When my daughter was turning 3, we knocked ourselves out planning a birthday party for her that was at least as good as the ones we’d attended for other Los Angeles preschoolers. Those parents had Barney, Snow White and the Power Rangers? We could at least swing a bubble guy for a couple hours. Over $500 later in food, decorations and entertainment, we patted ourselves on the back for achieving overachievement. The party was a hit.
A year or two later, I casually reminded my daughter about the epic bubble party, and she had no idea what I was talking about.
That’s right: Until I showed her 50-plus photos of her and her pals standing inside a giant bubble from every conceivable angle, she had virtually no memory of this event we’d spent weeks planning and no small chunk of change pulling off.
Does that mean I shouldn’t have thrown her a party at all? Of course not. I’m not a monster. But does it mean I could’ve done it for less than half the cost and a fraction of the effort and stress, and probably just squirted a little Dawn into a kiddie pool and tossed in hula hoop? Absolutely.
That, in essence, is the spirit of a new book from comedian and dad blogger James Breakwell. The married father of four (daughters) argues persuasively in Bare Minimum Parenting: The Ultimate Guide to Not Quite Ruining Your Child, that most of the time, when it comes to parenting, you can usually do half as much for the same (and in most cases, an even better) result.
Breakwell, who has documented his family life for years online and is often called the funniest dad on Twitter, offers a philosophy that goes something like this: None of us, in spite of how we were raised, is anywhere near as special as we think. Humans have been raising mediocre people perfectly well for thousands of years without spending every waking second fretting over the equipment, the studies and the small stuff.
That means, according to the book, that you don’t have to sweat bottle or breast, the diapers, the clothes. You don’t have to attend every sporting event (hell, don’t put them in sports at all). That means you don’t have to monitor their diary or everything they post on the internet, or if you want to monitor it, ask yourself two questions: “Does it show something illegal? Will it create more work for you?” he writes. That means you don’t have to spend every second of your free time being your child’s best friend or carting them around to piano, kite-making or origami class.
That means you don’t have to buy them all the same clothes their peers have — just enough not to get them sent home from school. That means you can relax about monitoring screen time, including television (“If they can handle a documentary about serial killers, they can handle having their will to live murdered every day in a cubicle,” he writes). That means you can stop sweating getting them in the perfect preschool when the one nearby will do just fine. And so on.
If you can raise a child to meet these three benchmarks, you did a good job, Breakwell argues:
- Be self-sufficient enough to seek gainful employment
- Not be a social deviant
- Not have them blame you for everything wrong with them
Well, you did as well as most parents. And the kids will be fine. Or average. Like everyone else is, including you.
This is, obviously, not the easiest sell in an age when helicopter parents have not let up but merely given way to lawnmower parents, eager to jockey ahead for their spawn and use every second of free time to eradicate all obstacles, cut to the front of the line, impart valuable life lessons, expose them to every possible activity and generally give children the impression that they are the center of the known universe. (And probably even the unknown one, given that you can also name undiscovered stars after them.)
It’s also a lot easier said from a dad. After all, parenting debates are not called daddy wars for a reason: It’s mothers who take the lion’s share of the heat for parenting missteps, who are most likely to be crucified for the slightest faux pas. But dads pushing back on parenting perfection proves all that is starting to shift, and men are feeling the rising temperatures, too.
MEL spoke to Breakwell by phone about his parenting philosophy, why women are actually some of his biggest fans and exactly how little you can get away with as a parent and still raise a generally okay citizen of the universe.
You’re writing this book at a time when men are more involved and engaged than ever as fathers, but you’re telling parents to do less.
I think the parent-shaming used to be the exclusive realm of moms, but it’s expanded to dads, too. You have to do everything now as a father — work and provide, or stay at home. You now are expected to go above and beyond. So I’m not saying to neglect your child by any means. We just need a little perspective. This early parenting is not the most important time of their lives. One or two decisions we make before age 3 or 4 are not going to ruin their entire lives.
Even though the general wisdom says exactly the opposite.
People who’ve read small sections of the book say to me, But studies show all these things matter! People just can’t let go of this idea that everything about how they turn out is up to us, everything we do shapes them forever. I think for dads, as well as moms, we have to realize we’re not the only thing that matters in these kids’ lives. We can just take a deep breath, relax and live our lives.
Do you get a lot of criticism in real life when out with your daughters?
Not in person, no. People won’t say things in real life that they do on the internet. I don’t have a dads group I socialize with, so there are no opportunities for people to shame me. I guess there are advantages to being a social outcast. Of course, online, people explode at me, and you never know what they’re going to erupt about. I have had to learn to be better at realizing that these other parents are not the boss of me. I’m doing fine by my kid, and I’m not going to let this shaming get to me.
So you admit it can still get to you.
It still gets to me. If someone slips a comment through, it still irritates me. I try to ignore it, and I’ve contained the areas where it’s exposed. If I post a tweet, and I think responses are going to be negative, I just won’t read the comments. If someone sends me a 2,000-word email, I’ll read it, but as soon I see that But here’s what you’re doing wrong, I stop reading. I’m not looking for constructive feedback; I’m doing fine.
What’s an example?
The biggest example is car seats. I posted a picture of my kids in car seats. People came at me and screamed at me [about how loose the straps were], and I had to say, basically: no kids are dying from this, this is not a real danger. Show me the bodies. And they all pointed to two news articles about something that was a possibility. Hundreds of people came at me. And I had to say, ‘We’re fine, we’re following the law.’
Can you talk about your three benchmarks for raising a decent person?
The first one is they can support themselves. That’s the biggest one. Can they provide for themselves so I don’t have to provide for them? So they don’t live in my basement and pursue an art degree? Doesn’t mean they have to be a hotshot banker on Wall Street, it’s just, can they get an apartment and afford groceries and rent?
Kids move home after college today because they can’t get a big high-paying job, so they can’t leave home. The goal isn’t to find something to feel fulfilled all the time; that’s not always how things work out in life. It’s to get them out of the house so they can take care of themselves.
The second benchmark is not to be a social deviant. So if your kid ends up in prison or on death row, marching at Klan rallies, or is chased away by an angry crowd with torches and pitchforks, you have failed. Can you raise a decent kid who can fit in with society?
Last one: They don’t blame you for everything wrong with their lives. I know kids who grew up with great childhoods and spent their life blaming everything on their parents. If you compared that to a child who doesn’t blame their parents, it’s often the same childhood, just framed differently. If you can raise a child to appreciate what they have, they won’t blame you for what they don’t.
So if I can hit all three, I’m a success.
Let’s talk about some more of the specifics in the book. I think the part about how little children remember very little really resonates. The birthday party you spend $500 on that they don’t even remember until you show them a picture.
There is so little they remember from before they are 4 or 5 years old. It’s often reconstructed memories from what you tell them. So [in your case] she’s not remembering the party, she’s remembering the pictures and your story from the party. So if they don’t remember, how much can it really hurt them? You set the narrative. You tell them it was fun. Tell them they had a great childhood and the pressure’s off. If you’re the record keeper, who is going to call you out on it?
I can imagine people might read that and the book in general as not caring. That’s not your intent, though.
I call it a guide to how to be lazy, but it’s more about how not to stress out and work hard at things that are pointless. To not do all this extra stuff when our kids are going to end up the same. There is no point where I advocate neglect.
It’s not really even bare-minimum parenting, it’s just normal parenting. We’ve boxed ourselves into this high-level parenting. Where everything we do determines the difference between Harvard or community college. Look at the people you admire. Some of them may have had a great childhood. Another person you admire might have had a miserable childhood. But eventually you are who you are, you overcome or you don’t. You’re not their entire life, their entire past or their entire future. We have to get our narcissism under control as parents.
You also advocate for giving kids a lot of privacy. Not going through their diaries or demanding access to their inner lives, within reason.
We treat kids like accessories: You are mine, something I own. But these are independent people, they are the protagonists of their own story. You need to let them be that. I set up bank accounts for our kids and I thought, Wait, this money is now theirs. This is an actual independent person. Kids deserve privacy and their own lives.
And you are pro–screen time.
In order to avoid screens at this point, you have to be voluntarily Amish. Our lives are now onscreen, my career is onscreen and I don’t regard it as anything different than a piece of paper. It’s just another medium. We’ve instilled it with all these qualities.
If you get four kids in a house and deny them screen time, you will not have a house left. It’s a life-saver, and it offsets the fact that we can’t let them roam around anymore. When I grew up I’d go out and play and come back whenever. Now we keep them inside all day and then deny them screen time.
You advocate for letting your kids work out their own conflicts as well. What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from them about how to do so?
They fight and resolve things the way I do. There are no grudges. There is no lingering anger. Something happens, it flares up, there’s drama, and then it’s over forever and they move on. I’m glad they resolve things that way. Life is way easer when you’re not keeping score.
One really compelling argument in the book is that if we look around at most adults we know, we can’t possibly tell if their parent worked or stayed home, if they were bottle-fed or breastfed, if they went to a good preschool, etc.
Why doesn’t anyone bring this up? There are so many millions of choices between becoming an adult and what preschool you went to. You stress out about what preschool, but we know in our own lives that it made no meaningful difference.
Another solid point is about all the jockeying. We say it’s to make our children happy, but clearly it’s to make them rich.
I’ve always believed this, but never put it down before the book. So you’ve spent all this money, you’ve stuffed their résumé, you’ve got a virtuoso on the violin, perfect SAT scores — was that all really so they can be happy? As I point out in the book, Harvard is not known for producing happy people, just rich people.
What are the advantages to doing the bare-minimum parenting other than peace of mind? I know for a lot of parents there’s a huge struggle not to lose your identity.
I get more sleep at night. But we can start by looking at the default assumption: If you’re not spending every second on your kid, you’re a bad parent. It’s like, how dare you have time to yourself? Growing up I was one of seven kids. We did not play with our parents; they did not build our lives around us. They provided for us. but they were not our playmates. Now not only are you the parent, and provider, but now you’re the best friend. If you have projects outside of your children, you’ve taken that time away to selfishly pursue your own interests.
When I come home from work, I don’t sit there and stare at them admiringly. We interact, we have fun, I do play with them more than my parents played with me, but I have a career and a marriage to tend to. I have a life and I’m not going to apologize for it, and I hope anyone who reads it will not apologize as well.
You mentioned in an interview that women are your biggest audience. Why do you think that is?
I benefit from the double standard. [If] a dad is doing his best, it’s, “Aw, good for you.” A mom does her best, it’s, “Why aren’t you perfect?” I don’t know where that came from, and I think I do have an easier road, but at the same time I make sure to not make it harder.
How do you and your wife split the care? I admit I wondered when reading the book if you’re able to be this laid-back because you have a wife who is over there sweating all the small stuff.
I get that a lot. It’s not like that. We’re both laid-back, we were both raised this way, too. We both work full-time, and the kids are in daycare or at school. On top of that, I’m also writing books and running my Twitter account. But we divide things as equally as we can. I cook every night, she does dishes. She does laundry, and I put it away. She does shopping; she loves that, [but] shopping burns me like fire. And I do all the outside stuff. I do all the bedtime routines and baths. I don’t think it’s ever perfectly equal, but we do our best to divide it equally.
Do your views make it hard to make friends with other parents?
Friends are a lot of work! What I’ve been preaching since day one is that this is the kind of parent I am. Women have really responded to that. Many parents out there are like me. Maybe that’s the biggest myth — that parents like me are not an isolated minority, that this is a more logical, common type of parenting. But we’ve ended up with these superparents who don’t want to be superparents. Who want to raise them this [bare-minimum] way, but feel they can’t because there’s so much shame and pressure.
If you’re one of the superparents doing it because you think you have to, not because you want to, this is your permission to no longer do so. You can relax.
But if you really enjoy putting the pressure on yourself and your kids, you can. Just remember that it’s your own choice and not anybody else’s.