The first thing the Allens, a British family of four, want you to know about them is that they are followers of something they call off-grid parenting. This includes common, and sometimes questionable, alternative parenting practices such as home-schooling, avoiding vaccinations and modern medicine, co-sleeping, and extended breast-feeding. There are also less common ones, such as “lotus birthing” (letting the placenta and umbilical cord fall off naturally) and avoiding shoes for their children. Still, all this is not enough for the Allens. They yearn for a family life even further off-grid and have hatched a plan that will help them move closer “towards self sustainability and being a bit more free range and less institutionalized.”
The second thing the Allens want you to know about them is that they can’t do this without you. Yes, their master plan for self-sufficiency involves “moving to Costa Rica and buying a big plot of land where we can grow food, and have access to wildlife and nature in it's natural state,” as they explain on their FundMyTravel.com campaign page (accompanied by a must-see video). But in order to make this happen they need $100,000 of your money, which they will pay back by sharing the treasure trove of knowledge they anticipate gaining by living off the land. In the meantime, they’ll continue getting by on housing and child benefits from the government.
Obviously, the fact that they never acknowledge the irony of using an online fundraising campaign to help them become more self-sufficient speaks to their total obliviousness to the potential consequences of their lifestyle choices on their family and the world around them. But does this obliviousness makes them insufferable or insidious? I'll attempt to parse it out.
In the insufferable category we have their Rousseau-light theories about how society is a corruptive force and children do best when they self-educate and self-medicate.* What makes this even more irritating is that they claim this is all natural, without ever stopping to think what a subjective, and mutable, concept natural is. Also, it’s not enough for them to be off-grid; they also have to tell everyone about it, on-grid. The Allens are no real-life Captain Fantastic (a story about a family also motivated by narcissism and delusion but wise enough to keep it all within the unit), but just another thirsty couple itching to proselytize their ill-conceived lifestyle to the masses.
But far more troubling than this narcissism and delusion is their decision to not vaccinate their children, which kills, and the way they’ve turned the very lovely experience of parenthood into a performance about parenting. Not only do such rigid parenting philosophies make raising children seem far more fraught than it really is; they also distract parents from the alleged beneficiaries of these philosophies: their kids.
In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, psychology professor and writer Alison Gopnik argues against parenting, a word and idea that didn’t enter popular consciousness until the 1970s.
“The idea that parents can learn special techniques that will make their children turn out better is ubiquitous in middle-class America—so ubiquitous that it might seem obvious. But this prescriptive picture is fundamentally misguided. It’s the wrong way to understand how parents and children actually think and act, and it’s equally wrong as a vision of how they should think and act,” Gopnik writes.
Instead of focusing on parenting, which involves trying to “achieve a particular outcome,” we should value “being a parent,” Gopnik explains. This involves loving one’s children and giving them a sense of security in response to their needs, instead of following a rule book. The set of orthodoxies proposed by various parenting methods often blind us from our children and everything and everyone else.
To illustrate this point: During a recent appearance on a morning talk show, the Allens’ youngest child, 1-year-old Ostara, walks to the front of the set and urinates in clear view of the camera. It’s hilarious. The Allens defended themselves and claimed that the “nappy leaked.” This might be true, though my experience tells me a puddle formation of that size is highly unlikely unless the diaper hadn’t been changed for a very, very long time. (More plausible is that she wasn’t wearing a diaper at all, and that the Allens were practitioners of “elimination communication,” a diaperless, and dubious, form of potty training beloved by parents of their ilk.) I don’t fault little Ostara for her indiscretion, nor do I fault her parents for the fact that she peed. What I do take issue with is their indifference to the act: Mom keeps on talking, dad and big brother point and laugh instead of going over and helping her. All that matters is their self-sufficiency—well, prattling on about their self-sufficiency—and they don’t care who or what gets pissed on in the process.
*Correction, July 27, 2016: This post originally misspelled the last name of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.