Parenting and the Art of Benign Neglect

GoodTherapy | Parenting and the Art of Benign NeglectA few months ago, I wrote a piece about “good enough” parenting that seemed to strike a chord for many readers. Some challenged the idea that “good enough” could lead to complacency and short-change our children, but most expressed an appreciation for the self-acceptance inherent in that model. This month, at the risk of stirring up even more debate, I want to talk again about an approach to parenting.

After the birth of my son, I realized that if I ever wanted to take a shower again, I was going to have to let him cry it out for a time. This was very hard, but it was an important first step in my parenting journey that led me to embrace the art of benign neglect. It soon became clear to me that I would not physically be able to attend to my child’s every need every moment of the day. He would have to wait sometimes. He would have to entertain himself sometimes. He would have to delay gratification. This wasn’t a conscious parenting choice; it was just our reality. As it turns out, it was a pretty good thing.

Once my post-childbirth head started to clear, I remembered some words of wisdom from one of my favorite grad school professors. She opened the year by making the bold statement, “Our kids don’t suffer enough. They should suffer more. Thank you.” This was my introduction to the woman who led courses in achievement motivation and social and moral development. I was struck, even intrigued, by her words. As I followed her courses, I began to get what she meant. It was not, however, until I became a parent that I truly understood the implications, and challenges, of this concept.

What my professor was talking about was not abject, crushing, demoralizing suffering, but a more tempered form of discomfort and struggle. She was not advocating throwing our kids into the deep end of life and letting them sink or swim. What she was talking about was allowing them to face adversity while they still had a safety net, letting them stumble over little obstacles as practice runs at life’s larger challenges. Noted psychologist Lev Vygotsky talked about the concept of scaffolding—a way of providing appropriate support to children to allow them to stretch beyond their current abilities. As parents practicing the art of benign neglect, that’s what we try to do. If we do everything for our kids, if we smooth out every bump in the road, if we do everything in our power to remove pain, challenge, and discomfort from their young lives, we deny them the opportunity to learn, to grow, and to develop the coping skills they will need as they become independent adults.

When I think about the skills I want my son to develop, I want him to be secure. I want him to be confident in his own abilities. I want him to struggle through things, work them out on his own, ask for help when needed, and bounce back when things go wrong. I want him to be determined and resilient. In order to do all of this, sometimes I need to do nothing. I need to give him the chance to fail. I need to let him fall down, but be there to pick him up. This is what separates benign neglect from just plain neglect. I need to know where he is. I need to know what he is doing. I need to know that I’ve put the sharp knives out of his reach. It means, though, that sometimes I need to not intervene even when I so very much want to.

I see this in action when we are on play dates with friends. No parent wants his or her child to be pushing other kids or to be the kid being pushed around. Those practiced in the art of benign neglect will watch to see how events unfold. Do the kids sort themselves out when they scuffle? Are things escalating? Is anyone in danger of getting seriously hurt? Most of the time, the kids work things out on their own, learning valuable lessons and negotiation skills in the process. Sometimes, adult intervention just makes things worse. Other times, adult intervention is exactly what is needed to prevent full-scale descent into a Lord of the Flies scenario. When well-intentioned parents are ever-present, however, and intervene at the first hint of discord, our kids don’t get to learn how to work things out.

For the parents who are worried that if we don’t intervene our kids will learn poor strategies, hold those concerns for just a moment. Just because we do not intervene doesn’t mean we lose the teachable moment. Sometimes, our kids are more open to learning after an event rather than in the heat of the action. We can talk with them about their interactions. We can hear how they felt about it. We can talk about the consequences of the choices they made. We can teach them new strategies that they can try out next time. We can share wisdom and perspective, talk about our values and the way we want them to treat others, and we can encourage their independent growth. We can encourage them to think about why what they say and do is important, not because “we said so,” but for reasons that feel real to them. In short, we become resources for them and partners in their learning.

Practicing benign neglect as a parent is not about abdicating responsibility, ignoring limits, or letting go of all boundaries. On the contrary. It is about creating clear limits and boundaries, which all children need, yet allowing for enough freedom within those limits for true learning to occur. It is about watching and waiting and being intentional in the ways we intervene. It’s about allowing our children to feel some discomfort, letting them struggle, and helping them work through it. It is about loving them enough to let them experience the world in a way that lets them grow and learn, even when, with every fiber of our being, we want to shield and protect them from the bumps and bruises they will get along the way.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC, Family Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Margaret

    January 23rd, 2013 at 2:22 PM

    Excellent! I don’t even have kids (except for the 17 yr old who lives with me) and I love reading your parenting articles.

  • Consuela

    January 23rd, 2013 at 3:15 PM

    I really hope that some of the parents who are in their kids’ faces all the time take the time to read this or that they will somehow stumble upon it.
    Being there to always solve all of their problems is really teaching them nothing about the way that real life is. Real life is facing those situations and being able to come up with a way to resolve those issues when they face them. If they always have someone there telling them what to do then how are they ever going to learn to make it on their own?

  • harriet

    January 24th, 2013 at 12:21 AM

    thank u for this wonderful article.its annoying to see some parents wanting to do everything for their kids.if u do everything how is the child ever going to learn?!

    my sister does this all the time too.she will not want her three year old to try and even fetch his waterbottle.she will do everything for him.I keep telling her bout how she should let him learn but she always hits back with “he is my sweetheart,I want to make things good for him”.I do not know how to convince someone like her.maybe I should share this article with her!thank u once again.

  • HOPE

    January 24th, 2013 at 3:58 AM

    Okay, so I think that this was written just for me.

    I guess I am that controlling mom that no one really wants to have around. I do hover, I do watch every move. I have always felt that to be a good mom that this was my job. I can see how this could be a mistake for some but I think that for my own family it really works, especially since this has been how they have all been raised and conditioned to believe that this is normal. I have never thought that it was about exerting control, just making sure that the kids are safe and everything moves along smoothly. I do sometimes think about how much of my own self I have had to give up to stay this involved but I don’t think that it is necessarily a bad thing.

  • Taylor

    September 10th, 2013 at 7:49 PM

    I think there is a chance that you can break out of the prison your family has created, and thus spare your children from the disastrous childhood you feel you are doomed to repeat. The kind of total bubble you describe is the worst thing a parent can do to a child. A good family practice therapist would be a good start. The journey isn’t short, but well worth taking for both you and your child. May you find both the strength & the endurance…

  • william

    January 24th, 2013 at 5:37 AM

    some people just don’t know where good parenting ends and spoon feeding starts,do they?

    they think doing everything for their little ones is their way of showing care.but in reality if you teach your kids about the reality of life and show them how things can be had only through effort,then you are being a good lessons are far more important than any other.

  • L.P

    January 24th, 2013 at 11:29 AM

    its natural for a parent to try and make things as easy for their bundle of joy. its not unusual or uncommon to try and remove every hurdle in their path. that is just being a parent! I think if we just understand that the learning will happen with time, that you do not have to actually subject your child to a difficulty just to make him/her ‘understand’ it, then real growth will occur in a child.

    if it is not about being a perfect parent, then it is also not about bringing up a child who is perfectly attuned to the difficulties. learning will come with age, we don’t have top push it unto them!

  • Deni

    September 10th, 2013 at 9:56 PM


  • anne Steele

    January 24th, 2013 at 1:42 PM

    How are your kids ever going to learn that sometimes it’s okay to fail if you never let them experience that for themselves? I get wanting to keep them safe, but you can’t do it forever.

  • Grayson

    January 25th, 2013 at 4:01 AM

    Benign neglect of our children is quite the art to master! We are either too busy willfully neglecting them or buzzing around like a bee. This seems like it would be the perfect balance and stance for more parents to take but it seems like it would be the most difficult position to be in and try to implement.

  • Wilma

    January 25th, 2013 at 11:30 AM

    Boy, it is so hard to know when to intervene and when not to. When my oldest was little, I would jump all over her if she even hinted at being mean to another child. She was always taught to let others go first, have the best toy, etc. I really thought I was teaching her not to be a bully to other kids. In reality, I was teaching her to let kids walk all over her. AS a teenager, she still struggles with letting kids walk all over her. If she doesn’t, she’s worried they won’t be friends with her anymore. EVery parent of very small children need to read this article and know that “nice” isn’t all its cracked up to be.

  • y harildson

    January 25th, 2013 at 11:32 AM

    Wilma, I think your realizations are partly right at least. I think the author would say that rather than being right there and telling your child to be “nice,” she would rather you sit back and see how your daughter actually reacted. Sometimes, people do need to yield to other people and sometimes they need to stand up for themselves. It is the creation of balance as well as a realization of when to do each that makes for a whole, healthy child-turned-adult.

  • zahan

    January 25th, 2013 at 11:34 AM

    this reminds me of all those parents up at my kids school it drives me crazy. the teacher can’t do nothing cause all of the parents are in her face all the time. if the teacher don’t give their kids all the attention they cant handle it.

  • Aaron

    January 25th, 2013 at 11:36 AM

    Great, great, great advice. I hope one day I can do this with my own child/children!

  • Dan D Lion

    January 25th, 2013 at 1:09 PM

    You aren’t gonna be around all their life helping and cheering them on, so why give them an illusion??

    Be practical and let them face challenges its what makes a toughened individual. Its not about you falling short in your parenting its about you letting then learn a few lessons. Stop the over protection, parents!!

  • Blake Edwards

    February 28th, 2013 at 6:10 AM

    Excellent perspective, Erika!

  • micky

    July 30th, 2014 at 10:23 AM

    I really don’t understand how many become a proponent for benign neglect. As a child reared under this I can say its the most depressing thing to have to feel like your parents don’t care. Its seems easy to reassure yourself that its working when you don’t receive negative feedback but when your dealing with children no feedback is negative feedback. Yes being prepared for the future without coddling is beneficial to building a self-relying structure but asking your children to raise themselves is not good parenting. We don’t remember having to bandage our own wounds only that our parents didn’t want to do it for us.

  • Charmaine L.

    August 12th, 2014 at 12:37 PM

    I feel exactly the same way. In second grade my parents told me I was smart enough to take care of myself. I guess they thought they were preparing me for the real world. I’m sure they felt like very clever parents for raising an independent child. Their internal dialogue probably did not go like this….I will not help her get up in the morning or feed her breakfast before school and I certainly won’t help her with her homework. I won’t clean her scraped knees or become involved in her life unless it pertains to me directly. I will continue this behavior until she’s grown or she leaves the house whichever one comes first. When she’s grown and feels unloved anxious depressed uncared for and neglected, I’m not going to understand where this is coming from. I will feel hurt that my daughter is neglecting me and pushing me away.

  • J

    December 16th, 2016 at 10:04 AM

    micky & Charmaine L. – Both your comments resonated with me on this topic. Especially yours Charmaine, as what you’ve described is how I feel.

    What it comes down to is whether the method of benign neglect works for your child or not. If you’re not willing to change your views to the way your child works as they grow, then you probably should re-think the reasons why you had a child to begin with. Kids get left struggling to the point that they don’t see a point in trying anymore if all life is meant to be is work. There is a point where life is all just work, but there’s a reason why people say “Don’t grow up too fast”. I grew up too fast, and now I sound like a child when I complain about how I was raised. I can’t even feel appreciation for anything anymore. It’s always “what’s the next f**king thing?”.

  • Sam

    April 2nd, 2015 at 5:18 PM

    The article discusses BENIGN neglect. The word benign means “not causing harm or damage.” My mother used this method of child rearing and guess what? I did not feel unloved or even neglected and I learned how to cook my own meals, wash my own clothes, and wipe my own butt. Thank you, mom, for not hovering over me while I was growing up!

  • Christen

    July 21st, 2023 at 8:11 AM

    I think – I have a bit of trouble with word choice here, too. Neglect is a provocative word, and I don’t know that that is actually what we are getting at in this article. What strikes me is that throughout the parenting described here – giving a child space, etc. – the parent is staying attuned. Connected. Still paying attention. Understanding that their child has needs through this process – a need to develop skills to self-soothe, a need to develop confidence and resilience. Understanding that they are helping their child learn to meet a need. And I imagine, there is probably a lot of helping the child process through the hard time. You know? Listening to them as they talk it out. Modeling how to soothe difficult emotions.
    That is not really neglect, to me.
    When I think of benign neglect in parenting – I think more of families that may meet every physical need a child has – they have shelter, the child is fed – but not the emotional ones. There is not overt abuse – nothing physical or sexual, no overt name calling or verbal diatribes aimed at the child. But the child is allowed to go off and do whatever they please. The parent or parents are not attuned. They are focused on their own lives, perhaps – trying to meet their own needs for security, for esteem. This would be the parent that does not know where their child is, what their child does throughout the day. The child is left to figure out what it means to parent themselves, on their own, or the parenting is left to the community to do – the nanny, the neighbor.
    There could be lots of reasons for this, on the parent’s part. And, I think this potentially could look very different and have a different impact on the child based on factors such as gender, race, and class. Always, these parents are deserving of compassion. They are often doing the best they can with the skills that they have. It is also not bad or wrong to be raised in community.
    It’s just that, a latchkey kid is still a latchkey kid, even when their lives may be coated over with gloss.

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