'Benign Neglect' Isn't a Bad Thing for Kids (or Parents)

It teaches independence from a young age, making a parent's job easier.

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little boy using a sander
Little boy uses a sander.

@makenamedia via Twenty20

I recently heard a wonderful new parenting phrase that I suspect is going to become a regular addition to my vocabulary. The phrase is "benign neglect," and it refers to leaving one's children (of a responsible age, of course) free to make their own decisions, control their own time, and generally act like smaller versions of the adults they're inevitably going to become.

Jeni Marinucci, whose story for CBC Parents first introduced me to this phrase, described how she treats her children almost as if they were hearty houseplants: "They should be watered liberally and you should ensure they get ample sunshine. But otherwise, just let them be." From a young age, her children have been making their own hair and optometrist appointments (after she showed them how to do it) and doing their own back-to-school shopping (Marinucci pays for it):

"I set a budget, hand it over, and let [my daughter] buy her own clothes. If she wants to spend all $200 on one pair of shoes and a single sparkly pencil, that is entirely her call."

Similarly, their time is their own to use as they wish. On a lazy Saturday, it's up them to figure out a ride to the movies (bikes and helmets are in the garage!) and how to make breakfast and lunch for themselves. Marinucci said she hasn't had to wake up early on a weekend in years, ever since she taught her kids at age 4 how to get their own cereal.

The benign neglect approach may sound extreme to some readers. Indeed, one commenter on Marinucci's article accused her of neglecting to raise her children at all, which seems a bit harsh. It's true that her approach would not work for everyone, but at the very least she recognizes what so many parents these days fail to acknowledge – that our beloved children will spend a far greater percentage of their lives as adults than they will as children, so we parents neglect a fundamental requirement of our job if we fail to prepare them for that independence.

I like that benign neglect pays attention to the parental side of parenting, and does not focus entirely on the children; this, in my opinion, is something that's not discussed frequently enough. Parents desperately need a break from the micro-managing and helicopter (or snowplow) parenting that dominates Western culture these days, but it's unpopular to admit that. When a parent's health and happiness is ignored, it leads to stress, burnout, and resentment, none of which are helpful to a child.

"If there's anything I've learned in parenting kids for two decades, it's that you control NOTHING. I also have a driving desire to keep things as simple as possible in all areas of my life. The cliché 'work smarter, not harder' has a lot of relevance for parents. Besides, parenting is already exhausting, so why do we insist on making it harder at every turn?"

Marinucci's words reflect my own view that my job as a parent should get easier as the years go by. There are more hands to help with chores around the house, more willing bodies to pitch in and entertain each other, more brains thinking about solutions to problems. The most tiring years of parenting should be left behind with the diapers and car seats – but this will only happen if I hand over responsibilities to my growing children, rather than hold on to them. It's like the old proverb: "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime."

No one has all the secrets to raising great kids and balancing the gargantuan task with one's own personal needs, but it is helpful to look around and see what others have done. If Marinucci's kids are happy and communicative, and if she, as a mother, is relaxed and well-rested, it's a safe bet that she's on to something good.