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

July 2, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | 65 Comments