It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Benign Neglect

A Perfect Post
In a recent email chat with another mother about how we interact with our kids, she said this:

Yes, I think I DO play with my children more than, say, my mother played with us. And some of it is [reasons particular to her family], but I really do think some of it is some weird cultural shift where if you are fortunate enough to BE HOME with children then by god you should BE with those children ALL THE TIME. And I’m a slacker mom in my large social circle; most of the moms I know have their kids in this lesson and that class and the other camp. My kids just pillage the Playmobil fort all day.

I’ve often wondered about the intensity with which parents are WITH their children, or the guilt they feel if/when they don’t do this, and I think my friend has identified a key factor: “If you’re lucky enough to be home with your kids, you should BE with them. ALL THE TIME.” Conversely, I suppose, if you can’t be home with your kids, you must somehow make up for this lack by BEING WITH them, even more, when you are home.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is crap. Arrant nonsense. An unattainable goal, and, moreover, it’s BAD FOR YOUR CHILDREN.

Bad, I tell you.

When I see the parents who hover over their children’s every breath, the parents who haul their kids from pillar to post – playgroups and swim lessons and pottery classes and mom’n’me gym times and dance class and kiddiemusik and, and, and – parents who can’t let their kids JUST BE, not for a single second, well, it just makes me weary.

Weary, because lord knows I don’t have the energy for all that. I don’t know that I had it when I was in my twenties and first having kids. I certainly don’t have it now. But weary because I know these parents are doing all this with the best of good intentions. They want their children happy, stimulated, enriched, fulfilled. They want their children to have solid self-esteem.

How else to do that, if not by Mommymommymommy all the time? And Daddy, too, of course. Mommydaddymommymommydaddymommydaddy. All the time.

Well, there are other ways. Better ways. In fact, I will go so far as to say this intense parental involvement precludes some of the goals the parents are seeking.

I confess that look at this phenomenon from the outside. The stage was set for me to be an Earnest Uber-Mommy: I was a dedicated, committed, involved SAHM for years, going so far as to homeschool each of them till the were ten or so, but for some reason, I didn’t succumb. Though with my first, I came close…

Part of this, I am sure, is my family culture, a mix of British and German. Brits of my mother’s generation did not lay themselves out on the altar of their children’s “enrichment”. Mum had three kids in three years. That all by itself encourages the development of a bit of autonomy. But more than that, my mum’s attitude was: Kids have imaginations, better than mine. Let them use them! Kids have energy, more than I do. Let them race around outside! Kids have curiosity, more urgent than most adults’. Let them explore.

We never felt unloved. We were not neglected. She knew who we were. She noted our strengths and weaknesses, she encouraged, disciplined and corrected. We had lessons reflecting our interests and abilities. (One lesson a week, each, at most.) I remember tea parties, with mum pouring Real Tea (and a whole lotta milk) into tiny china tea sets. Lots of story-reading. Long walks.

But she never, as far as I could tell, felt guilty for saying, “Go along and play now.” Playing was something children did. She was young and lively. She could and did play with us – when she felt like it. And isn’t that what play is? Something you do because it’s fun? As soon as play becomes an obligation or a demand, it’s not play any more, is it?

She wasn’t an aloof parent, by any means, but what she practised, and what I have perfected, is the much-neglected and ESSENTIAL parenting tool of Benign Neglect.

Of course, only in a parenting culture such as ours would this be seen as “neglect”. It can also be seen as giving your children a piece of life independent of you, of encouraging autonomy, creativity and independent thought, of giving them the opportunity to develop as individuals. It isn’t actual neglect, because you care, you are involved, you support, encourage, nurture, and challenge. You just don’t micro-manage. You don’t hyper-schedule. You expect that you can do one activity while the children play, and everyone can respect the other’s right to do what they’re doing.

The key to Benign Neglect, see, is that you LET your children play, explore, enquire, charge around. Kids who muck about on their own learn to – muck about on their own! How many of the world’s greatest advances were brought about by an adult mucking about? With an idea, with numbers, with chemicals in a lab, with words? Time spent without an agenda, unscheduled time, is not wasted time. It is the field of productivity, of growth and creativity.

And here’s the biggest tip for Beneficial Neglect: Your child’s boredom is your child’s responsibility. Boredom motivates. Motivates exploration, autonomy, creativity. Well, it does unless the parent falls into the trap of being the solution to boredom. “I’m bored! What’s mom/dad going to do about it?”

A child comes complaining of boredom, I will make two or three suggestions. If they are all dismissed out-of-hand – and they usually are, the dynamics of boredom being what they are – I leave the kid to it. “Well, that’s all I can think of, sweetie. You can try one of those things, or you can think up something, yourself.”

If they persist in pestering me to alleviate their ennui, I up the stakes a bit. “If you’re bored, you can always clean your room. Or empty the garbage. Or scrub the toilet. Or clean out the hamster’s cage.” I might further point out to older children that I am too busy to have the luxury of boredom, and unless they want to get busy with me, doing tedious adult tasks, they’d best get themselves occupied, or at least out of earshot.

Emma had a friend over a while back. When the friend complained of being bored, Emma looked horrified. “Don’t say that in front of my MOM!” she gasped, and hustled the friend away. Five minutes later, peals of laughter could be heard from the back yard. Without any intervention from me at all. How strange. How wonderful!

The thing is, when you make a child’s boredom their responsibility, they start experiencing less of it. Being bored is, well, boring! Children who are scheduled and stimulated for hours a day never learn the skills of boredom-avoidance. Entertainment is something done to and for them, it isn’t something they’ve ever done for themselves. By our hyper-involvment, we create the child who will whine of boredom 90 seconds into a quiet moment, because that child simply doesn’t know how to cope with free time! When the constant barrage of stimulation ceases, something feels wrong, they don’t like it – and they haven’t a clue what to do about it. Oh, except “Mom! Mom? I’m bored!”

I know most of the people who read this have small children. Small children need a lot more hands-on care. There is no denying this. But they don’t need your attention over their every waking breath. They just don’t. As a parent, you have the right to expect that your child entertain themselves some of the time. You have the right to a quiet cup of coffee. If you can’t achieve that just yet, you can make it a reasonable goal. You have the right to read or talk on the phone (or blog!!) while they play. You have the right to say, “Mommy finds that game boring, hon.” You have the right to do all this without guilt, and you can achieve it by introducing to the children a little Benign Neglect.

Start today. Your kids will thank you.

~~~~~~~~~~~~
© 2006, Mary P

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July 2, 2006 - Posted by | Uncategorized

65 Comments »

  1. Thanks for this. The guilt can be pretty powerful. Especially if your child doesn’t have siblings and wants you as a playmate 24/7. But I remember my mom had the same approach to “boredom” responses and some of my most fantastically creative days came out of that.

    Comment by Sunshine Scribe | July 2, 2006 | Reply

  2. I love you for posting this! Thank you. I have really been wondering whether I was doing something wrong, since I tend to practice this type of “neglect”, mostly because it was the healthy type modelled to me when I was growing up as well…and this post was just so incredibly reassuring to me. THANK YOU, THANK YOU!

    Comment by legitimatemama | July 2, 2006 | Reply

  3. I’m SO relieved to read this post! Hubby and I have been wondering if we’ve been neglecting our little boy because we usually leave him by himself to play while we’re on our computers (in the same room so we can keep an eye on him). It’s good to hear that even the experts (you’re my baby SME!) are doing the same. Now, if only I can convince my MIL that the baby shouldn’t be coddled everytime he whinges…and that a little drool down his chin won’t give him a cold. :-)

    Comment by Kat O+ | July 2, 2006 | Reply

  4. Amen.

    Comment by Granny | July 2, 2006 | Reply

  5. Spot on (once again). OK, I admit that i am a lassaiz faire type of parent. I struggle to commit myself to weekly swimming – which is something i am an enormous advocate of – but some of the saddest sights I have seen in children have not been the poor, or the dirty ones, or even the malnorouished (although I have seen some horrible neglect too), but the ones who need to be told what to do ALL THE TIME.

    The ones who walk into the most fantastic soft play area/ball pit/ adventure playground and stand still waiting to be told where to go, what to do & how to do it by an adult and who are UNABLE to make it up themselves.

    It is so sad, because I know this has been brought about by the very best intentions, of (often) the most well educated and well off parents, who should be providing the world with the great scientists/artists/philosophers etc of tomorrow, but instead are churning out neurotic, unimaginative clones.

    Comment by Juggling Mother | July 2, 2006 | Reply

  6. Excellent post! One of the biggest complaints that I’ve heard from teachers of 4th-6th graders as I’ve begun the new career, is that kids in our area (lots of SAH Moms) ask permission for every reasonable thing they do, rather than just doing it. Like, “can I cut this piece of paper with those scissors?” when they’ve just been given an assignment to make a snowflake with scissors and paper… Seriously.

    Independent time, exploration time, unstructured time, all is part of learning responsibility for yourself and your actions. So many parents today aren’t giving their kids the gradual independence they need in order to learn to be responsible adults. Then we turn them loose at 18 to go to college and wonder why they make stupid decisions or don’t know how to be alone for 5 minutes. Well, duh!

    Comment by Cheryl | July 2, 2006 | Reply

  7. Ha, I totally remember my mom suggesting I clean my room! She ended up buying me stuff like a microscope and a chemistry set – tools for exploring on my own, and they worked for countless hours.

    I’ve just in the last couple of weeks started to leave Pumpkinpie to her own devices more and more, and she will so far play for a while before she comes to find me and find out what I’m doing. I have just child-proofed the hell out of the place so I can walk away without worrying. It may seem excessive to some, but it gives me the peace of mind to be able to go into another room and do something entirely separate, knowing she’s safe and can get me if she needs me.

    Comment by kittenpie | July 2, 2006 | Reply

  8. Mary — This was an incredible post! I hope every parent out there gets a chance to read it.

    Comment by Chag | July 2, 2006 | Reply

  9. Mary P., I love you! I want to photocopy this post ONTO MY BRAIN! My son plays very independently, so I constantly feel guilty that I don’t force the agenda with him more often (get down on the floor and join his play, etc.). I do have to do it sometimes so that he can, say, learn to talk (which is coming, gradually). This post is such a breath of fresh air. Thank you.

    Comment by bubandpie | July 2, 2006 | Reply

  10. I’m practicing some benign neglect right now.

    I think I’ll practice some more later.

    Comment by MIM | July 2, 2006 | Reply

  11. Hmm. Well, I admit I don’t have kids of my own, but I’ve done my fair share of babysitting. I totally agree that complaints about boredom usually stem from overstimulation, but I don’t think that necessrily results from parents being over-involved. Half the time, it seems like it happen because the parents are UNDER-involved, and find it easier to plop their kids in front of the TV, or buy them all kinds of gadgets and toys to entertain them, than to sit down and teach the kids to focus on something for any length of time. I completely agree that parents ought to let their kids learn to solve their own boredom problems, but I wish fewer parents would try to practice benign neglect by abandoning the kids to the TV!

    Comment by Jamie | July 2, 2006 | Reply

  12. Mary, thank you for this post. You are so smart. You have just affirmed what we have done for the past 20 years in our family.

    But it continues. I’ve mentioned that my youngest son, 18 years old, has just moved back into my house. He’s supposed to be looking for job but went and bought two scientific education and experimentation kits. He is spending his time learning electronics and robotics with those kits. He’s barely slept during the last three days. Every time he succeeds in getting something to work I hear, “Dad, come see this.” He is investigating science on his own. He is inventing stuff (well it is all new to him). He is growing. I am happy.

    My oldest son, age 20, stayed at his college (Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University) for some summer courses. Yesterday some questions pop up on my computer screen from him using IM (Instant Messenger). He is asking technical computer network questions. After a while I ask, “why?” It turns out that he and one of his professors are constructing an aircraft flight simulator for an Airbus A320. Airbus donated a partial instrument panel and they are building the electronics to make it useful. You can see a picture of it here:
    http://www.gwservices.com/images/A320_Sim1.jpg
    He has learned well to explore and be innovative.

    Comment by jw | July 2, 2006 | Reply

  13. Try being the nanny to a family who belives the children (7 and 9) should Never! Be! Bored! or! Left! Alone!!!

    Good grief.

    Comment by Sassy Student | July 2, 2006 | Reply

  14. yeah, as a nanny i can say i used to sometimes feel guilty, too. guilt even came up sometimes for really ridiculous things, like saying i was unwilling to sit out on the asphalt while they rode their bikes in circles around me – that, instead, i would stay inside the house and look out occasionally through a window. i had to often remind myself to keep a little perspective.

    as for the parents who use television too much, i agree that it’s important for parents in the early years to teach their children how to actively engage their minds, whether they then decide to focus their thoughts on a science experiment, an art project, or a game of make-believe. my mom, for example, used to constantly ask me questions about the books she would read to me – “what do you think will happen next?” and so on. when i got old enough to read, i found reading very interesting because i could ask myself those same questions. even further on, i figured out how to apply those ideas to writing my own stories. benign neglect is good, but it does need to be balanced with time and attention spent giving kids good foundations. that’s what makes it ‘benign’ or even ‘beneficial’ neglect.

    just my two cents. :)

    Comment by kari | July 2, 2006 | Reply

  15. OMG you must have been reading my mind. This is a GREAT, WONDERFUL post. Thanks!

    Comment by shizzknits | July 3, 2006 | Reply

  16. Thank you, thank you, again! We’re still in the intensive-watching stage where we need to make sure that Q isn’t tearing down the childproofing gates, but I can already see the change in how he can entertain himself for short periods now.

    I remember how many games my next-door-neighbor-friend and I invented and how we had whole afternoons to do nothing but make up games. Is that an option anymore? I hope so!

    Comment by Lady M | July 3, 2006 | Reply

  17. OMG! you don’t know how much i needed to hear this! all the guilt that i have been feeling for not wanting to spend my every waking moment with my kids has started to melt away after reading this. and it makes so much sense, too. no wonder i love reading your blog everyday! you’re a genious!

    Comment by kerry | July 3, 2006 | Reply

  18. Sunshine: I think it’s harder to avoid the pressure to entertain 24/7 with a first or an only. When there are siblings around, it diffuses your focus – plus they have each other for companionship (and conflict, sigh). Not every child will get sibs, of course, but every child needs to experience the separation of self from parent.

    legitimatemama: Oh, a new face! Welcome. I’m glad this post was reassuring to you. So often I determine which parenting topic to tackle by the conversations I have with other parents, or see round the blogosphere. Glad it resonated with you.

    KatO+: Oh, I think you’ll just have to leave granny to her own devices. (You’re not still living with her, right?) Your little guy will soon learn – if he hasn’t already – that what works at gran’s house will NOT work with mum and dad.

    Two parents, one baby, all hanging out together in the same room? Sounds companionable to me! As I’m quite confident he often sees the front of your head, too, this sounds like a perfectly healthy way to spend an afternoon.

    Granny: Thank you.

    JugglingMother: Thank you! Yes, it does seem to be the well-off, well-educated ones who are more prone to this. Speaking in generalities based primarily on my clientele, an admittedly small sample for sociological study!, the other extreme of parents – outright neglect – is not one into which they tend to fall. Certainly not the mummies.

    Cheryl: This is an aspect of it I didn’t raise here. (You can only make your posts so long before you start scaring people away!) You’re absolutely right, of course: stepping back from your kids and giving them time and space to learn how to deal with independence is critical in raising children who will make wise and sensible decisions for themselves when they are on their own. As someone once said, “We’re not raising children, we’re raising adults.” A good perspective.

    Kittenpie: All good first steps: thorough child-proofing to create a safe environment; leaving the room when she plays and letting her come find you when she needs you. A good beginning for an under-two. (She’s not two yet, is she?)

    This was one of the areas I consciously, deliberately followed in my own mother’s parenting footsteps. Seems you’re doing the same!

    Chag: Thanks! Well, seems like a bunch of them found it, and it seems like I’ve said something of value, too. Glad you liked it.

    bubandpie: Hello! Nice to see the two of you! Yes, a certain amount of interaction – say, enough to get them talking, as you point out! – is obviously necessary and desireable – and fun! Who doesn’t want to interact and play with their kids?

    It’s the intensive, over-involved, hyper-parenting I that see which concerns me, in that it produces hot-house children, the type Cheryl and MrsA describe, not the happy and well-adjusted kids their parents are aiming for.

    MiM: That’s because you’re just a natural at this parenting thing, MiM.

    Jamie: Perhaps I require a follow-up post on what constitutes benign neglect. What you’re describing is, to my way of thinking, actual neglect. Children routinely plopped for hours in front a TV is not good parenting. A couple of shows a day? No problem. The television as a babysitter? That’s a problem.

    JW: Adults who have learned to explore and be innovative are just plain interesting to be around, aren’t they? Learning to explore and to innovate takes time and practice – open-ended, unscheduled, private time.

    Sassy: Yeesh. No, thanks. And what were they like, this seven and nine year old?

    Kari: “Benign neglect needs to be balanced with time and attention.” EXACTLY! Time and attention needs to be balanced with a little benign neglect, too. When you find yourself at one end or the other of this continuum, you need to start implementing behaviours and techniques from the other end.

    Many of my readers, you see, are finding themselves under strong pressure to be at the “time and attention” end, and they’re swamped, oppressed, and feeling guilty for taking any time at all for themselves.

    Shizzknits: Thank you! Confirmation is a great thing, no?

    LadyM: Sure it’s an option! Of course, it needs another parent to allow their kid the same privilege, but of course it can happen.

    Kerry: Genius? Well, shucks. I don’t reeeeally think so, but thanks! I’ve been caring for kids, and thinking about it, for over twenty years now. I’ve managed to come up with a few insights in that time, I think, and I’m glad this one’s proven valuable to you.

    Comment by Mary P. | July 3, 2006 | Reply

  19. I agree with your basic premise here and definitely encourage independent play as much as possible but have to admit that there is a fine line between entertaining my kid and just getting out and about together because I’m going stir crazy and am avoiding all the piddly stuff (cleaning! laundry!) that needs to be done around the house. Are our long walks with frequent detours overstimulating for him? I don’t know but I know that *I* have to get out and about in ways that are also interesting to me. I know that he’s perfectly happy taking his tricycle around the neighborhood making frequent stops to explore whatever is around but he’s too young for me not to be trailing behind. So I do. With a book in hand.

    Your post also provides an interesting view from the caretaker perspective. As a parent with a 2.5 yo in part time daycare I’ve always felt that he is entertained all day long at the center when he’s there and that provides an unrealistic expectation for entertainment that I’m not willing to provide.

    Comment by Anne V | July 3, 2006 | Reply

  20. You know how very much I agree with you. My kids are just the same example of Benign Neglect as yours: they can very effectively entertain themselves (without excessive TV watching) without my involvement. Isn’t that my job? Aren’t I supposed to make sure they can function *without* me?

    Yes, it is, and yes, they can.

    p.s. I’m just waiting for the parent of a quirky, challenging kid to refute you. Let me just put it on the record: I have a highly intense, highly challenging, highly quirky kid; yet, he entertains himself. Did it take longer to teach him? Yes. But he learned.

    Comment by Candace | July 3, 2006 | Reply

  21. I do agree that kids need to be left alone to do their thing – even special needs, highly-intense children. One of my nephews has autism and it feels incredibly intrusive to do the kind of constant therapy that some experts reccommend. Constantly narrate his play, educational videos ONLY, redirect anything that isn’t ‘proper’ play. Well, he gets tired of listening to us, he sings along with his Disney tapes and ignores the ‘therapeutic’ ones, and stacking his cars might not be ‘proper’ but he’s learning about gravity. Let him be!

    Then again, when I’m in charge, I’m a hoverer – never mroe than ten feet away from any of my nephews. What if they get HURT?

    Comment by BeckaJo | July 3, 2006 | Reply

  22. That reminds me – I wanted to ask you…

    The 9 year old hates me because he found out I get paid to babysit them.

    Apparently, his mother has raised him to believe that people should do things for the love of it, not for the money. (Even though she and her husband are both workaholics driven by the almighty dollar.)

    Isn’t 9 old enough to understand that people can do things both for enjoyment and money? And that people have to work for a living?

    Comment by Sassy Student | July 3, 2006 | Reply

  23. She’s actually 2y 2mo – and roams around the room by herself, I had just been realizing that I was always present, but that she was totally ready to play on her own, so I could do other stuff in another room. And now she’s used to it, so when we get our backyard soon, I will be gating it and the basement stairs, clearing the garden of anything poisonous, pulling up a chair and a book, and letting her roam freely outdoors too, perhaprs with a bucket, shovel, and watering can. Can’t wait!

    Comment by kittenpie | July 3, 2006 | Reply

  24. AnneV: What you describe – trailing the triking tot while reading a book – is what I would define as Benign Neglect. The child is being allowed to get out in the world and explore. Your presence is required for safety, but you don’t assume that the experience is somehow incomplete/inadequate for him if you read your book as you go. If he called something to you, you’d attend, I’m sure, but you are allowing him to set his own agenda.

    There is a difference between daycare centre and home daycare. I worked in a large daycare some years back, and the kids were pretty much scheduled and stimulated all day long – though there was “free play” time every day, it was kind of a sanitized and controlled free play, if that makes any sense. Home daycare has less structure to its free time (well, mine does, at any rate, and I think I’m reasonably representative in this).

    Candace: Independence and autonomy are more of a stretch for some than others, but it’s always a worthwhile goal. Sooner or later, as you and Cheryl point out, children will have to function independently (unless their handicaps are severe) and it’s up to their parents to teach them how to manage this.

    Beckajo: Your comment brings to mind another aspect of this concept: it’s about respect, too. Respecting the child and his/her right to be their own person, set (within appropriate developmental limits) their own agendas.

    Sassy Student: Of course it’s old enough! Does this child know his parents are paid for what they do? Does this child not receive an allowance?

    However, I have a possible explanation: a child who refuses to do anything around the house unless he’s paid could bring a parent to say something like this. Do you think that’s possible?

    (If you’d like to continue chatting about this, you can email me.)

    Kittenpie: Last week, I watched over the tots as they played in the back yard. They were so cute, doing this and that, “fixing” the ride-on toys, playing soccer (“I’ll be Brazil and you can be Portugal”). Me? I was laying the the hammock. Don’t you love summer??

    Comment by Mary P | July 3, 2006 | Reply

  25. I really agree with this post. I’m a volunteer Cub Scout leader (ages 8-10, no kids of my own) and the most useful thing that the Cubs can learn from us is that they have freedom to explore the campsite and make their own entertainment for an hour, whilst the leaders prepare the next activity.
    Sometimes we have to force children to leave the campsite (“But what shoudl I do?”) but this time is when they really learn to interact with each other and have the most memorable experiences.
    It’s great that you’re recommending this in an appropriate way for small children, and I hope to bring up my future kids that way.

    Comment by Peter | July 4, 2006 | Reply

  26. Very Interesting post. And there is a lot of wisdom in it.

    Though I know too many families that don’t involve their children enough in the life of the family.

    I know a number of families that work under the a communitarian principle the family functions entirely as a unit at all times. This is way too much the other way of course. But in these (often Italian for some reason) families free time is only given after the child is 14. The model works but gives the person a personality that lacks the spark of individualism.

    I guess it depends on what type of family that society desires. Personally I suspect that individualism helps society so I lean towards the principle that Mary outlines in her post.

    However, my question is, is it possible to be entirely integrated in your child’s life (home schooling and total family team activities) without stifling individualism ?

    I know this is kind of begging the question, and assuming there may be value in limiting the times of benign neglect but is the opposite of any value?

    That said, Like Peter, my only current connection to child care has been via Scouting (I am a cub leader as well) and my wife and I are only now thinking about having children. I have these great ideas about what I will do when I have kids, but the practice might lead to changes in my conception of child rearing, that is why I go to this Blog knowing there is wisdom in these pages gained by years of experience. As the saying goes “In theory there is no difference between practice and theory but in practise there is.” Thanks Mary.

    Comment by Bill | July 4, 2006 | Reply

  27. I love this post Mary, it puts a lot into perspective. K would rather play all by herself, and I often feel bad that I’m not more actively involved. But, then I realize that she’s happy. And isn’t that the point? B on the other hand cannot play by himself without being pushed into doing so. When you tell him to go, he is constantly coming back to tell you something, ask you for this or that, or just talk, without doing anything by himself. He’s like this a lot actually, getting him out the door is almost impossible because he doesn’t stop talking long enough to do anything (and talk while putting on your shoes? apparently beyond him!).

    Comment by Angela | July 4, 2006 | Reply

  28. Thank you for this, really. I’ve stressed about the whole neglect thing (because, yes, I AM at home and shouldn’t I be devoting all energies to the reason I am at home). But you’re right – it’s an impossible standard and an ineffective one. There’s such joy on WonderBaby’s wee face when she’s wokring on something (getting that book open!) on her own – to interfere is to break the moment. Thanks for supporting that moment.

    Comment by 2badladies | July 4, 2006 | Reply

  29. I have used off and on.. take that as ‘picked out what I want’ .. a book on Montessori methods from birth to age 3. The method is of course totally focussed on children developing independence and that CHILDREN are CHILDREN… Miss Fancy really perfected playing on her own around 8 months. I was so proud of her.. and so grateful.

    But the social assessments of quality/quantity relationships is indisputable.

    Today I was thinking that it will be great when the nuthatch shows and I will have dozens of reasons to give him/her the space I wanted for e. I sometimes had to really sit on my hands to not pester her.. but instead to show her respect in her own ways. I figure a lot of it was guilt yes.. but a bit of it was envy too in a way.

    ps.. I still rag on all the grandpeople to leave the kid alone, but I think that’s a fruitless debate.

    Comment by mo-wo | July 4, 2006 | Reply

  30. Great post, I agree with benign neglect and I’m a child protection social worker! My daughter was outside exploring the world at a very young age with her cousins, and most of the time I had to call out in the harbour for her to come home from whatever rock or meadow she found herself exploring. She often played for hours in her room or in the living room whilst I was sewing away in my sewing room (large closet). I could hear her in there making up stories and acting them out…she didn’t need me to entertain her, she had her imagination and I think that is one thing children often lose sight of when they are overstimulated and “entertained” by extra curricular activities on a daily basis. Now my “little one” is 20 years old and has a vivid imagination and is a budding author, pounding out her first possible manuscript. All children really need from you during playtime is to know that you are there when they need your help…otherwise, let kids be kids! They will figure out how to entertain themselves if given that opportunity.

    My parents were much the same, and our summers were spent in the back yard, making up plays, playing “house”, lemonade stands, and roaming the neighborhood…

    Comment by sky | July 7, 2006 | Reply

  31. What a great post. I’ve actually been struggling with this for the last few months. I want my daughter to be a bit more independent. I’m tired of hearing, “Mommmmy, please with me pllleeease!” I agree with you, that at age 3, she should be able to play by herself for a little while instead of whining every time I sit down in front of the computer. Problem is, I don’t know how to go about getting her to play more by herself. I try to get her started, so to say, and then inch myself away but most of the time it doesn’t work. Got any suggestions?

    Comment by J's Mommy | July 9, 2006 | Reply

  32. This is a very reassuring post. I’m already a laid-back parent, but it helps to be reminded that there are others out there. Like a lot of families, we can’t afford to have our kids in lots of classes and our work schedules make it difficult for them to join sports teams or Scouts. Sometimes I worry that my kids are going to suffer in comparison to their peers. However, they have more time to unwind from the school day and play games of their own choosing.

    Comment by Dani | July 9, 2006 | Reply

  33. Oh my GOD! Where were you when my children were younger?

    I so needed this. I am posting this on BB too.

    Comment by Jenorama | July 9, 2006 | Reply

  34. I was referred to you by Chag (Cynical Dad), and I loved this post. Thank you.

    It thrills me to hear my older daughter (4) playing by herself in her room – she’s using her imagination and asserting her independence.

    It thrills me even more to see how much more independent my younger daughter (18 months) is than her sister was at the same age. She’s following her big sister’s example.

    Comment by mothergoosemouse | July 9, 2006 | Reply

  35. Wow…awesome post, and spot on! I see parents who overthink their kids needs all the time, to the point of smothering them and (at least in my opinion) stunting their growth. You’ve said–succinctly and convincingly, I might add–exactly what they need to hear. And it reassures me, too.

    thanks!

    Comment by croutonboy | July 9, 2006 | Reply

  36. Wow. I’m thinking this will go down in the annals of this blog as one of the top-five flashpoint posts.

    Peter: I’m trying to imagine a ten-year-old boy who’s been so trained to have his entertainment done to and for him that he is at a loss for ideas while in a campground! Poor kid. Though, if he’s a city kid whose experience of play has always been electronic or on asphalt, he might be a little at a loss. For the first fifteen minutes!

    This is a good example of how too much parental/adult involvement can be detrimental to the child’s experience of life.

    Bill: Your question is my question, and my answer was “no”. I don’t think it is. If individualism isn’t stifled altogether, it will be muffled; quite likely the stage is set for serious conflict once the child gets a little older and demands his/her autonomy. (Hmm. Perhaps this is why I read all over about how difficult “tweens” are, when I’ve found those years to be absolutely delightful?)

    Angela: K and B are siblings, right? If they are, what you’ve also demonstrated is that it doesn’t all come down to parenting: even in the same family, with the same parents, some kids are naturally more or less independent than others. Parents should be able to take pleasure in knowing this!

    2badladies: That’s an aspect of this concept that I didn’t address in the post; thanks for bringing it to our attention. If you do things with and for a child, the child has the pleasure of your company and the pleasure of shared experience. However, if you let the child figure something out themselves, the child has the pleasure of accomplishment. By stepping back, you are giving your child something, not taking it away.

    mo-wo: Well, there’s a balance, isn’t there? I’m addressing something I see has having gotten out of whack: all that rich attention (which is GREAT) at the expense of lots of opportunity to explore and discover (NOT great).

    It’s indisputable: once you have more than one child, you simply cannot give each child 100% of your attention. Contrary to some popular wisdom, this is a good thing!

    Sky: Thanks for the affirmation, especially from one who is surely in a position to recoil in horror from the word “neglect”, no matter how it’s defined! Glad to hear your daughter has turned out so well (my oldest is 20, also!), and I hope that she does get herself published, sooner or later!

    J’s Mommy: So what you’re saying is a follow-up “how-to” post is required! Given that your daughter is three, my quick answer is that you repeat yourself and be completely calmly immoveable on this. (Where did my kids get their stubborn-ness, after all? I can sooo out-stubborn my three-year-old.) :-)

    You might try a timer: set it for ten minutes and tell her she can come to you when the timer pings. You can extend the time each time. (Me, I’m just devious enough, once we’ve established this idea and it’s working, to turn the timer off, or set it for an hour or something – just to see how long she could go.)

    Dani: Play-time, unstructured play-time, is so important for children! Casual adult supervision, for safety and for basic civility, is all that’s required. You can be reading a book, you can be gardening, you can be doing any manner of things and still be providing good parenting. (Phew, huh?)

    Jen: Thank you. This has been my busiest post in a long time. Clearly, it’s hit a nerve!

    mothergoosemouse: And so it should thrill you! Seeing our children develop into people who are “other” to us: it’s nothing short of amazing. It’s sad that so many parents feel discouraged from trying the kind of parenting that encouraged this kind of kid-play. Everyone loses out.

    croutonboy: You’re welcome. “Overthink” their kids. I like that way of expressing it. Thanks for dropping by!

    Comment by Mary P. | July 10, 2006 | Reply

  37. Last week I posted about how seldom I see kids on bikes or just running around my neighborhood – and I thought about sad that really is given how much time we spent outside as kids.

    I could have made the correlation myself, but didn’t (probably out of sheer laziness) – thank you for articulating it so well.

    Comment by Mr Big Dubya | July 10, 2006 | Reply

  38. I agree with what you are saying, and though our little one is only 22 months old, I think I do this more than my husband. When I was a child, my parents let me go out and explore with my friends, and alone on my bike. Heck, they even used to let us loose on the local amusement park when we were on vacation — all day long.

    But — I know that I won’t be able to do as much of this as my parents did, just because the world is different now, and I worry about the several convicted child offenders that are within a mile of our house. And that’s sad. The struggle will be to balance my fears with what I know my child needs.

    Comment by abogada | July 10, 2006 | Reply

  39. What a great post! And though, I am concerned that parents may see this as a license to let their children on their own all day. Parents need to provide balance certainly by letting them play and discover but also exposing them to sports, social learning through playgroups, etc. They need stimulation from the outside world as well through activities and classes. I also am a strong advocate for children helping parents with chores and everyday things around the house. Children desperately need to be a part of their parents lives and learn from them. It’s all about balance.

    Comment by Anonymous | July 11, 2006 | Reply

  40. MrBigDubya: The lack of kids on bikes may also be due to safety concerns, but since you appear to think the kids could be playing safely in the street, it may be something else. We live in such a risk-phobic, controlling parental culture!

    Abogada: It starts in your own home, when your child is small; its boundaries increase to reflect your child’s age – and the safety of your environment, of course.

    Anonymous: You’re quite right: it’s all about balance. This post was written to address an imbalance I see, and many of my readers (as you can tell by the commments) experience. I think I was careful to say this in no way supports actual neglect – but someone who wants to justify their neglect of their child may choose to read it that way, it’s true. If they want to, though, nothing I say will likely change that, anyway…

    I also agree that kids should be given chores from early on; whether they appreciate it or not – hee – it increases their sense of worth, of being part of a family team, of being valuable to the unit.

    Comment by Mary P. | July 11, 2006 | Reply

  41. Genius.

    Do away with feeling guilty for needing to do something other than entertain your kids.

    I often feel like I bring them too many places. They don’t know what to do when we’re home even though they have a million toys.

    Comment by Lotta | July 11, 2006 | Reply

  42. Awesome topic! I totally agree with you, but I struggle with this issue because I work fulltime outside the home and have an only child (age 2.5). My girl should be more independent than she is. I definitely would benefit from a follow-up how-to post!

    Besides the lack of siblings/playmates, my situation is further complicated by where we live. I grew up in a typical suburban neighborhood, but am learning to live a rural lifestyle. We do not have the typical suburban neighborhood complete with its built-in social structure of other families and children.

    The neighbors we do have are scary at best and frequently have questionable dogs tied up in their yards that are allowed to roam free on occasion. We are saving for a fence, but the amount of property we have will require thousands of dollars.

    Comment by Charlotte | July 11, 2006 | Reply

  43. My favourite bit of parenting advice came from the wonderful Haim Ginott: Don’t just do something, stand there.

    Comment by Yatima | July 11, 2006 | Reply

  44. excellent post. i have been practicing benign neglect successfully but i have to admit that on occasion i do still feel guilty for it. so, i appreciate your encouraging words!

    Comment by mama without instructions | July 11, 2006 | Reply

  45. Due to Acid Reflux and an overactive letdown I started pumping when our baby was 1.5 months old. I tried to pump when she was sleeping but that isn’t always possible so she has had to learn from a very young age to entertain herself. I now have a 4 and a half month old who can play independantly for almost an hour.

    At first I worried that she wasn’t getting what she needed from me but she never seemed to mind and now she is at the point where if she gets bored with the toy/hand/foot she is playing with she just rolls over to something else…. not even an “I’m bored” whine. I really hope this will carry over when she is bigger and more vocal. I may just be really lucky but I don’t think that is the only reason. I had to give her some time alone (I was a few feet away but unable to pick her up or play) and she stepped up.

    This also made our move last week a lot easier as she was able to play on the floor while I packed and now while I unpack. Yay.

    Comment by Sanwalyd | July 11, 2006 | Reply

  46. “The 9 year old hates me because he found out I get paid to babysit them.”

    Powerplay. My son did this at 9 to his nanny, and there’s no way he wasn’t taught that people do jobs for money (and love, if they are lucky. But mainly the money). He wanted control over a very strong-willed nanny and started throwing that at her: “You are only here because you want money, you don’t care about me.”

    Sadly, if you don’t have a good relationship with the parents, I don’t know how you deal with it. His nanny told him that was not a reasonable comment and then came straight to me, so I could back her up and talk to him directly about the issues.

    Ways of dealing with this could be good blog fodder, actually. *hint hint*

    Comment by sylvia | July 12, 2006 | Reply

  47. “If you’re bored, you can always clean your room. Or empty the garbage. Or scrub the toilet. Or clean out the hamster’s cage.”

    This was my mom exactly! And we learned really quick to go find some fun on our own.
    A related topic, How Many Toys Do Children Really Need To Enternain Themselves? Judging by some aquaintances, an entire roomful. But my daughter can entertain herself for 10s of minutes (she’s only 18 months) with shoes (hers or mine) or a dishcloth. Go figure.

    Comment by michaela | July 15, 2006 | Reply

  48. I think there are two issues here.

    (1)the number of activities parents schedule for their children
    (2)the amount of play-time parents spend with their children.

    I believe it’s a good idea for kids to have a balance of scheduled activity and unstructured time. I have 3 kids, and each kid does one organized activity/sport, or in the summer, two. The rest of their time is unstructured, and I think I’ve achieved a good balance.

    The second issue is much stickier for me. I’m an at-home mom, but I don’t like to play with my kids. They help me cook, or we look things up on the internet, or they show me the stuff they’re doing/making, sometimes we watch tv, or read or play cards, but that’s it. I don’t like playing with my kids, and they spend 90% of the time playing with each other, and I feel so fucking G U I L T Y about it. It eats away at me. I wish I could consider my neglect benign, but I fear it’s not.

    Comment by bad mama | July 17, 2006 | Reply

  49. I like your ratio of scheduled to unscheduled time. It sounds like a good balance to me, too.

    The playing thing?

    You chat with them, you cook with them, you talk with them about what they’re doing, you read, play cards, surf the Internet, watch TV with them. They’re hardly being ignored. You have even gone so far as to provide them with built-in playmates in the form of siblings! You just don’t like open-ended play. This is not a crime. This does not make you a bad mommy.

    Neither are you alone in this. I’ve talked to a LOT of parents, and many of them, probably the majority, agree that any more than 5 or 10 minutes of open-ended kid play has them bored witless. You know why? Because that kind of play is something children excell at; adults have other kinds of play, but most of us don’t indulge in child-play past the age of 12 or 14 or so.

    It sounds to me like you’re beating yourself up for failing to achieve a “should”. I’ve written about this at my other blog; perhaps you would enjoy the post.

    Comment by Mary P. | July 17, 2006 | Reply

  50. I was so determined to be a good slacker mom previous to giving birth. now, I’ve forgotten all of my good intentions to ensure that my kid knows how to wile away the time in his own unique capacity, and constantly try to keep him entertained. granted, he’s only thirteen months old, but I have to keep reminding myself to allow him time to self-motivate in play; I truly believe that is the best way to foster his imagination’s strength.

    this post has done wonders for reinforcing that original intention of mine. thank you SO MUCH for writing it.

    Comment by lildb | August 23, 2006 | Reply

  51. great post… pretty much says what i feel… am getting to the stage where someone needed to tell me its ok not to be playing with my son all the time!!

    Comment by the mad momma | September 5, 2006 | Reply

  52. abso-flippin’-lutely!!!!
    I get really REALLY fed up with perfect mummies who, i am SURE resort to the gin cupboard to be able to keep it up all day or are just plain lying.
    my kids are just fine dandy and gorgeous and i’m the greatest slacker mum in the world!!!!!!

    and boredom is the greatest thing ever in invented… with you 100%
    :)

    Comment by lucy P | September 20, 2006 | Reply

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  55. I googled the phrase “benign neglect” because I am always telling my husband and my daughter–a new mom herself–that I am going to write a book by that title. My husband and I have been educators at the elementary and junior high level in the U.S. for the past 32 years. We feel that we have successfully raised two daughter, one an engineer and the other a physicians assistant. I believe that one of the healthiest things that you can do to raise an independent, confident child who has self-esteem (that esteem which can NOT be given by another but comes from within!) is to allow that child to develop with supervision but not hovering. Thanks for a great article!

    Comment by Gayle Steltenpohl | June 20, 2007 | Reply

  56. As a married woman with no children it is quite refreshing to see someone out there who also believes that parent and child ought not to be joined at the hip and has, as I have, experienced being raised in the same manner and has lived through it, quite well I might add. Few things are more frustrating than inviting people to dinner at our house and have them either bring their small children or decline the invitation because no one on God’s green earth is worthy of watching or capable enough to watch their little dears for two hours.

    Comment by Melissa | July 10, 2007 | Reply

  57. When I look back on my own upbringing, my mother was also a practicioner of Benign Neglect, and I think her two children didn’t turn out so badly, thank you; and I rarely remember being bored. When my own son was growing up, he learned to occupy himself pretty well, and pretty early; we were there if he needed anything, and he knew was loved and supported, but his parents had their own things to do, you know?

    Even if I’d had the time and energy to be THAT involved as a parent, I don’t think I would have been – like you, I look at it from the outside, and I confess that I tend to think it’s more about the parents than what’s really best for the kids.

    Thanks for linking back to this; I hadn’t discovered your blog when it was originally posted, and I’m glad to have had the chance to read it now.

    Comment by Florinda | February 25, 2008 | Reply

  58. [...] I practiced benign neglect, my kids could readily cope with “Mummy’s busy now. You play on your own for a bit, and [...]

    Pingback by Feeling a bit wistful « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | August 20, 2008 | Reply

  59. [...] and demands that you play with/entertain them? They’re too used to being busy. They need more practice with the downtime. Ignore them. Or threaten to find them something to do. [...]

    Pingback by Best enrichment activity? « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | June 3, 2009 | Reply

  60. [...] home, I subscribe to the philosophy of free-range parenting (or, as Mary P called it first, “benign neglect”).  In fact, Mary P suggest telling a bored child to scrub the toilet, and I have issued that same [...]

    Pingback by Just keep swimming, just keep swimming | June 4, 2009 | Reply

  61. [...] you do that. Your kid will love it, you’ll have fun together. But if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. Play is by definition a pleasure, not an [...]

    Pingback by Picking the Moments you Live In « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | December 8, 2011 | Reply

  62. [...] and goals. I think it’s good mothering to be a bit of a slacker, to indulge in a little benign neglect. I don’t hold myself (or anyone else) to an impossible parenting [...]

    Pingback by Why Wouldn’t I? « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | March 15, 2012 | Reply

  63. [...] Involving yourself with a child’s play to achieve a specific goal, to help them over a particular social or emotional bump, to enrich things a little … that’s good parenting. But to play with them every waking minute? Contrary to popular opinion, that’s not good parenting. And in the long run, it’s bad for the children. [...]

    Pingback by Let them play! « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | May 15, 2012 | Reply

  64. I know this post is old, but I just posted something similar to my own blog and a friend sent me the link to your blog. This is wonderful! What a great read.

    Comment by kat170 | May 14, 2013 | Reply

  65. […] to let your child play on their own and sort out small problems unassisted, but is actively good for them! The sort of parent who sneers when they see the nannies chatting together on the park bench, […]

    Pingback by A mystery… « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | November 27, 2013 | Reply


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