Parenting By Benign Neglect Has Made My Children Independent

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

My 5-year-old makes his own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Sometimes I have to open the peanut butter for him, but I make him bring the jar over to me, whether I’m writing or doing laundry or reading or cleaning. He gets the knife and the bread and the plate; he spreads the jelly and the peanut butter; he puts everything away when he’s done or he damn well hears about it. And he’s proud of it, too.

He’ll tell you: “I can make my own lunch.” He’ll even offer to do it, will ask to do it. The same with my 9-year-old and my coffee. He begs to pour and mix my coffee in the morning, or reheat it for me. Because that means he is trusted to pour cream, or use the microwave, or cope with a hot coffee pot. He’s proud to do this stuff. It means he’s independent.

I do a lot of the things other moms do: ferry my 5-, 7-, and 9-year-olds to playdates, drive them to practices, homeschool them. I do the laundry and make sure they do chores. I drag them to Target to buy dog food and toilet paper. But I also refuse to entertain them. I often make them get their own meals. I do not dress them. I do not arbitrate fights unless they turn physical. I comfort the bleeding, but they retrieve their own Band-Aids (though I help them stick them on. Emphasis on help.).

Call it lazy. Call it parenting by benign neglect. But it’s made my children happier and more independent.

When my kids wake up, I ask them what they want for breakfast. If it’s at all humanly possible, they get it themselves. If it’s not (and we keep the cereal on top of the fridge), I do as little as I can. That means I pour Cheerios into bowls, add some milk, and leave it with a call of “your cereal’s on the counter!” They get their spoons. They carry it to the table without spilling (spill it? Clean it up. You know where the towels are). They scrape their bowls and carry them to the sink.

I go back to whatever I was doing, which is usually either laundry or writing or lesson planning. My kids can do all this themselves. And I think they’re coddled. They could pour their own cereal, but I can’t figure out where on the counter to keep it. They can also pour their own milk, and if the 5-year-old can’t manage it, his brother can help. They’re proud that they can do this. They feel good about it. And like my 5-year-old and his peanut butter sandwiches, they’ll tell you so.

They also help each other. If a task needs to be done, everyone has to pitch in, because if they don’t, they look like a jerk and their brothers treat them as such. If the youngest needs help with his squirt gun, his brother helps him. If my middle son lost his Lego frog, his younger brother helps him. They don’t cry for mama, because they know ain’t no way mama’s getting down on her hands and knees to dig for a miniscule Lego frog. Not because she doesn’t love them. But because mama doesn’t do that. It’s their job. They know it and I know it. As a family, we value their independence to get shit done without whining for us to fix it.

Someone hungry in between meals? Oh look, there’s the peanut butter, the jelly, and the bread. There’s the snack bowl. Hop to it. They don’t have to wait for me to get to a convenient stopping point. My kids control when they eat, how much they eat (which is important to us; they take medication that affects their appetites, so if they feel a hunger pang, we want them to satisfy it, pronto).

In Target, my 9-year-old will point out that we should get muffins, because they make an easy breakfast, and turkey and bologna and salami, because they can use them to make their own sandwiches. I’m going to teach my oldest to nuke frozen veggies next. Because he can. He deserves that kind of independence. He’s capable. He will enjoy it.

I don’t fix fights, either. They need to learn conflict resolution. That doesn’t mean I let them beat each other; hitting is punishable by banishment (and nothing is worse than being banished from your brothers in my house). So when they come to me and say, “So-and-so called me this-and-that,” I tell them to work it out. If there are tears, I step in and help them resolve it. Help them. I don’t fix it. I help them to work through it and reach a resolution. They need to learn to do this on their own. They have to collaborate and communicate their needs to make things better.

Most of all: I do not entertain my children. My mother did not entertain me. This doesn’t mean I don’t play the occasional board game, sit down and draw, or make crafts. It does mean that I don’t devise activities. I open the back door, tell them to go outside, and listen for screams. They’re rare. Mostly the boys dig giant holes, which they fill with water. They swing on the Ninja Line and look for toads. Or so I’m told, because my kids are independent enough to entertain themselves. I don’t fucking know, because the only times I’m out there, I’m gardening and ignoring them. They will play outside until dark, without an adult, if you let them, then howl miserably when they have to come in. They don’t want me out there managing or overseeing their playtime.

My kids are happy. I don’t say that passively. They are truly happy.

They get plenty of hugs. We go on family trips on a regular basis, where they run up the trail, look for things, and run back with what they’ve found. We bike together. We have conversations. And they love each other to pieces. The older ones read books to each other. The last time my middle son took his own money to Target alone, he told his father, “Well, that means I have ten dollars to spend, because I want to get a LEGO minifig for Blaise and Simon so they don’t feel left out.” When their father told me, I had to hang up the phone. I had started to cry.

I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to call me lazy. You’re going to say I don’t deserve my kids if I’m not going to take care of them. But here’s the thing: I am taking care of them. I’m taking very, very good care of them. I’m teaching them to be self-reliant, to take the world on their own terms, to do for themselves and to work with each other. In a world of helicoptered children, these are the skills they’re going to need. They will need to learn to do things for themselves, to work without someone standing over them, to think for themselves. I want them to know they have each other too, and they do know that.

I saw my middle son climb up on the counter to get a plate today. It made me smile. I remember doing the same when I was too small to reach the cabinets.

But many folks would judge this. Because we (collective) don’t let our kids climb up on the counters anymore, right? Too damn dangerous.

No, I reject that line of thinking. It was resourceful and clever. He was thinking outside the box. He was exercising his independence. He was perfectly safe.

I nodded at him. He nodded at me. He retrieved a plate and climbed down.

Damn if I wasn’t proud of him.

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