I spent last weekend at Port Eliot in Cornwall. This is supposed to be a literary and music festival and my reason for being there was to talk about my new book What Every Parent Needs to Know. In reality, though, it’s just an excuse to go camping with old friends, drink plenty of alcohol and stay up late. You’d think this would be difficult with four children in tow, particularly children as young as mine, but Port Eliot is an object lesson in benign neglect. By the end of the three days I had been taught more about parenting by the festival–goers than I’d managed to teach them.
Caroline and I are quite relaxed with our kids — at least, that’s what I used to think. Yes, we make sure they do their homework, but we’ve stopped worrying about junk food and screen time. They subsist on a diet of crisps and Nutella. They know next to nothing about history or geography, but even the six-year-old could pass a GCSE in Minecraft.
So we weren’t expecting to be shocked by the attitude of our fellow campers at Port Eliot. We thought we’d fit right in, with our bell tent and our Kampa Khazi. In fact, we suddenly found ourselves at the up-tight end of the parenting spectrum. This hit home on the first night when we were putting our children to bed. This was around 10 p.m. — suitably indulgent, we thought, but we couldn’t help noticing that the children in the next-door tent didn’t appear to have any parents. There were three of them, all under ten, and they spent most of the evening sitting round a makeshift campfire eating toffee popcorn.
By 11 p.m. Caroline and I were beginning to get anxious. Were the parents lost somewhere in the campsite, frantically searching for their children? Should we contact one of the organisers so they could make an announcement over the PA system? But we needn’t have worried. At exactly 11.15 p.m. a walkie-talkie in the children’s tent crackled into life.
‘OK, Jemima, Otis and Cooper,’ said a woman’s voice. ‘Time for bed!’
The youngest of the three — Otis, I think — disappeared into the tent.
‘Dad promised he’d tell us a bedtime story,’ he said. ‘We’re not going to go to bed until we’ve had a story.’
There was a pause, and then a man’s voice came on the line.
‘A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood…’
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Caroline and I had already had an argument about which of us would be on baby-sitting duty and, since we couldn’t agree, we’d reluctantly decided to have an early night. It hadn’t occurred to us that we could both go out and put the children to bed by remote control. Admittedly, it didn’t actually work. After the dad had finished reciting The Gruffalo, the children returned to their places round the campfire and opened another bag of popcorn. But they didn’t seem troubled by the fact that their parents weren’t there. They were probably used to it.
The next day we saw more signs of this laissez-faire attitude. Having gone to bed before midnight, we were up and about by 9 a.m. and the scene in the campsite resembled Lord of the Flies. There were no adults in sight — literally, not one — presumably because they were all sleeping off the excesses of the night before. Children as young as three or four were running round in packs, scavenging for food like Mumbai orphans. Occasionally, a child would come across a half-eaten tin of baked beans, scoop out the residue with his fingers and then drop the empty can at his feet. I felt like the dad of the year just because I was cooking my children breakfast.
The explanation for this state of affairs, I think, is that most of the festival–goers are descended from the nobility. Port Eliot takes place in the grounds of an estate owned by the Earl of St Germans and, for that reason, attracts a lot of posh people. Their parents were clueless when it came to raising offspring — they outsourced it to domestic servants — and they’re pretty clueless too. But their children didn’t seem to be suffering from this neglect. On the contrary, they were much more self-reliant and grown-up than ours. Consequently, we stopped worrying about things like feeding them and putting them to bed and let them run wild. As a result, all six of us had a much better time and can’t wait to go again next year.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.