• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."
    Cicero

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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Current events: Ukraine

Are you looking for a clear, concise explanation of recent events in Ukraine, for yourself or your kids? You can’t do any better than today’s post in the New York Review blog, “Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda” by Timothy Snyder. From which:

From Moscow to London to New York, the Ukrainian revolution has been seen through a haze of propaganda. Russian leaders and the Russian press have insisted that Ukrainian protesters were right-wing extremists and then that their victory was a coup. Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, used the same clichés after a visit with the Russian president at Sochi. After his regime was overturned, he maintained he had been ousted by “right-wing thugs,” a claim echoed by the armed men who seized control of airports and government buildings in the southern Ukrainian district of Crimea on Friday[.]

Interestingly, the message from authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Kiev was not so different from some of what was written during the uprising in the English-speaking world, especially in publications of the far left and the far right. From Lyndon LaRouche’s Executive Intelligence Review through Ron Paul’s newsletter through The Nation and The Guardian, the story was essentially the same: little of the factual history of the protests, but instead a play on the idea of a nationalist, fascist, or even Nazi coup d’état.

In fact, it was a classic popular revolution. It began with an unmistakably reactionary regime. A leader sought to gather all power, political as well as financial, in his own hands. This leader came to power in democratic elections, to be sure, but then altered the system from within. For example, the leader had been a common criminal: a rapist and a thief. He found a judge who was willing to misplace documents related to his case. That judge then became the chief justice of the Supreme Court. There were no constitutional objections, subsequently, when the leader asserted ever more power for his presidency.

and

It is hard to have all of the power and all of the money at the same time, because power comes from the state, and the state has to have a budget. If a leader steals so much from the people that the state goes bankrupt, then his power is diminished. Yanukovych actually faced this problem last year. And so, despite everything, he became vulnerable, in a very curious way. He needed someone to finance the immediate debts of the Ukrainian state so that his regime would not fall along with it.

Struggling to pay his debts last year, the Ukrainian leader had two options. The first was to begin trade cooperation with the European Union. No doubt an association agreement with the EU would have opened the way for loans. But it also would have meant the risk of the application of the rule of law within Ukraine. The other alternative was to take money from another authoritarian regime, the great neighbor to the east, the Russian Federation.

In December of last year, the leader of this neighboring authoritarian regime, Vladimir Putin, offered a deal. From Russia’s hard currency reserves accumulated by the sale of hydrocarbons he was willing to offer a loan of $15 billion, and lower the price of natural gas from Russia. Putin had a couple of little preoccupations, however.

Read the rest here.

Also by Dr. Snyder, The New York Review of Books article (available online now) from the upcoming March 20th issue, “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine”.

And there’s more — a prescient (February 26th) article in  Foreign Policy by Dr. Snyder, well worth reading: “Dear Kremlin: Careful with Crimea: Why a Russian intervention in southern Ukraine could rebound against Moscow”.

Dr. Snyder is Bird White Housum Professor of History at Yale, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in modern East European political history. For the 2013-14 academic year, he is the Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at the London School of Economics. Dr. Snyder authored The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 (Yale Press, 2003), and helped the late Tony Judt with his posthumous Thinking the Twentieth Century (Penguin, 2012). More of Dr. Snyder’s writing at the NYRB, on Ukraine and other subjects, here.

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Surviving the amphitheater

On the CBC radio show Q this morning (podcast here), host Jian Ghomeshi spoke with New York Magazine author Jennifer Senior on her recent article, “Why You Never Truly Leave High School”, which had been languishing on my list of things to read but jumped up immediately. I was intrigued to find a mention of home schooling in the article. Here’s an excerpt from the article (emphases mine):

Until the Great Depression, the majority of American adolescents didn’t even graduate from high school. Once kids hit their teen years, they did a variety of things: farmed, helped run the home, earned a regular wage. Before the banning of child labor, they worked in factories and textile mills and mines. All were different roads to adulthood; many were undesirable, if not outright Dickensian. But these disparate paths did arguably have one virtue in common: They placed adolescent children alongside adults. They were not sequestered as they matured. Now teens live in a biosphere of their own. In their recent book Escaping the Endless Adolescence, psychologists Joseph and Claudia Worrell Allen note that teenagers today spend just 16 hours per week interacting with adults and 60 with their cohort. One century ago, it was almost exactly the reverse.

Something happens when children spend so much time apart from adult company. They start to generate a culture with independent values and priorities. James Coleman, a renowned mid-century sociologist, was among the first to analyze that culture in his seminal 1961 work, The Adolescent Society, and he wasn’t very impressed. “Our society has within its midst a set of small teen-age societies,” he wrote, “which focus teen-age interests and attitudes on things far removed from adult responsibilities.” Yes, his words were prudish, but many parents have had some version of these misgivings ever since, especially those who’ve consciously opted not to send their kids into the Roman amphi­theater. (From the website of the National Home Education Network: “Ironically, one of the reasons many of us have chosen to educate our own is precisely this very issue of socialization! Children spending time with individuals of all ages more closely resembles real life than does a same-age school setting.”)

In fact, one of the reasons that high schools may produce such peculiar value systems is precisely because the people there have little in common, except their ages. “These are people in a large box without any clear, predetermined way of sorting out status,” says Robert Faris, a sociologist at UC Davis who’s spent a lot of time studying high-school aggression. “There’s no natural connection between them.” Such a situation, in his view, is likely to reward aggression. Absent established hierarchies and power structures (apart from the privileges that naturally accrue from being an upperclassman), kids create them on their own, and what determines those hierarchies is often the crudest common-­denominator stuff—looks, nice clothes, prowess in sports—­rather than the subtleties of personality. “Remember,” says Crosnoe, who spent a year doing research in a 2,200-student high school in Austin, “high schools are big. There has to be some way of sorting people socially. It’d be nice if kids could be captured by all their characteristics. But that’s not realistic.”

I’ve been intrigued by this subject since the kids reached school age and we started home schooling. I’ve read, digested, agreed with, and often recommended Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers by Doctors Neufeld and Mate. I also read and reviewed (briefly) The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen by Robert Epstein, a psychologist and former editor-in-chief of Pyschology Today magazine. Coleman’s The Adolescent Society (subtitled The Social Life of the Teenager and its Impact on Education sounds interesting, especially coming only six years after “Rebel without a Cause” and “Blackboard Jungle”.

Most of us who home school have heard from non-home schooling parents that it’s the everyday school interactions that “prepare” kids for real life. Senior writes,

Maybe, perversely, we should be grateful that high school prepares us for this life. The isolation, the shame, the aggression from those years—all of it readies us to cope. But one also has to wonder whether high school is to blame; whether the worst of adult America looks like high school because it’s populated by people who went to high school in America. We’re recapitulating the ugly folkways of this institution, and reacting with the same reflexes, because that’s where we were trapped, and shaped, and misshaped, during some of our most vulnerable years.

The most poignant part of the NYM article? “It’s also abundantly, poignantly clear that during puberty, kids have absolutely no clue how to assess character or read the behavior of others. … So much of what they think they know about others’ opinions of them is plain wrong.”

The article is well worth a read, if you have teens in the house, if you will have teens, or even if you were once one yourself. And, as the article points out, if there’s any chance you may be headed to a nursing home in the future. As sociologist Robert Faris points out, “It’s not adolescence that’s the problem. It’s the giant box of strangers.”

The full impact

Pulitzer and Griffin prize-winning poet and essayist Charles Simic has a moving and thought-provoking blog post at the New York Review Blog this week, “A Country without Libraries”, from which:

All across the United States, large and small cities are closing public libraries or curtailing their hours of operations. Detroit, I read a few days ago, may close all of its branches and Denver half of its own: decisions that will undoubtedly put hundreds of its employees out of work. When you count the families all over this country who don’t have computers or can’t afford Internet connections and rely on the ones in libraries to look for jobs, the consequences will be even more dire. People everywhere are unhappy about these closings, and so are mayors making the hard decisions. But with roads and streets left in disrepair, teachers, policemen and firemen being laid off, and politicians in both parties pledging never to raise taxes, no matter what happens to our quality of life, the outlook is bleak. “The greatest nation on earth,” as we still call ourselves, no longer has the political will to arrest its visible and precipitous decline and save the institutions on which the workings of our democracy depend.

I don’t know of anything more disheartening than the sight of a shut down library. No matter how modest its building or its holdings, in many parts of this country a municipal library is often the only place where books in large number on every imaginable subject can be found, where both grownups and children are welcome to sit and read in peace, free of whatever distractions and aggravations await them outside. Like many other Americans of my generation, I owe much of my knowledge to thousands of books I withdrew from public libraries over a lifetime. I remember the sense of awe I felt as a teenager when I realized I could roam among the shelves, take down any book I wanted, examine it at my leisure at one of the library tables, and if it struck my fancy, bring it home. Not just some thriller or serious novel, but also big art books and recordings of everything from jazz to operas and symphonies.

How Simic’s library made him a more interesting, and interested, person:

In Oak Park, Illinois, when I was in high school, I went to the library two or three times a week, though in my classes I was a middling student. Even in wintertime, I’d walk the dozen blocks to the library, often in rain or snow, carrying a load of books and records to return, trembling with excitement and anticipation at all the tantalizing books that awaited me there. The kindness of the librarians, who, of course, all knew me well, was also an inducement. They were happy to see me read so many books, though I’m sure they must have wondered in private about my vast and mystifying range of interests.

I’d check out at the same time, for instance, a learned book about North American insects and bugs, a Louis-Ferdinand Céline novel, the poems of Hart Crane, an anthology of American short stories, a book about astronomy and recordings by Bix Beiderbecke and Sidney Bechet. I still can’t get over the generosity of the taxpayers of Oak Park. It’s not that I started out life being interested in everything; it was spending time in my local, extraordinarily well-stacked public library that made me so.

Simic on those who downplay the importance of libraries in our communities, our society:

I heard some politician say recently that closing libraries is no big deal, since the kids now have the Internet to do their reading and school work. It’s not the same thing. As any teacher who recalls the time when students still went to libraries and read books could tell him, study and reflection come more naturally to someone bent over a book. Seeing others, too, absorbed in their reading, holding up or pressing down on different-looking books, some intimidating in their appearance, others inviting, makes one a participant in one of the oldest and most noble human activities. Yes, reading books is a slow, time-consuming, and often tedious process. In comparison, surfing the Internet is a quick, distracting activity in which one searches for a specific subject, finds it, and then reads about it—often by skipping a great deal of material and absorbing only pertinent fragments. Books require patience, sustained attention to what is on the page, and frequent rest periods for reverie, so that the meaning of what we are reading settles in and makes its full impact.

How many book lovers among the young has the Internet produced? Far fewer, I suspect, than the millions libraries have turned out over the last hundred years. Their slow disappearance is a tragedy, not just for those impoverished towns and cities, but for everyone everywhere terrified at the thought of a country without libraries.

Read the entire post here. Read the NYRblog here, where you can find posts by everyone from Margaret Atwood, Diane Ravitch, and  Mary Beard to Harold Bloom, Michael Chabon, and Joseph Lelyveld.

Support your local library.  Visit often, with your children. Get library cards for the whole family, and use them. Join your Friends of the Library group to help with much-needed fundraising. Take boxes of chocolates and plates of homemade cookies to your librarian and the staff. Join your local library board.  Become volunteer or library page at your branch. Read deeply and widely. Imagine your town, city, or neighborhood without a library.

*  *  *

Earlier Farm School handwringings about libraries:

Those pesky outdated and inaccurate books

Ray Bradbury on libraries

The latest book buzz, or, For whom the bell tolls

A hub for home schoolers

The return

We returned home late on February 14th, after about a month away.  While the rest of North America was celebrating Valentine’s Day with chocolate, cards, and crafts, we were driving west from Regina and just relieved to be home, from which we have been absent for four months since October, which seems crazy when I think about it.  My husband and kids have been absolute rocks to put up with all of this coming and going, emptying almost 50 years’ worth of furnishings and memories from a New York City apartment, getting on a first name basis with the staff at the nearby Salvation Army, and, the worst part of all, driving on the NJ turnpike from the Lincoln Tunnel to Jersey City, the trip’s true low spot.  We left last Wednesday, and made it to DuBois, PA the first night; our other stops each night, after driving about eight hours a day (except in North Dakota, where we had to keep driving past Fargo and Grand Forks until we finally, finally found a hotel room) were Danville, Illinois, Des Moines, Iowa; Grafton, ND; Regina, Saskatchewan; crossing the border into Canada north of Grafton south of Winnipeg, and home.

To counter the lows, which also included unhelpful apartment building staff (thanks to co-op board regulations and union regulations) and legal action taken by the landlord against us although my sister and I tried to explain that we had no interest either in the apartment or in prolonging the clearing out process (thank you co-op board and union), some of the highs:

* the vastness and beauty of the Canadian Shield, and the beauty of northwestern Ontario, especially Kenora, where we spent a night (all photos by the kids, often from a moving truck),

* some other sights we saw, including the Terry Fox statue in Thunder Bay, where he was forced to end his Marathon of Hope by the return of cancer; the Big Nickel in Sudbury, Ontario; and the CN Tower in Toronto,

* the magic of Niagara Falls in winter, when everything in the path of the mist is transformed into an ice sculpture,

* Le Roy, NY, the home of Jell-O, which I discovered just a few miles outside of LeRoy while reading through the AAA guidebook, because Davy has always been a keen fan of Jell-O.  We made it to the Le Roy museum just minutes before their 4 pm closing time, and the staff were gracious enough to let the kids have a quick look around the Jell-O gallery while I made a quick tour of the museum shop and made some purchases. Le Roy is a beautiful village in Genesee County, with lovely old houses

* AAA guidebooks and maps, which are all free when you join CAA/AAA, and the free online Triptik service, which was a great help in planning our route;

* meeting Susan Thomsen of Chicken Spaghetti after about five years of online friendship, because she was kind enough to let us park our 16′ cargo trailer in her driveway for more than a week, and during a crazy snowy month which shrank driveways considerably.  We also got to meet her husband, and son Junior (who quickly took in the boys and shared some Lego with them, much needed and appreciated after a week in a truck), and inlaws, who were all so warm and welcoming.  And we saw her chickens, and she and Laura talked about birds together. Thank you for everything, Susan!

* Laura’s and Tom’s bird walk with “Birding Bob” DeCandido, through a snowy and icy Central Park, where they saw an adult male Cooper’s hawk, brown creepers, a white-crowned sparrow, brown-headed cowbirds, red-wing blackbirds, and wood ducks.  Laura and Tom were the ones to spot a male yellow-bellied sapsucker.  Although Laura was disappointed not to spot the celebrated varied thrush, she was pleased with all the other birds.

* the kindness and pleasantness of motel clerks to NYC and back, despite our lack of reservations, and modern m/hotel thinking that makes a swimming pool, free wifi in rooms, and free hot breakfasts the new standard.  A special thank you to the woman at the Travelodge in Kenora who let me use the coin-operated laundry well past the 9 pm deadline to wash clothes after Davy lost his breakfast outside of Regina; and to front desk staff at the AmericInn in Des Moines, Iowa, who gave me two rooms with queen beds for $50 each, so that the kids each had a separate bed for the first time since leaving home.  If we are ever in your neighborhoods again, we will be back.

* the kindness, pleasantness, and professional manner of staff working at truck stops throughout the U.S. Remarkable people who probably don’t receive enough thanks and appreciation;

* being in NYC and being able to go to Barnes & Noble on the publication day of  the latest Flavia de Luce book, A Red Herring without Mustard by Canadian Alan Bradley.  I bought it for Laura who started reading it as soon as possible, and it’s at the top of my “to be read” pile now.  And now that we’re home, I’ve ordered, from the library, the Book Depository, Amazon.ca, and Chapters.ca, for my own reading, which at the moment seem to be limited to escapism (of the genteel and also the more murderous sort); sentimentality and nostalgia about leaving New York, the apartment which my parents had lived in since I was born, my parents; and planning our new house*:

* lobsters at Fairway, which are inexpensive and which the staff will steam and crack for you.  It was Laura’s idea, and made for a delicious dinner on one of our last nights in the apartment;

* our overnight in DuBois, Pennsylvania, which I didn’t know until our arrival was the hometown of Tom Mix — my father would have laughed;

* our afternoon visit in Moline, Illinois to the John Deere Pavilion in the city’s downtown and to Deere’s world headquarters, which also had a nice display. Laura found mute swans swimming in the lake near the building.

* the beautiful barns, graineries, and corn cribs in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some things, and I know the kids have more pictures, so I may have to have another post.  I just wanted to post a bit about the journey, and say thank you to

* which will be a combination of these two house plans, this one for the outside details, and this one for the inside floor plan (though it needs lots more rejiggering), especially on the main floor.  Work to begin in late May, and all I can say is that after having a new house as our five-year plan for the past 17 years (oy…) and everything we have gone through in the past 18 months, I am beyond excited to plan the new house.  Even better is the fact that we decided the other year to keep our current house, so we get to live in it during the building process and not live in a trailer or  a shipping container.

Your own private writing seminar

with John McPhee, via the Spring issue (now online, thank goodness) of The Paris Review.

For example, the importance of using an outline, from the interview with Mr. McPhee by Peter Hessler, “The Art of Nonfiction No. 3”:

INTERVIEWER
Where did this method come from?

MCPHEE
It goes back to Olive McKee at Princeton High School, and the structural outline that we had to have before doing any piece of writing. It came up again when I worked at Time. My first cover story just floored me. It was five thousand words, and I really struggled with the mass of material. I was pretty unhappy. It was just a mess—a mess of paper, I didn’t know where anything was. So I went back to Olive McKee and the outline, sorting through this matrix of material, separating it into components and dealing with one component at a time.

INTERVIEWER
Is there ever a risk of it becoming too mechanical?

MCPHEE
It sounds very mechanical, but the effect is the exact opposite. What it does is free you to write. It liberates you to write. You’ve got all the notes there; you come in in the morning and you read through what you’re going to try to write, and there’s not that much to read. You’re not worried about the other ninety-five percent, it’s off in a folder somewhere. It’s you and the keyboard. You get away from the mechanics through this mechanical means. The spontaneity comes in the writing, the phraseology, the telling of the story—after you’ve put all this stuff aside. You can read through those relevant notes in a relatively short period of time, and you know that’s what you want to be covering.

Read the rest of the interview here.

Also in the Spring issue, Ray Bradbury interviewed on the Art of Fiction, by Sam Weller, from which,

INTERVIEWER
You’re self-educated, aren’t you?

BRADBURY
Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?

I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.

INTERVIEWER
You have said that you don’t believe in going to college to learn to write. Why is that?

BRADBURY
You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.

Read the rest of Mr. Bradbury’s interview, especially on why he refused to write the screenplay for War and Peace, here. (I wrote about Mr. Bradbury and libraries last year here.)

And don’t miss the Review’s interview index, with gems from 1953 to the present.

*  *  *

Books by John McPhee, wonderful wonderful stuff and the perfect living books to include in your home school studies with older children, especially for science.  If you have to choose only one, make it Annals of the Former World, Mr. McPhee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of four books on the geological history of North America, published in a single volume in 1998.

The Idle Parent

I’ve been waiting to read some North American reviews of Idler Tom Hodgkinson’s The Idle Parent: Why Laid-Back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids, finally published on this side of the pond in May by Tarcher, but they’ve been pretty thin on the ground.

I did find a mini review in the May-June 2010 issue of Utne Reader, where Keith Goetzman wrote,

Most parenting books lack three elements that The Idle Parent has in spades: an intellectual bent, a distrust of the status quo, and a robust sense of humor. Despite the title, this book celebrates not laziness but the opposite, a deep engagement with the world outside of plastic toys, mind-numbing television, and craven capitalism. Author Tom Hodgkinson borrows heavily from John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in both words and ideas, grounding his modern alt-parent outlook in the classics.

but that was about it.

I’ve been intrigued by Tom Hodgkinson’s idling for a while now (see June 2008’s Tonic and Toast) and was intrigued last year by the idea of his book on raising children, out in the UK in Spring 2009 with the original subtitle “Why Less Means More When Raising Kids” (I’m a big believer in less is more when it comes to raising and teaching kids), and excerpted in Slate shortly thereafter; unofficial subtitle, by the bye, is “Parents first”. From which,

This last summer holiday, quite remarkably, we found ourselves lying in bed till 10 or 11 on several occasions, and this with children aged 3, 6, and 8 in the house. Sometimes, agreed, they would come and wake us by doing horrible things, jumping on our legs, “rampaging” as we called it, and hitting one another. But after we’d chucked them out a few times, they began to look after themselves. They are all quite capable of pouring milk on cereal, and Arthur, the oldest, can make tea and porridge.

Children actually have an inbuilt self-protective sense that we destroy by over-cosseting. They become independent not so much by careful training but in part simply as a result of parental laziness. Last Sunday morning, Victoria and I lay in bed till half past 10 with hangovers. What a result! And the more often you do this, the better, because the children’s resourcefulness will improve, resulting in less nagging, less of that awful “Mum-eeeeeeeh” noise they make. They can play and they will play.

So lying in bed for as long as possible is not the act of an irresponsible parent. It is precisely the opposite: It is good to look after yourself, and it is good to teach the children to fend for themselves. Our offspring will be strong, bold, fearless, much in demand wherever they go! Capable, cheerful, happy.

I got rather distracted by gardening last month, and pretty much forgot about more reviews of the book, not to convince me of the book’s merits but to see how Tom’s parenting ideas would be received in the United States.  And then a friend, another former New Yorker, sent me a link to a recent New York Magazine cover story on why parents hate parenting,

Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed. (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child’s value in five ruthless words: “Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”) Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses. [Remember the part about “Parents first”?]

Which explains why Tom’s book hasn’t made much of a splash.  Because nowadays a good many North American parents are running around rather than idling, putting themselves last.  In addition to abandoning the (very helpful) component of benign neglect, parenting has become professionalized, as Jennifer Love writes in the NYM piece,

When people wait to have children, they’re also bringing different sensibilities to the enterprise. They’ve spent their adult lives as professionals, believing there’s a right way and a wrong way of doing things; now they’re applying the same logic to the family-expansion business, and they’re surrounded by a marketplace that only affirms and reinforces this idea. “And what’s confusing about that,” says Alex Barzvi, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU medical school, “is that there are a lot of things that parents can do to nurture social and cognitive development. There are right and wrong ways to discipline a child. But you can’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others and constantly concluding you’re doing the wrong thing.”

Compare the two on the subject of “choices”.  Ms. Senior writes,

A few generations ago, people weren’t stopping to contemplate whether having a child would make them happy. Having children was simply what you did. And we are lucky, today, to have choices about these matters. But the abundance of choices—whether to have kids, when, how many—may be one of the reasons parents are less happy.

And then there’s Tom Hodgkinson,

Oh, how we whinge, we pampered parents of the West, attacked by choices, condemned to strive always to do the right thing, to get it right. We complain about money; we complain about lack of sleep; we complain about our partners, our co-workers, the newspapers, social networking sites, the government. We stamp our feet and shout at the usurers in the banking corporations and the swindlers and avaricious cheats on Wall Street, but most of all we complain about our own children.

The first few months after the birth of the first baby are fairly blissful. Then the competing elements of the artificial constructions that we grandly call our “lives” become locked in mortal combat. We try to “get the balance right” between unenjoyable and enjoyable activities. But we are moaning about the very lives that we have created for ourselves. We took that job, we bought that house, we chose that boyfriend or girlfriend, we had that baby, we bought that car, we live in this city, we live in this country. We were free to go and retire alone in Goa and live on the beach for the rest of our lives, childless and free. But we chose not to do that. And then we complained!

This excerpt on choices and complaining/whingeing is one of the favorite pieces I’ve read from the book,

Whingeing is the adult’s mirror image of the child’s whining. When they hear us whingeing about things, they assume that it’s normal to complain, and therefore they whine. Indeed, we encourage them to whine and complain by continually probing them for their judgment on things: “Did you have a good time? Was it fun? Is it a good book? What did you think of the film? How was school?'”

It’s what the ancient Chinese called the “discriminating mind,” the false setting up of good things and bad things. This discriminating mind is really a way of making children into consumers, because consumers are the biggest whingers of all, always ready to fire off complaints and always ready to buy better products.

We are not obliged to have children. We choose to have them. Now, instead of whingeing and moaning and wishing that things would somehow change, take my advice and learn to say “Yes!” to your kids. This very simple idea was suggested to me by … John Lloyd [the producer of Black Adder and Spitting Image]. He said that he had noticed in his own life how much he was fobbing off his kids: from the early days, when he would linger late at the office because that seemed preferable to facing the mewling infant and general chaos of home, to later, when the kids were a little older, when he would become angry if disturbed by a child in the middle of a phone call.

I have noticed this tendency in myself: Sometimes I am staring at my computer screen and a child comes into my study and asks to play a game: “Will you play Tractor Ted with me?” Self-importantly, I sigh and say something along the lines of: “I’m working” or worse, a querulous: “Can’t you see I’m working?” The child persists for a while and then gives up. I then look at my screen again and wonder whether checking the Amazon ranking of my last book can really be considered to be important work. Can it not be left for five minutes?

Lloyd pondered these questions and decided to start saying “Yes” to his children when he was on the phone or working and they asked him for something. He realized too that their repeated requests and irritating behavior toward him were a sort of demand for recompense for earlier love starvation. So he would put the phone down and go and play with the child. Isn’t this rather a lot of work for the idle parent? Not really. The child will be delighted with its five minutes of mucking about. And in any case, it’s actually a pleasure for the parent. After all, you’ll have plenty of time to work and stare at the screen as they grow older and less interested in you.

Read the rest here, which includes the Lloyd Plan for Happy, Stress-Free Parenting.

Should you need to apply some “less is more” to raising children, Tom has a website for the book, “The Idle Parent: How to Enjoy Family Life: Tips, Discussion, Resources, Links”, which includes lots of excerpts, such as “Discover how to intersperse loafing with Latin”. And really, if the point isn’t enjoying life as a family, what it is it?

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By the way, over at The Idler’s main website, you can learn about The Idler’s Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment (motto: Libertas per Cultum, or “freedom through education”).  You will also learn about such intriguing things as Latin tea towels, which I think I want.  For the children to do the washing up, of course. And practicing their Latin after dinner won’t hurt, either.

High end

The great William Zinsser, in a recent “Zinsser on Friday” column/blog post, “Life and Work”, over at The American Scholar,

I’ve never been–perhaps to my shame–a citizen of writing. I don’t belong to writers’ organizations, or attend writers’ talks and panels, or lunch with publishing potentates. I don’t hang out with writers. Writers tend to be not as interesting as they think. What they mainly want to talk about is their own writing, and they also have a ton of grievances, their conversation quick to alight on the perfidy of publishers, the lassitude of editors and agents, and the myopia of critics who reviewed–or didn’t review–their last book.

I’m a lone craftsman, not unlike a potter or a cabinetmaker, shaping and reshaping my materials to create an object that pleases me–nobody else–and when it’s done I send it forth into the world. I don’t have an agent. I never show my writing to other writers; their agenda is not my agenda. For the objective judgment and emotional support that every writer needs I depend on the individual editors of my books and magazine articles–fellow craftsmen–and on a few trusted friends. …

It may seem perverse that I compare my writing to plumbing, an occupation not regarded as high-end. But to me all work is equally honorable, all crafts an astonishment when they are performed with skill and self-respect. Just as I go to work every day with my tools, which are words, the plumber arrives with his kit of wrenches and washers, and afterward the pipes have been so adroitly fitted together that they don’t leak. I don’t want any of my sentences to leak. The fact that someone can make water come out of a faucet on the 10th floor strikes me as a feat no less remarkable than the construction of a clear declarative sentence.

Read the entire piece here.

Find the Zinsser on Friday archive here.

Find a list of William Zinnser’s books here, and read them.  He is one of the best writing teachers around, for the price of a book, and, nowadays, a rare fount of common sense.  As his Zinsser on Friday pieces prove.