A Little Thing Called Benign Neglect

I remember reading this term once in Mothering magazine when they published a feature article praising “benign neglect”. I don’t think it’s online, but a Google search turned up a bunch of references to the article, so it must have struck a chord with a lot of other moms as well.

This is what I want to ask:

Where did we get the idea that hovering around our kids all day was good mothering?

I agree with a lot of what SuperNanny has to say: avoiding physical punishments, spending lots of time with kids and using positive discipline (physical touch, praise, etc). But calling a mom lazy because she cleaned her house instead of doing crafts with the kids all day?

I don’t think so.

I think there is a balance. I don’t particularly enjoy crafty type activities. I also don’t really love playing dolls and stuff like that. If my 5 year old asked me to play with her I would – but she rarely does. And my boys are usually busy with their homeschool work and Legos and playing ball and the oldest has his nose in a book for much of the day, so they don’t really need me to “play” with them either. Although sometimes the oldest will want me to play a board game with him, and I do enjoy that.

One thing I do love to do with my kids is read out loud with them. So that’s something I do every day with them, sometimes several times a day. I don’t do a lot of “playing” with my kids. And I don’t think my kids suffer for that.

For one thing, they have each other. The boys play together a lot, the girls play together, the two in the middle play a lot …. they have their own little playmates built in, which is one of the nice things about having a whole bunch of kids!

Another reason I engage in a little benign neglect is because I’m with my kids all the time. Perhaps too much if that’s possible. Lately I’m making an effort to get out more and socialize with people my own age. ;)

Seriously though, because I both homeschool and work at home, I’m with my kids 24/7. We eat together 3 times a day and talk, tell jokes, etc. The kids do schoolwork while I’m at my laptop nearby, we go outside for walks or to hang out… they are not lacking for time or attention from me, that’s for sure.

I think benign neglect makes kids more independent. My kids very rarely ever say the dreaded words around me (I’m bored). Probably because they know I always assign some chore when they say that. LOL!

Because they aren’t accustomed to me entertaining them all the time, they are creative and learn how to keep themselves entertained. (yeah, the chore thing helps!)

I think it’s a positive thing for kids to see the adults around them engaged in their own tasks and lives. Keeping the house clean, preparing nutritious meals, and earning a living – my kids see me doing this stuff all day long. They know it’s important, and they know Mommy has to do important adult stuff, stuff that sometimes doesn’t include playtime with them. Am I silly to think they will benefit by this – learning what it means to be a grown up with responsibilities?

When my babies were babies, they sat in a sling close to my body all day and watched me do stuff. They were entertained, but I didn’t spend hours playing with them then either. Of course, I don’t recommend plopping kids in front of the TV – I strictly limit all forms of “screen time” so my kids are doing more important things. That’s different from the kind of benign neglect I’m talking about. Even when I’m working, my kids are almost always free to interrupt me and ask questions, get help with something, show me something they’ve done or built or what have you.

What do you think? Do you engage in a little benign neglect with your kids?  Or are you the Martha Stewart of Moms?

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8 Responses to A Little Thing Called Benign Neglect

  1. jennydecki says:

    When I first saw your trackback my heart stopped and I gasped! Just seeing the word “neglect” I feared a scathing retribution.

    I mean, the very word is something that can have social workers taking away your kids…”neglect” is one of the most powerful words in the language of motherhood. Well it is these days. I immediately read your (amazing) entry here before jumping to any further conclusions (one is my quota for the day) and I found myself saying one thing over and over…

    “Yeah! That’s RIGHT!”

    Especially the part where you say they have each other. It’s not like I have one two year old I put in a closet or something. She has toys, she has me close by, if she cries I *run* to find out what happened (if it’s that one cry, you know the one, not just the I dropped my water cry)

    I remember the day when I found my eldest (3 yo) likes putting the silverware away from the dishwasher. She wants to help me. That is so cool, and I plan on taking full advantage of that because it won’t be long before she refuses to help LOL

    Sure I’m raising more independent kids, and that will be painful when they aren’t homesick and don’t call as often as the Moms who formed that crazy tight noose…oh…I mean bond *evil grin* and I’ll be a little sad, but I’ll know I taught them to be strong adults that know when to ask for help and know when they should just “walk it off.”

    I hope. Only time will really tell.

    Thanks for reading :)

  2. Alice says:

    Yes and I’m learning to do it more because sometimes there is that guilt built in. I was recently trying to remember when I was a kid and I believe my mom did the same thing. I felt loved, cared for and always had plenty to do…but I don’t remember really playing together. I do remember gardening, swimming, playing cards and doing other things like that together.

    Personally, I love sleeping in (or pretending to sleep) on a Saturday morning and listening to my boys as they interact with one another. They fix theselves breakfast, they engage in imaginitive play and well…entertain themselves. It makes me proud of all they can really do on their own.

    A few times we went to this story/singing time at the library and I would always take a seat off to the side and watch my kids have fun and learn. Then one librarian started insisting that we parents sit on the ground with our kids and join in. When my kids were younger, definitely…but they’re 5 and 7 and can enjoy the activity on their own. I never went back after that.

    I think this hovering you speak of is very related to the trend of over-protectiveness and the false impression that we somehow live in a more dangerous world than we were kids. Our kids deserve the opportunity for independence that will serve them well into adulthood.

  3. Patrysha says:

    I am all about benign neglect! I’ve never read the article you’re referring to, but I’ve been using that term since my oldest was a small fry. He learned to read because I would only read one book a day to him…he learned how to use the computer because I got tired of loading the programs up for him…he learned to cook because I only get the urge to bake occasionally and he likes muffins and cookies.

    Mind you, I did do my fair share of crafts (well more open ended than crafts…here’s the paint, here’s the playdoh type stuff) – but even that was more I’ll set it up, let me know when you’re done…

    Of course, I’m not doing it because I’m cleaning the house and cooking…usually I’ve got my nose in a book or I’m on the ‘puter working…

  4. Christina says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Carrie! After all, the end result as a mother is to raise smart and INDEPENDENT adults who can contribute to society and you can’t succeed in doing that if you’re constantly doing everything for your child.

    I have seen the other extreme first hand, the child who can’t do or go anywhere by himself because the mother is hovering, and I feel badly for the child. He won’t have any chance to learn how things are done by himself and will always expect others to do the work for him.

  5. Barbara says:

    I agree 100%! I’ve talked about this before. I have friends who ask all the time how I can get anything done, let alone the amount I get done in a day with the kids home all day and babysitting a baby on top of it. Babies nap, babies and kids can entertain themselves and it seems we’ve forgotten all that and to achieve that elusive (non-existant in my opionion) supermom status moms have to spend every waking moment catering to and entertaining their children. A book I reviewed recently, “I Just Want My Kids to be Happy” by Aaron Cooper is about this very thing. In striving to keep our kids happy every second of the day we’ve over-scheduled and over entertained them to the point they can’t be creative and figure things out for themselves.

    Neglect is a strong word, but yes, I guess I do practice Benign Neglect as you describe it. I am here all the time, but usually working. I stop to play once in awhile, we go for walks and during the summer swimming and things like that, but most of the time I am working or doing house stuff and they are playing together or alone happily. They interrupt me, I fetch sippy cups and sandwiches, but I don’t spend a lot of time on the floor playing and they are fine, and creative because of it. That’s how I grew up, I had a happy well-adjusted childhood, but I don’t remember my parents really playing with us honestly. My parents had their own lives and we knew it and that was ok.

  6. Kaia says:

    Funny you should write about this. I have in the past few days just been thinking about this issue. It seems like I spend most of the days trying to get the house clean, working on the computer, etc, and wonder if I should be actually PLAYING more with my 17 month old daughter. I asked my mom what she thought and she said that I shouldn’t worry about it since at this age basically everything is “play” to kids, and that it will get them accustomed to real life. (As I am writing this she is dancing to Bob Marley next to me).

    Thanks for the topic.

  7. Tiffany says:

    I feel the same way actually. I do alot with my kids and provide many opportunities for them but you won’t see me on the gorund making mud pies or anything. I like them to be able to entertain themselves and take care of themselves. My own mom and dad are constantly on me about it too and have used the LAZY word because I will let my son choose his own bedtime, make his own lunch, go outside without telling me, or a variety of other thing they think I “should” be doing for him or making him come to me to ask about first. I just keep telling them to stop “shoulding” all over me. My brother does it to. They resent that my kids are free to be independent and do their own thing.

  8. Renee says:

    My son plays by himself a lot, but now that he is 2, almost 2 1/2, he is wanting more interactive play with other people. At home, that is me. He is my first, so he doesn’t have the luxury of siblings.

    I have found that I have worked out a good daily routine. I do chores in the morning. He will usually play in whatever room I am in, particularly in the laundry basket. From 10-12, we get out of the house. Play dates, the store, whatever. This time for me to chat with adults and for him to play with other kids, or at least get to see different stores, is necessary for our sanity. I didn’t have a car for a long time and living in empty suburbia (yes, all the moms work), was making me depressed. Now I can drive to visit other stay at home moms with little ones, and we go to the zoo and playground, etc.

    The only hard time is when I’m making dinner. My son always wants me playing in the living room with him, or at least he likes having me in there. He doesn’t like me in the kitchen. I don’t have to play with him, he just wants me sitting on the floor near him playing.

    I feel guilty a lot for not teaching him everything they teach in daycare (though I would never even think of sending him to one). When I pray about what to teach him, I always feel that I should teach him the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I guess that’s the most important thing. Letting him know who he is and who God is will probably make him happier in the long run than counting to 30 or reading at this age.

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