The courage of refusal

By Albert Vinzens, August 2017

When we look at the subject of leisure activities for our children it is worthwhile occasionally reversing the parts of role model and imitator. We adults should investigate the natural play of children as it is played in indigenous cultures. We should imitate as much as possible of their way of playing. That would then have a great effect on children. Anyone who thinks that might be difficult can find help in, for example, Tom Hodgkinson – or Friedrich Schiller.

Photo: © W. Schmidt

We cannot have everything, much less everything at all times. This simple fact is ignored by our society and yet it cannot be avoided by any tricks, be they ever so clever. Too many things in one place cause a problem, we experience that tangibly in the traffic jam or at the station when everyone is heading home after work. Things need space to unfold otherwise they obstruct one another.

Something similar applies with regard to time; it must be able to stand back from itself otherwise it becomes ever narrower and hard to cope with, more hectic, short-winded and, from a certain point onwards, makes us ill. Dealing with space and time in an inappropriate way has consequences in life. Liberal people and parents concerned for the wellbeing of their children do not like to talk about it. They prefer to let others philosophise about lack of time and too little space for development. If they had their way, the problem would be swept under the carpet with an elegant swipe.

That, precisely, is what fails to lead to success. Take the school reforms in Germany (so-called G8) which for example reduced the secondary school period up to the final exams by one year – in theory everything went quickly and simply but the health of the pupils soon refused to play along, time management ran out of control in this ambitious project.

In order to be able to keep up, the pupils managed their school and leisure time by appointments calendar with the constant concern of being totally overworked. The lesson from this says: time cannot be arbitrarily cut and optimised. There comes a point when the tank is empty and suddenly there is no leeway to organise anything. The cleverly conceived systems collapse in on themselves. The return to G9 was bought at a high price.

Greater leisure in the life of our children is not achieved through the optimisation of space and time but through the decision to make do with less. Goethe called it renunciation. That is difficult. The super excellent pupil who plays one or two instruments to a very high standard, excels at sport, trains daily in the paddock and does ballet on alternate days – that is the model. And when all those things don’t work out then a social safety net has to kick in which deals with the deficits from the bottom up with extra tuition, provision to keep the children occupied and learning support for social behaviour. And this in the children’s leisure time.

Then there is the additional factor that children, be they the best or be they struggling, must not in any way  be restricted in their technical amusements. Dealing like this with the complicated situation of our school, leisure and digital worlds works at best in the minds of adults. It should not even be the subject of debate any longer, let alone of our dreams, that it might still work in some way to achieve relaxation without letting go of certain things and taking leave of them.

Famous people have said, and we have repeated it in all its variations, that the problems of our time cannot be solved with the same thinking that produced them. Such wisdom is no longer new but we have not yet started thinking about it in a new way. But that is precisely what must happen otherwise the delusions of consumption and leisure will keep spiralling ever more out of control.

It’s difficult to say no

Does a child have to have a say in every instance? No. Does every girl have to be the most beautiful, every boy the coolest? No. Do we have to treat each child like a star? No. Of course we know that not everyone can become everything but that possibility is precisely what we want. The selfie world has long jumped from adults to the children’s world at its youngest. Even two to four-year-old children are already glued to their smartphones for half an hour per day on average and are preparing to ascend the slippery slope of vanity.

And what do any number of adults say about that? As long as it is my child on the photo there, everything is really quite okay. It isn’t that a no was accepted any better in the past than it is today, but today a no is something like a shocking expression of a lack of political correctness – which makes the matter considerably more difficult. Because we cannot afford to get into that situation, we say yes. “In principle, yes,” is the parental motto, “but now we just have to see how we put the yes into practice.” If in doubt, say yes. Yes is easier than no.

And even if parents like to complain about the lack of change in their pockets – when it comes to spending on their children, including totally unnecessary, silly expenditures, the purse strings are open.


I don’t know how I would have reacted to Hodgkinson’s book when I, a father of four children, was myself up to my neck in their upbringing, parents’ evenings, remittances and holiday planning. Tom Hodgkinson’s guide for lazy parents is called The Idle Parent. Tom Sawyer und Huckleberry Finn had, to take an example which is probably rather unworldly but nevertheless worth considering, any amount of space and time to slip from one idle hour to the next. Tom Hodgkinson builds on this forgotten tradition which, as his book shows, can still be practised in our western world.

The promise of the chapters is honoured in the text in a witty, affectionate and yet always serious way. We should not tell children: use your leisure time. That has a similar effect to telling them to “be spontaneous”. Hodgkinson never addresses the children but always the parents because only they can initiate the change of direction which gives children back their leisure time, and thus the time to do nothing, and their creative boredom. The author’s recommendations are harsh but possess a beguiling allure.

He himself does everything he asks his readers to do. Thus he has stopped spending all day working for a good salary on work controlled from elsewhere. For the children that brings not just one but two benefits: first, he has no spare money which he could spend on ridiculous toys; second, he has time to gather wood and junk from the surroundings to use to tinker about with and make things. “Ban Telly, Embrace Freedom” is the title of one chapter, or “No More Family Days Out”. Hodgkinson writes about the Tao of parenting and claims that only parents who do not strive for perfection are good parents.

Mothers and father who are “idle” are sociable, they have time, involve themselves with their children, allow themselves to be abducted into their children’s room or join them outside for adventures. They are a joy for the neighbourhood and have far fewer problems with high-tech toys and computer consoles than those who can afford everything.

Away from the extremes to the centre

If such a book is too simple, I recommend Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of the Human Being. The scholarly simplest yet thoroughly precise interpretation of this work can be paraphrased as follows: don’t spend too much time puzzling out highly intelligent strategies for the efficient time management of the leisure time of your children. As long as you do that you are stuck at the pole of reason and will grow prematurely sclerotic. That also applies if your exclusive desire is to give your children what is beautiful, valuable and spotless.

Furthermore, don’t let yourself go, keep your drives in check. There is no need to follow every emotional impulse, keep a lookout for all those bargains, constantly buy the latest version of everything and take a shot of every pose. The former turns you into an emotional illiterate, the latter into a slave of restlessness. In either case time flows away between your fingers. Both here and there the room for experience grows every smaller.

And now we come to the magic trick which no one has yet described better than Schiller. It is a matter of doing away with the extremes. Human beings are neither about excessive rationality nor the excessive satisfaction of needs. There is a midpoint where, without feeling uncomfortable, we can caringly do without putting an idea into practice and, on the other hand, waive the material fulfilment of a wish. At this centre we can breathe in deeply, relax and enjoy life.

In this human zone everything changes, becomes more playful, easier, humorous, spacious and calm. That is oddly a difficult path, but one that gives us a sense of shaping our lives ourselves – our own and those of our children. Adults who live in this zone have a positive effect on their children.

About the author: Albert Vinzens is an author and lecturer at Innsbruck University in anthropology and education.