A 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.
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