Laetitia@Work #15

Hi everyone,

I hope you’re as well as can be. You may be beginning to find the lockdown quite unbearably long. You miss going out. You miss seeing your friends. You hate the uncertainty: at least in prison, one knows how long the punishment is going to last. Introverts are supposed to fare a little better, as they enjoy being alone more often, but even they are beginning to hate the lockdown. Indeed as everyone is moving their social life online (and everything feels like a meeting now!), introverts have this “bizarre feeling of being socially overwhelmed despite the fact we’re staying as far away from each other as we can”. With the lockdown, introverts have no way out: everybody knows they’re stuck at home, they can’t come up with a polite excuse, and may find it hard to say ‘no’ bluntly. “Sure, let’s do another meeting”, they say. 

Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you will experience this period quite differently. But let’s be honest, the biggest price is paid by parents (mostly mothers) of young children stuck at home. Whether you’re a parent or not, you will experience the lockdown profoundly differently. This feeling of being overwhelmed with no way out is experienced acutely by those who suddenly find themselves with no daycare and no outside help. Children weren’t meant to be raised in a nuclear family, let alone a nuclear family with no outside help. “It takes a village”. 

brown duck near ducklings

In lockdown the way you define parenthood will make you experience this period differently. If you are very “hands on”, you may now feel completely overwhelmed. If you usually need a lot of help, you may feel helpless. And if your children are used to being left alone, you may be quite all right. Perhaps we should all give ourselves a break and try to relax. What if it was good for the children to be “bored” for a few weeks? The case I would like to make this week is that being lazy as a parent may have many more merits that you think 🦥

The lockdown is a moment of truth when it comes to “parenting”

In the context of the lockdown, nuclear families find themselves completely stuck. Some women experience it as a reenactment of the 1950s as they find themselves with the lioness’s share of the household work. Some parents fear for their mental health. Others have to give up work altogether (which is possible in a country like France because they can still get paid). Lack of space is a problem for most urban families. Domestic violence is on the rise everywhere: not only do women and children have no escape from their abuser, but people who aren’t usually violent may lose their nerves and become more violent. 

Also, the lockdown is a large-scale lab experiment that sheds light on what modern parenting has become. It reveals all our neuroses and obsessions. It reveals that being a parent became something filled with anxiety, competition and stress. We want only what’s “best” for our children and aim to fill every waking moment with some kind of activity designed to “stimulate” and “educate” and give them a head start in the “race” (what race?).

Being a parent comes with constant anxiety. Alas it seems this “parenting” obsession is fundamentally incompatible with living in lockdown. It’s just impossible to survive that way. Many parents stuck with children at home are beginning to see that “stimulating” their children every waking moment with no outside help will consume them.

I’m incredibly lucky to have somewhat older children (11 and 8) who do not need me to “stimulate” them all the time. But even when they were younger I found myself swimming against my generation’s stream when it comes to being a mother. The honest truth is I was always too lazy to be like the other mums from my generation. I liked to read too much. I wanted to write. I wanted peace and quiet. So I didn’t breastfeed (shame on me, right!), I didn’t take them to 8 activities a week (I don’t even have a driving licence, that’s my excuse). I asked the nanny to take them to the park because I found it too boring to watch them play in the sandbox for hours. I let them play on their own a lot of the time. In short I was what a lot of Germans and Americans would call a “bad mother”.

Being “bad parents”, my husband and I were also absolutely inflexible during meal times. We refused to hear their complaints and would never cook something different for them if they didn’t like what was on the menu. But we wouldn’t give up garlic, chilli, ginger or tasty vegetables for their sakes either. So it was “either you eat it or you don’t, but there’s nothing else to eat”. Meals are always an important family time for us. We eat together: that’s when we spend time together, and talk and laugh. And food is consumed at the table only. 

Our being so rigid when it comes to food is at odds with modern trends. The more food is personalised within families, the more we insist we’ll all eat the same. With time we made it a matter of principle. But in truth it is also laziness. The same meal for everybody at the same time is just so much easier. To us, meal times are the best social times. Being strict comes with so many upsides. Once you have an established ritual, everybody comes to value it.

Today our children love garlic, ginger, chilli and all sorts of vegetables and spices. And the one thing that makes them French is that they love meal times. They value it so much that they like to cook too. Now our 11-year old is a great cook and prepares a lot of our meals. During the lockdown she’s prepared at least one meal every day. “A table!” is usually a parent’s phrase. It’s hers too now. She prepares shopping lists with all the ingredients she needs to surprise us. She studies cookbooks. And she teaches her younger brother (who is both her sous-chef and garbage boy because every chef needs help). Not only are they kept busy during the lockdown, but they’re also busy doing something useful and enjoyable. For days they had fun making menus and playing that they were running a restaurant. And we parents were the lucky guests. (Let me reassure you on one thing: we do help a bit clearing the table and doing the dishes.)

For a lot of parents afraid of putting a knife in their children’s hands, letting children learn to cook isn’t as easy as it seems. You have to start at a young age, and accept some risk. You can’t learn to use a knife without using a knife. You have to accept some mess in the kitchen. You have to stop being a control freak. You have to encourage autonomy. And autonomy is not something that modern parenting really encourages.

The shift from “being a parent” to “parenting” happened around the 1990s

As unemployment, globalisation and the financialisation of the economy increased economic anxiety in the 1990s, little by little the way parents raised their children changed profoundly. Suddenly rather than “being a parent” you had to start “parenting”. (The first known use of “parenting”, i.e. the word “parent” used as a verb, was in 1918, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary). The fact that a state (being a parent) became a set of actions (“to parent”) is no coincidence and reveals a whole new vision of parenthood. 

Not only have most parents since the 1990s really chosen to have children (contraception and IVF have become common), but they are convinced they should give their kids a head start by doing lots of things to stimulate them more. Thus “parenting” has become a sort of race, a competition. In the US around that time, the concept of “Alpha moms” emerged to refer to that generation of college educated women who took their experience from the workplace and applied it to parenting with the same intensity, with complete “professionalism” (which makes me wonder how you can be so professional about something without ever getting paid). 

“Parenting” became a lot more time-consuming and anxiety-inducing. Indeed if something goes wrong with your children, it must be because you don’t do enough. To cope with their anxiety, a lot of parents have become over-achievers. They seek to provide their children with constant stimulation. In some cases they never leave them alone. Studies show that parents today spend twice as much time with their children as 50 years ago. (France seems to be a bit of an exception: parents aren’t as present as their German or American counterparts).

“One analysis of 11 countries estimates that the average mother spent 54 minutes a day caring for children in 1965 but 104 minutes in 2012. Men do less than women, but far more than men in the past: their child-caring time has jumped from 16 minutes a day to 59.” (The Economist)

Many kids today have busier schedules than their parents, with an after-school activity every day, and no holidays to call their own. And this busy schedule has an impact on the parents as well who must take their children from activity #1 to activity #2, supervise the homework, and do stuff with them continuously. Parents are exhausted. Couples have no time together (and no libido).

Though the parenthood shift affects fathers as well as mothers, let’s not kid ourselves on who bears the brunt of this increased pressure. There’s much much more pressure on mothers. And there’s more pressure today than there was in the 1980s. As the Leche league became more and more influential, breastfeeding stopped being a woman’s choice: today, a mother who doesn’t breastfeed is seen as a neglectful, careless mother (yes, even in countries with access to drinkable water, and in countries where it’s all right to eat nothing but junk food after weaning. Go figure!) And the rise of the environmentalist movement put more pressure on women to do things better (wash reusable nappies, for example).

“Parenting” became so much work. It now comes with such pressure that more and more people don’t want to have children anymore. I’m fully convinced that the cultures that have the most burdensome, hands-on definition of motherhood (and parenthood in general) also happen to be the cultures where more women choose not to be mothers. (See “the plight of Germany’s female workers”, which was my second newsletter.) 

The gardener and the carpenter

A few years ago, Alison Gopnik (a professor of psychology and philosophy at Berkeley) published a book beautifully titled The Gardener and the Carpenter in which she argues that caring for children “shouldn’t be like carpentry, with a finished product in mind”, but rather that “we should grow our children, like gardeners”. Trying to “chisel” their kids into “Harvard freshmen”, modern (US) parents may be doing things the wrong way. Too much chiseling is not good for the development of cognitive abilities!

In fact there are two things that many experts say children need more of: boredom and unstructured play. And these are the two things modern parents deprive their children of. Boredom breeds creativity. Here in Normandy for a long time we didn’t have an internet connection (on purpose). Our children would experience boredom for a few hours...and eventually start inventing fabulous games, making their own board games, going out on adventures outside. We have an internet connection now 😔 (for work) but we try to remember that boredom is good.

Many Eastern traditions actually encourage boredom, which is seen as a path to higher consciousness. I’m a big fan of Zen jokes like this one:

“A Zen student asked how long it would take to gain enlightenment if he joined the temple.

‘Ten years,’ said the Zen master.

‘Well, how about if I work really hard and double my effort?’

‘Twenty years, then’”.

As for play, in particular unstructured play, it’s been underrated for too many years. It seems useless so we have tried for years to put play to work. We treat play (sport, art or science) as a different form of work, something that has value only because it yields dividends (like physical health). In fact the sole pleasure of play should be justification enough. And paradoxically play does have a cognitive function when we forget about that cognitive function. I strongly recommend this Atlantic article by Alison Gopnik titled “In Defense of Play” in which she writes that “the fundamental paradox of play is that in order to be able to reach a variety of new goals in the long run, you have to actively turn away from goal seeking in the short run.”

The beautiful thing about the gardener vs carpenter metaphor is that it illustrates quite clearly why today’s hands-on model is too much. It’s made parents and kids more miserable. It’s sucked any joy off the parent-child relationship. There can be so much joy in being a parent. “Parenting” kills that joy. It puts too much pressure on everyone to perform. Of course there’s been some progress. There’s less infant mortality. And it’s not a bad thing we don’t put alcohol in baby bottles any more. But we’ve gone too far in a direction that deprives children of freedom and autonomy.

I’ve always done everything I can to encourage more autonomy in my children. At age two our daughter Beatrice wanted to choose her clothes herself and dress by herself. Sometimes what she chose was not appropriate and not smart. So what? I let her have her way so long as she was not putting her life in danger. For as long as we can remember we’ve treated our children like adults, adults who sometimes need a bit more help, protection and guidance, but people who have a say in things.

I can never forget something my son Ferdinand once said. Many London restaurant owners would frown upon us taking children to their restaurant (they didn’t know our children don’t do tantrums), and some even had explicit rules like “no children after 7pm”. When he heard that rule, Ferdinand was so offended he said, “but children are people too”. He experienced this restrictive rule the way someone would experience being a third-class citizen.

The UK has all these dumb rules about “protecting” children even when they are with their parents. It’s basically as if parents were treated like children there. For example, children aren’t allowed to swim in the big pool, even accompanied by an adult, because “it’s not safe”. Then how are they supposed to learn to swim? (Our children eventually learned to swim during the holidays in France and Germany where swimming pools have more liberal rules… and were happy to be the best swimmers in their respective classes back in the UK.)

As parents we’ve always found that the more autonomy children have, the more trustworthy they become. And it’s also what suited us best because it meant less work for us. In other words our interests were perfectly aligned. But that’s something that’s quite taboo today. Now you’re supposed to watch your children all the time until they’re 18.

In the UK, we felt we couldn’t tell anyone that we would go to the cinema without hiring a babysitter to watch our children. The unspeakable truth is that we’ve sometimes left them alone at home for a few hours since the older one was 8. As an eight-year old, Beatrice was so responsible that it didn’t feel like a big deal: she gave us permission and she could call us anytime if there was a problem. (Now I’ll be sent to jail, for sure). Same with going to school. Our children wanted to go by themselves. We let them even though it was frowned upon. (Now that’s really quite ridiculous. I remember going to school by myself when I was 8 or 9. Why do today’s children have to wait until they’re 12 or 13??)

Last but least, both Nicolas and I enjoy our work. And our children know it. At times they were a bit jealous of our work because we enjoyed it so much. We never said things like “we’d rather play a game with you but we have to work to put food on the table”. We’re blessed to be able to enjoy work in a way few people do. And that’s sending them a message: it’s possible to aim to do things you enjoy. Not everyone has to hate their jobs and be miserable. 

Another message is that as a woman, I am not defined only by motherhood (no more than my children’s father is defined primarily by his being a father). I am a separate person with an identity of my own. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have two amazing young humans growing in my home. I get to witness their growth, get to know them and sometimes teach them a little something. The magic in it is that these humans are different from me and we are building a relationship together. We’re separate individuals learning to know one another. I didn’t make them, they were born through me. That’s very different and so much more interesting. 

If there’s one thing that the gardener metaphor can help you with right now, it’s to let go of some of the pressure. There’s no one way of being a parent but there sure is too much pressure on everyone. Let’s all give ourselves a break. Today’s stressful. We don’t need to worry about using every minute of our (their) time to prepare them for Harvard. If you feel you ought to keep your children busy at all times, chill a little and bear in mind that boredom and unstructured play may be more important than whatever activity you can organise for them. Let fun and laziness be your guides for once!

🌳 I’m in Normandy all week this week 😏

I have new publications this week. For Welcome to the Jungle, I wrote a piece titled “Manager : quel maître du télétravail êtes-vous ?” (in French), and another interview with Pierre-Antoine Marti about science fiction “Coronavirus & futur du travail : ce que la science-fiction nous apprend pour la suite.”


  • 🏠 “Everyone Is Home Right Now, But Who’s Doing All the “Home” Work?”, Eve Rodsky, Harper’s Bazaar, March 2020: “Imagine a giant social experiment where all the undervalued and underpaid women required to get through your day went missing—teachers, housekeepers, babysitters, grandmothers, nannies, home-care aids, you name it—and you and your partner are left to figure it out. Except that ‘experiment’ is reality now.”

  • 👩‍💻 “Cal Newport on Surviving Screens and Social Media in Isolation”, Clay Skipper, GQ, March 2020: “Right now, for so many people self-isolating in the face of the escalating coronavirus pandemic, technology is the main link to the outside world. It’s allowing us to maintain crucial contact with friends, family, and coworkers (…) However, it can also be the source of deep anxiety and distraction: never has it been easier to stress-refresh your Twitter timeline looking for the latest Covid-19 numbers, or pick up your phone to text a friend only to fall into a mindless internet black hole.”

  • 🧻 “What Everyone’s Getting Wrong About the Toilet Paper Shortage”, Will Oremus, Marker, April 2020: “the toilet paper industry is split into two, largely separate markets: commercial and consumer. The pandemic has shifted the lion’s share of demand to the latter. People actually do need to buy significantly more toilet paper during the pandemic”

That’s all for this week. Let me know how you’re coping as parents during this strange period ❤️ If you have tips and great ideas, I’d be happy to share them with all my readers next week!

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