Idle Parent: We Try Not to Interfere

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This is the tenth part in a series of discussions regarding The Idle Parent Manifesto, which can be found in Tom Hodgkinson’s book The Idle Parent: Why Laid-Back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids. Need to get caught up? You can do so here.

We Try Not to Interfere


When 4-year-olds make their own cinnamon sugar toast.

I did not interfere in the making of this cinnamon sugar toast. Obviously.

One of the realizations I came away with after reading this book was how the line between being a helicopter parent and a distracted parent can be so fine.  And so fuzzy.

On the one side you have your classic helicopter parent, who sees it as their parental responsibility to be involved in nearly every aspect of their child’s life.  On the other side you have a hands-off parent, who has as little involvement as possible.

Along both sides you have a spectrum.  There’s the all-encompassing helicopter parent who doesn’t leave a single task or decision to a child.  More than likely, though, a parent prioritizes an area of over-involvement.  Maybe a parent helicopters when it comes to safety – helmets and seat belts and never playing outside alone.  Maybe a parent helicopters when it comes to school – micromanaging homework and interactions with teachers.  Maybe a parent helicopters when it comes food – dictating every morsel that goes into a child’s mouth.

Levels and reasons for uninvolvement can vary widely, too.  Perhaps drug or alcohol abuse impairs a parent from their basic caregiving duties.  Some parents see it as a badge of honor to raise children who are as independant and self-reliant as possible from an early age.

And then there are those, like me and probably many of you, who fall in the middle.  We’re not ready to let our 3-year-olds cook dinner for themselves or stay home alone, and yet we’re pretty sure we don’t want to room with our kid at college to make sure they get to class on time.  How do you decide when to hover and when to walk away?

I think this is what the author is trying to answer when he includes the choice to not interfere in his manifesto.  The Merriam-Webster definition of interfere is “to interpose in a way that hinders or impedes.”

Interfering doesn’t mean rescuing.  It doesn’t mean helping.  It doesn’t do anything in the way of teaching.  It does the opposite.  It robs a child of any chance of meaningful growth.

What is it that we want to impede or stop?  Is it imminent injury or putting someone in serious danger?  Then it’s probably a situation in which you interfere.  Situations that come to mind? An argument between friends or siblings that’s turned verbally or physically abusive.  Play that turns dangerous: throwing rocks at each other, unsupervised playing with fire, getting out the ladder to climb on the roof.  Trying something in the kitchen that involves the stove or knives before having a demonstration.  You interfere and then use it as a teachable moment.

When we interfere in moments that are simply messy, uncomfortable, or differ in the way we would handle them, we’re preventing our children from learning how to be functioning, responsible people.

It’s incredibly hard. Unless you are totally tuned out, not interfering will probably create more work in the short term.  For our family, it means listening to more sibling squabbles and letting them sort it out.  It means hurt feelings, tears, slamming doors, and cries of “It’s not fair!”  It means trying to tune out whining from kids who have fallen in a rut of too much screen time and don’t remember how to combat boredom (Lord, if we only fix one thing in 2013 …).  It means lowering standards, whether it’s on how the bed is made or what kind of food gets packed in a lunch, so that a kid can do something totally, completely on their own.

Suddenly, not interfering doesn’t seem so idle after all.  In the long run, though, it will make much less work for everyone.  You can enjoy the competent adults your children grow up to be and they can leave home confident that they have the life skills they need to function.

When it comes to parenting, what do you find difficult to not interefere in? What do you find easy to stay out of?