In Praise of ‘Slacker’ Parenting

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Failure and learning from it can be one of the best predictors of a child’s future success.

It is a wonder of human nature — and a phenomenon observed throughout the ages — that even in the midst of relative peace and sometimes mind-boggling prosperity, people still find creative new ways to torture themselves. Witness exhibit one million, as explored in Wednesday’s New York Times: the rise of the “homework therapist.”

The homework therapist, the Times reports, “represents a new niche in the $100 billion tutoring industry.” To the tune of $200 to $600 per session, homework therapists act as part tutor, part therapist, offering “emotional support” to the overstressed children of ambitious parents. “Via Skype, email and text, and during pricey one-on-one sessions, they soothe cranky students, hoping to steer them back to the path of achievement.”

We’ll get back to that supposed “path of achievement” in a bit, but let’s move on. “A lot of my clients will say: ‘I did my homework. I forgot to hand it in a number of times. My grades are suffering. And now I feel badly about myself,’” one homework therapist tells the Times. “What we do is get at the core of why.”

I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I think I can get at the core of why: The kids forgot to hand in their homework, and perhaps they should consider actually handing it in next time. Voila! I just saved you $600. Also, I know that correcting grammar is really annoying, but “I feel badly” implies, weirdly enough, that you are bad at feeling. The correct phrasing is “I feel bad.” (I know! I’m sorry! I think I just even annoyed myself.)

The job of the homework therapist, we learn, is “all about calming people down.” One homework-related psychologist — one of many who “can put up with a lot of drama” — explains to the Times how she deals with overwrought students who yell at her, saying “Get out!” or “We don’t need you!” Here we go: “To calm them down, she sometimes suggests a few minutes of video gaming or the Spotify playlists.”

If you feel like you personally need a therapist after reading that last sentence — or if you just want to randomly yell “Get off my lawn!” a few times — welcome to the club.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s give it a try. First of all, if your kid is yelling at his or her very expensive homework therapist, you might want to save yourself some cash and work on basic manners and communication skills instead. Second, one of the most important skills that babies can learn is the act of self-soothing, which is a key coping mechanism for life. Call me bonkers, but having high-schoolers rely on “video gaming” or “Spotify playlists” for emotional management could exacerbate problems, not solve them.

In this life, there are many good reasons for therapy, but when it comes to homework — eternal plague to young ones everywhere! — color me unconvinced. Together with a plethora of high-priced, fast-paced activities that modern parents are told they must embrace or doom their child to a life in a proverbial van down by the river, in fact, the rise of the homework therapist makes me think about the beauty of “slacker” parenting.

In some cases, slacker parenting actually involves more work, at least in the short term. In most cases, it simply translates into questioning many of the things the broader competitive culture tells us we ‘need’ to do.

Ponder this, my friends: What if the best thing that parents can do for their kids’ future success runs completely counter to our culture — a culture that embraces things like all-day super-competitive soccer tournaments for seven-year-olds and pretty much ensures you will never have a fun lazy Saturday again?

To clarify, slacker parenting doesn’t mean you should take a long afternoon nap while your toddler watches The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on repeat. It does not mean that you should take off for the Kentucky Derby without scheduling a babysitter. It also does not mean that you should allow your kids to finally build that epic, gnarly zip line they’ve been dreaming of right over a giant pit of molten lava. In some cases, slacker parenting actually involves more work, at least in the short term. In most cases, slacker parenting simply translates into questioning many of the things the broader, competitive culture tells us we “need” to do.

Think about it: Does your four-year-old really need to practice lacrosse at 7:15 a.m. each Sunday? Do you really need to host an elaborate birthday party for each of your kids every year? What message do we send when we imply that homework-related struggles and failure simply shouldn’t exist? Is it really a good idea to do your eighth-grader’s homework so that she doesn’t ruin her chances of getting into Harvard some day?

That last one, of course, is a trick question. Learning how to fail in life — and how to learn from those failures — could be one of the greatest predictors of future success. In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough notes that while parents are sometimes wired to protect kids from all “dangers and discomforts big and small,” deep down we all “know — on some level, at least — that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can.”

In other words, sometimes kids need to struggle — and sometimes they need to conquer obstacles on their own. “The best way for a young person to build character,” Tough continues, “is for him to attempt something where there is real and serious possibility of failure.”

One thing seems clear: It’s better to learn these lessons earlier rather than later. Perhaps, in the end, slacker parenting is not for you. But let’s revisit that New York Times piece one last time, which closes with a quote from a psychological science professor. Tutoring might be helpful for many kids, she notes, but in the end, “there should be a plan in place for them to become fully functioning, independent adults.” Amen. That, in fact, is slacker parenting 101.

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