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Helicopter parents: Just leave the kids alone!

By Julia Baird

The most refreshing piece of advice I have heard lately on raising children comes, curiously enough, from D.H. Lawrence, who wrote in 1918: ''How to begin to educate a child. First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone. That is the whole beginning.'' Could we be any more different today?

It's true that D.H. Lawrence would struggle to get a job as a manny (male nanny) in these self-flagellating, hyper-involved times. Especially if he let slip that he believed babies should ''be given to stupid fat old women who can't be bothered with them''. But something about his recommendation to just let children be rings true.

Our hand-wringing about the best, most righteous - and time-intensive - ways to steer our kids to shining futures seems to have reached a fever pitch lately, and it doesn't seem to be doing anyone much good.

Anxious parents have become a staple of modern culture: they have been called helicopter parents, snow-plough parents, hovercrafts and PFH (Parents From Hell), and they are frequently parodied. For years, sociologists worried that hyper-involved parenting would make children emotionally dependent and unable to fend for themselves.

Now, new research by Margaret Nelson, Professor of Sociology at Middlebury College, Vermont, shows that it is not the children who suffer, but the parents. They become so focused on their kids that their marriages suffer and often fracture, they spend less time with their friends, in their community and often are deeply unhappy as a result.

And this is one of the great hidden truths in our culture, behind the Kleenex ads and snaps of taut celebrity mothers: many parents are miserable. In the past decade, a ream of studies has confirmed that those who have kids are less happy than those who don't have kids - they only become happier when their children leave home.

Parents consistently score lower on scales of life satisfaction, marital satisfaction and mental well-being. Daniel Gilbert, Harvard Professor of Psychology, found parents were happier sleeping or shopping for groceries than spending time with their children.

At first glance, this shows the most obvious shortcomings of the study of happiness, which does not factor in a deeper joy, sense of purpose, or fulfillment. It focuses instead on days, or minutes, or moments.

Having kids is one of the most mind-blowing, blissful experiences, which can stretch and pummel your heart daily. But it can also be hard - and there is something peculiar about this generation that begs examination: we consistently tell pollsters we are unhappy parents, and we broadcast that fact more than any other.

Today's moms and dads are twice as stressed as they were in the 1950s. Part of this is our own fault: the intense parenting style chosen by the middle class has added to the burden, and misery - since 1965 the amount of time mothers spend on all child-care activities has risen even as more women have entered the workforce.

This should be a good thing. But, counter-intuitively, while we are more involved, we are also less happy. This may well be correlation, but in a new book, Parenting Out of Control, Margaret Nelson argues that part of the reason for our offspring over-reach is technology; from baby monitors to cell phones and social networking sites, which allow us to communicate with, supervise and spy on our kids.

She also finds highly educated adults, who are also spending more time at work, are the most obsessive parents. We have made parenting a profession, pushed ourselves to achieve an impossible ''perfection'', and punished ourselves by sacrificing our own lives.

This is why parents need to chill out, for our own sakes. We should return to the model espoused by British author Tom Hodgkinson, whose amusing and provocative book The Idle Parent: Why More Means Less When Raising Kids is the stuff of fantasy for modern parents. He advocates pleasure, laughter, relaxation, leaving the kids alone.

Hodgkinson's manifesto reads, in part: ''We reject the idea that parenting requires hard work. We pledge to leave our children alone. We read them poetry and fantastic stories without morals. We don't waste money on family days out and holidays. We lie in bed for as long as possible. We try not to interfere. We play in the fields and forests. We push them into the garden and shut the door so we can clean the house. Time is more important than money. We fill the house with music and merriment.''

There are some mad and foolish moments in Hodgkinson's book, but in parts, I cheered. Who wouldn't want to hang out at his house? Why not allow your children to entertain themselves on weekend mornings as you sleep in, perhaps - gasp - with some TV, like we did? Why not spend hours singing with them, playing music, dancing and napping? We should give them as much free time as possible to foster their imaginations and self-reliance. Then maybe even drink a glass of wine at bath time because, after all, Hodgkinson says, ''kids love a tipsy mom''. Instead of constantly 'investing in the future', he suggests contemplating the present. Instead of resenting our kids for relentless demands, we should stop thinking of ourselves as martyrs, loosen up and enjoy them more.

And it's hard not to disagree with statements like these: ''It is our habit of seeing life as a series of burdens imposed on us by outside forces that creates misery. Once we recognize that we are free and responsible creatures the burden is lifted.'' More pleasure, more laughter, more free-roaming imaginations - less misery, more mayhem and madness. Amen to that.

Julia Baird is deputy editor of Newsweek. This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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