Why be a performative Insta parent when your kids will be happy in front of the TV?

This week, I happened to come across a particularly fascinating Instagram post from a member of that strange and relatively new breed of people known as “mumfluencers”, and it shows the aforementioned mumfluencer, dressed ever-so-casually but with mysteriously perfect makeup, marching through a forest with three small boys. Most intriguingly, she is holding a letter board on which she has spelled out: “Into the woods we go because kids won’t remember their best day of television.”

I have a lot of questions about this photo, which has gone heavily viral in the US, and the first one is this: did she carry that letter board the whole time she was in the woods? Because that surely would have become a bit tiresome. Also, are those actually her kids? That has been the public’s assumption, but I also have three small children, and let me tell you, no way would the mother of those kids have the time or inclination to put on lipstick in the morning. Also, maybe I’ve watched too many horror films of the Midsommar variety, but there is something about that photo that makes me suspect she’s taking those kids into the woods to make a human sacrifice. Aww, classic Instagram moment!

The craziest thing about that picture is the message. “Kids won’t remember their best day of television”? Has this person ever been a kid? I absolutely remember my best days of television, because television is bloody brilliant, especially when you’re a kid. Possibly the greatest afternoon of my entire childhood was when I watched the episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in which he goes to the crayon factory. I still watch it on YouTube in times of stress, the malleable coloured wax getting pushed through some metal holes and turning into crayons. People are very into ASMR videos these days, those clips of smoke blowing, or sap dripping, all of which are said to provoke a soothing sensory effect in viewers. But the greatest ASMR video ever is Mister Rogers at the crayon factory. Apparently we did, as a family, go on walks in the woods, because I’ve seen the photos. But I don’t remember any of that. I do, however, remember the Saturday afternoons when my sister and I would watch Beverly Hills 90210, Baywatch, Blind Date and Gladiators. Now that was a great day of TV.

Of course, the message of this photo has nothing to do with television, and everything to do with parenting – and specifically, performative parenting. There’s been a lot of it about recently, especially during the lockdowns, when some parents needed to prove to everyone that they were not merely parenting in this difficult time, but parenting better than anyone ever has or will. (New linguistic rule: when a noun turns into a verb – eg, to friend, to parent – it becomes more about outward show than emotional connection.) Hence the rise in online photos of children snuggled up in a striped tent in the garden, or frolicking in a bluebell meadow, or lying on a bed with mummy, looking up at the camera. There’s nothing wrong with children doing any of those things – but are they inherently better than, let’s say, letting your kids watch TV? Mumfluencers say yes, 100%, but I’ll tell you what I’ve learned during my time as a lipstick-free, woods-avoiding mother: there’s a lot to be said for low-effort parenting.

Performative parents say: “Let’s all make a picnic and eat it in a nearby meadow!” Low-effort parents say: “I’ll defrost a pizza, then we’ll eat it in the kitchen.” Performative parents say: “Let’s have a scavenger hunt!” Low-effort parents say: “Let’s watch Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” If you’re the kind of parent who can do activities without getting in a foul mood, good for you. I am not, and my kids would rather do nothing and have a cheerful mother than a mother screaming about the impossibility of erecting a tent.

Low-effort parenting is occasionally confused with so-called slummy mummy parenting, that “Look at me, I’m a crap mum! My kids have no clean clothes! I love gin!” shtick, which is really just performative parenting approached from a different, even more annoying angle. Low-effort parents, by contrast, don’t have the energy for that kind of drama.

I love low-effort parenting, but I am not saying it is objectively the best parenting, because contrary to what lots of parenting books and influencers claim, there is no best kind. There is just parenting that gets you and your kids safely through the day without you putting anyone in the bin. Not every moment of parenting is An Experience, but I can honestly say some of my family’s happiest moments have been when we have watched TV together: everyone enjoying themselves, all of us talking about our favourite moments afterwards, no dread about the journey home – because we are home! True, it may not get me many likes on Instagram, but at least I don’t have to hold up a letter board.