‘Benign neglect’: giving kids the scope to learn, make mistakes and grow
The recipe for good parenting calls for giving kids a dollop of danger, a lashing of latitude and a pinch of pliancy
“Benign neglect” is the phrase that best describes my parents’ approach to parenting in the 1970s. What today might be called “free-range parenting” or actual neglect, back then was just childhood.
I grew up in a rural part of the American state of Pennsylvania; our home bordered a cornfield and a nature preserve with a creek running through it. My sister and I were friends with two girls who lived beyond the woods on one side and another girl across a barely paved street that we were free to cross on our own from an early age. In fact, the five of us were free to do just about anything we liked. We could wander the woods, play in the creek, build forts in the goat shed, watch as much television as we liked and eat anything we could scrounge for ourselves from the kitchen.
I never wore shoes and my feet were as tough as leather from walking barefoot down our gravel driveway all summer. I was dirty, dishevelled and, being the oldest, blamed by the other girls’ parents for corrupting the language of their children. We spent days writing elaborate plays, producing gymnastics shows, attempting to make a whirlpool in the small swimming pool. We crossed barbed wire fences, tore our clothing, swung from vines, and picked wine berries from thorny bushes to eat by the bucketload with full-fat milk and real sugar.
For us, it was paradise. Today this kind of childhood would be almost impossible to reproduce, and parents who tried might be castigated for neglect or endangerment of their children.
I thought this kind of parenting a relic of a simpler time until I had the pleasure of attending a talk by a leading parenting expert in the US, who seems to be encouraging parents to think back to their own childhoods and recapture for their children some of the danger, freedom, resilience and thrill that has been largely lost in the over-scheduled, anxiety-ridden, structured world of parenting today.
Practising psychologist and bestselling author Wendy Mogel has turned her focus to counselling parents instead of young children these days. Her two popular books, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus, offer encouraging words of wisdom for parents to give children space to make mistakes and to learn from them.
Mogel encourages us to relax and stop “quaking in our boots” parenting. In an age when we pay continuous partial attention to our children, we need to put our phones down and engage with our children when we are with them, but also allow for time when we are not hovering over them.
Mogel implores parents to let children do thrilling things, as this is how they avoid being fearful. Instead of trying to uncover all that went wrong in their children’s day, she urges parents to find out what went right. She said that, “good, healthy, respectful parenting will feel like neglect”.
According to Mogel, girls need to go through phases that will scare parents, and boys need the time to be good tired, not just weary. All kids need to move, not ride around in the car doing errands or going to lessons. She reminds parents that children must have chores for their own growth and to be of assistance to the family.
After all, she says, “the whole point of parenting is to make it look appealing to your children so they’ll have children and you can be a grandparent. If you make it look like a burdensome, stressful drag, they won’t want to be parents, and then you won’t have any grandchildren.”
Mogel’s highly anticipated next book is scheduled for release in 2017.
Listening to parenting experts such as Mogel, Madeline Levine, Michael Thompson and others, their messages are consistent and surprisingly similar. Each encourages parents to lighten up and to give their children a little more space to navigate the world on their own. We have made parenting so complicated and all-consuming, we have to remember to stop worrying and start enjoying our kids during this brief time when we get to be the primary decision makers in their lives.
Gweneth Rehnborg is a board member of Bring Me A Book, a leading advocate for family literacy in Hong Kong (bringmeabook.org.hk)