do nothing parenting

A couple of years ago I took a Permaculture Design Certificate course run by Rhamis Kent, who had studied under the tutelage of Geoff Lawton. Sidi Rhamis introduced us to the ideas, writings and practices of a Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, which are set out in his notes and writings in a collection called ‘The One Straw revolution’. 

When Fukuoka inherited his fathers’ apple orchard, and began to take care of it, he couldn’t quite believe the amount of work that was needed – and continued to be necessary – in the orchard, in order to harvest the fruit: pruning, spraying, grafting, mowing…

Fukuoka couldn’t help feeling that something wasn’t right. Surely nature did not intend all this effort? After all, apples were just a natural product of the trees. There had to be a more simple way, he thought. Do we really need to do all this stuff in order to grow and harvest a crop? Something nature is doing, and has been doing, for centuries without our help? What if nature knows best, and doesn’t need our interference? Where has all this interference we call ‘farming’ got us anyway? Only closer to extinction… thought Fukuoka. 

Recently, when having real serious issues with compliance in terms of my son’s behaviour, I came across Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA), which is an autistic spectrum disorder. The idea is that for such children, the average and everyday demands of life are stressful and anxiety-inducing, and the child will go to extreme lengths to avoid what is being demanded (tidy your room, get dressed, clean your teeth, put your shoes on etc.) For these children, the resistant behaviour is not naughty or defiance, it comes about through anxiety, and thus the usual parenting strategies for managing this lack of compliance do not work, they can make matters worse, because they do not address the cause of the behaviour. I then came across this concept of ‘low-demand’ parenting, which is recommended in cases of PDA. 

The goal of low-demand parenting is to help children stay out of ‘fight or flight’ mode: a state which they are too often and too commonly operating in. Like the ‘do-nothing’ farming developed by Fukuoka, our goal is simply to reduce the demands and stresses on the newly growing offspring. Low-demand parenting focuses on creating a conducive environment for the child, or children, to grow and learn, and reducing the demands placed on them that incite anxiety.

One might argue that children need to have demands placed on them because: this is ‘life,’ and when they grow up there will be many demands. But what if, with the pressures removed, and left to regulate themselves, they are actually more likely to thrive?

Farming as we know it is about control. It is about controlling the environment as much as possible  (mono-cropping, hothousing, pesticides for the pests, herbicides for the weeds…) in order to force the results we want to see (big, perfectly shaped fruits, vegetables, eggs etc. in high quantities). Too much of parenting, as we know it, is also about control, just like interventionist farming.

Fukuoka’s method, now often referred to as ‘natural farming’, developed over years of trial and error, involves as minimal intervention or interference as possible. It involves focusing on growing good soil as the foundation for healthy plants, through sowing seeds that nurture the soil; companion planting; allowing nature to bring water through rain and dew; and capturing the water through adding dense organic matter as mulch. If weeds or unwanted plants occur, sow more seeds of beneficial or desired plants. Prune as little as possible, instead allowing the trees to grow to their own natural shapes.

wild orchard of olive and orange trees with biodiverse undergrowth

In the vein of ‘do-nothing’ farming, ‘do-nothing parenting’ is about creating a rich, fertile, healthy, safe environment for our little seedlings to grow and thrive and take on their own shape, with as little intervention – and demands – as possible. The parent, like the farmer, is steward, or guide. It is our job to create a conducive environment for our children to grow, not control their every move. Focus on the soil, not the struggling plant. Don’t over water: capture the nourishing knowledge that flows. If negative or harmful behaviour or influences crop up, add more positive behaviour and influences. Prune (or control) as little as possible. 

my son playing with a camera in nature

So, this is my plan: lead by example, model the behaviour we want to see, and let them be.  Children are little mimics, they copy. If we are growing well, so will they. A student of the islamic scholar, Ibn Khaldun, famously asked: ‘Hoja, how do we educate our children?’ And Hoja replied: ‘Don’t. Educate yourselves.’

unschooling and the pandemic

Written 9 June 2020.

When my friend told me she was worried that her daughter would “get behind if she did not go back to school soon”, this got me thinking. While these are very real concerns for parents, who know how fiercely competitive the job market is getting, I started to think what does ‘behind’ mean? Perhaps now, in the midst of the Pandemic, is the time to reassess what education is actually for, and doing. Education should not be about content, that if we miss it, we will get ‘behind’, but should be about exploration, development and growth. These are very personal things, that should not solely be tied to a national curriculum and a keeping up with the peer group, and are not solely experienced within the four walls of the school building. 

learning to tie knots with dad

Since the beginning of Lockdown, when kindergarten closed, now reaching 9 weeks for us, I have witnessed my nearly five year old son grow exponentially, and we have not even opened a text book. We have been juggling full-time home working, temper tantrums, no outdoor space, the draw of screens, parental arguments, Ramadan fasting, elderly parents’ struck down with the virus, and all this involves learning and growth. My son has learned, and is still, learning so much.


balcony water play marble run

He has grown taller, he is has cycled through, and emerged from, various stages of early years development, including the stealing ‘treasures’ from the kitchen stage; playing with knives stage; experiments with blackmail and manipulation stage. Left completely to his own devices, we have discovered he loves: taking apart electronics; music, dance and percussion.  He – as I am sure heightened for many of us in the Pandemic Lockdowns  – has been struggling with addictions: ‘just one more biscuit’; ‘I’ve got to watch the next programme then I’ll do my chores’; ‘I’ve just got to scroll ten more, then I’ll go to sleep’*. 

pandemic telly addict

In todays age, GCSEs should be measuring how clearly you can see beauty even when it is not pretty every day; if you can be faithful and trustworthy; if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself; if you can live with failure; how well you can sit with pain in the empty moments when all else falls away.**

The best thing you can do is nurture children’s spirit and desire to learn, to want to explore, to find out. The rest will follow. Many more parents are ‘unschooling’ now, which is a deliberately provocative term, but nevertheless useful one. At the centre of this, is allowing children to learn in a self-directed manner. That is giving them freedom to explore, and to support what they want to learn about. 

pandemic NHS appreciation rainbow drawn by 4 year old

For more inspiration on critical and alternative approaches to education visit these two projects.

One of which is very resonant with me:

Disco Learning by Lucy Aitken Read is an unschooling course giving parents the courage to unschool.

The other of which I am a founder and governor:

Arbol Madre Holistic School is a Waldorf-inspired school aiming to educate mind, body and soul.


*Thats me, not my 5 year old. My 5 year old is not scrolling before bed. It’s not that bad. Yet.

**Credits to The Invitation, a poem by Oriah Mountain Dreamer.