Monday, May 2, 2011

Productive Neglect: or How to Groom Your Kids So You Can Write

Sunday Dinner at the Fama-Cochrane house

The supposed American Dream that permeates our culture — a suburban, single-family home with a backyard and two kids who are popular, polite, and athletic — is antithetical to the writing life. This is instead how writers should live: in densely-populated walking communities; never driving anywhere; raising children — maybe a passel of them — who are creative misfits in high school and dependent on you and each other for friendship.

Do you want to write? Then neglect your kids, neglect your adult friends, and stay at home as much as possible. You can only write when you're sitting in your chair.

Allow me to flesh out the sort of "neglect" I mean, because it's a special selective neglect — the end result of which is that your kids will become more integrated into your life, will be more fun to be with, and will frankly grow into more interesting adults, while you, my friend, have a writing career. It's win, win.

Wrong: Team sports.
Absolutely do not encourage soccer, baseball, football, swim team, or oh my god, ice hockey. Team sports require excessive amounts of driving, snack preparation, cheering, and volunteer work, with absolutely no payoff for your child or for you when he becomes an adult. If your kid is on a traveling team, you have failed. Honestly, the odds are against his becoming a professional athlete (if that were even desirable), and his scholarship to college should be an academic one. 

Right:  Exercise together.
As adults, your kids will be jogging, walking, cycling, swimming laps, or playing tennis — in short, exercising in their neighborhood daily, the way you do. Foster a love of jogging from infancy: start by pushing them in a jogging stroller, then jog alongside their bicycles until they're ready to slow-jog with you at the age of 12 or 13. (By the time your child is 14, you'll struggle to keep up.) People who jog together become friends, and if you're lucky, your teen jogging partners will plot and troubleshoot your YA novel on the road.

Wrong: Playdates, all sorts.
Playdates send the unfortunate message to your children that social interactions with peers are important. Mob birthday parties are ghastly events. Sleepovers exhaust everyone, and if your child catches lice, kiss two weeks of writing goodbye for the cleanup. Don't worry that your kids won't have any school friends, because that's desirable. The goal is for them to be friends with each other, and with you, creating projects in your home. Have you ever heard Tim Burton on the subject of popularity in high school?
"I remember going to my ten-year high school reunion....What was fascinating was that the people who were deemed antisocial and freaks in high school were now incredibly attractive and well adjusted. There seemed to be some sort of catharsis about growing up and being alone that made you rely on yourself....People who were satisfied with themselves in high school and thought they had it all had stopped growing."

Right: Instead, have a large family.
Have more than one child, close together, and they will become playmates. They will also keep you up to date with pop culture as they grow, which will inform your writing. If you have girls, they won't let you go to your book signings looking like a vegan hippie peasant, which is your natural inclination.

Wrong: Shopping.
Shopping is not recreation, it's a time suck. Remember these words: never leave home in your car. You and your kids should be able to walk everywhere: to school, to their music lessons, to the local bookstore, and to restaurants. Driving gobbles hours out of your day.

Right: Online delivery.
Some urban neighborhoods (like mine) even have web grocery delivery. There is almost nothing you can't order online, and pre-paid return labels make trying clothes on hassle-free. Your UPS driver should greet you by name. 

Wrong: Enforce reading, board games, and outdoor play.
Do not limit screen time. Movies, video games, the Internet — these are things that make your child conversant in current events and contemporary culture. If he's creatively oriented, it's where he gets his ideas and inspiration. You spend hours on your computer, why shouldn't he? If your child is going to be a critically-thinking, project-oriented homebody, he needs a vast quantity of world references under his belt.

Right: Encourage home projects.
As a human being, you should have a creative project going at all times, otherwise you are a dreadful bore. Your children should know this in their core, from infancy. This is where you get out of your writing chair and get involved: sing in a band with them; help them record voice-overs for their flash animation movies; be the cinematographer for their music video; buy them art supplies and art lessons, music supplies and music lessons. Home projects are the one and only thing for which driving around town is acceptable, to take reference photos and scout film locations. Most of the time, their projects will have them buzzing around you, working on their own stuff while you write. (The war is won.) Finally, teach your kids to cook with you. You'll share quality time with them, give them a life skill, and they will feed you when you're under deadline.

Bryan Caplan, author of “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.” (Basic Books, 2011) hits the nail on the head when he says:

"High-strung parenting isn’t dangerous, but it does make being a parent a lot more work and less fun than it has to be."

So chill out, stay home with your nerdy kids, and get some writing done.

1 comment:

  1. Okay, so I just evaluated myself on the criteria here, and I think I am about a C-. Not failing -- which is good, but not thriving as a parent either. We are an interesting mix of the do's and don'ts. I am also thinking that you might like NYC even more than HP, because everything in that place can be ordered and delivered (even a hot fudge sundae), and if ever you need to travel beyond what's quickly walk-able, you can take the subway and, ta dah, no traffic. Brilliant imho.