How My Parenting Style of Benign Neglect Has Raised Useful (Happy) Humans

by Virginia Duan
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Every time people find out I have four kids — and that I bilingual homeschool them in Chinese and English — they call me Super Mom or they ask me for advice, as if being fertile imparted preternatural wisdom or parenting skills. I try to explain that I’m actually a terrible parent, but they always insist that I’m being modest.

Let me be perfectly frank: I am not being modest. I wish I were. I wish I were underselling all the shit I do — but truthfully, I am a mediocre parent and adhere to the benign neglect philosophy of parenting styles. When I say I rarely see my children and spend most of my time sitting in my bed tap-tap-tapping away on my laptop and consuming everything I can on K-pop band BTS, I am not exaggerating.

Yes. Even in this pandemic.

Now, before I continue, I don’t mean to make light of actual neglect — that’s child abuse. My children are more than adequately housed, fed, clothed, and hygiened (well, I suppose that may be a stretch). They may be minimally educated — but I figured that 2020 did me a solid and almost every kid is woefully undereducated at the moment. But really, that is all due to the fact that their father (my long-suffering husband) also lives with us so there is an actual adult on the premises.

Keep in mind, my oldest child is turning eleven in a few weeks and my youngest just turned four, so I put in my time. I paid my dues. I breastfed on demand or was pregnant for a decade. I cloth diapered and made my own organic baby food. I took them to the park every day and attended years of Mandarin mommy and me classes. They took so many classes and extracurriculars, I was always shuttling these children somewhere for something.

Admittedly, that was for the first three children, but I think this has only made my youngest child far more evolutionarily fit. He’s a survivor, that one. He learned how to microwave his own frozen chicken nuggets at three-and-half! It’s hard for a tiny human to open the freezer, find a plate, and then reach the microwave. (He ate them frozen for a long time until he figured out how to use a stool. The tears of pride I shed, friends!)

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Look, isn’t the entire point of raising children to produce independent humans who can actually do things instead of flounder and flail about when they finally leave the cushy confines of your home? And if necessity is the mother of invention, then me refusing to do the myriad of shitty things a parent is supposed to do for their kids is actually me teaching them important life skills. You cannot convince me otherwise.

Also also? You’re welcome to all my children’s future partners and roommates. My children (even the seven-year-old) know how to do laundry, change their sheets, put away the groceries and clean dishes, take out the garbage — and bring the cans back in — arguably the most difficult task ever, sort mail (actually, this is the most difficult task ever), as well as cook.

I am delighted to say that I have not cooked for my children in months.

First of all, they hate my cooking which offends me despite the minimal effort I expend. I’m actually a good cook — I just don’t see the point in wasting my talents on such ungrateful children. My husband only says, “It’s okay.” You know what? If I have to cook food and all you say is “it’s okay,” you’re going to eat microwaved frozen burritos that you have to buy yourself from Walmart.

Second, once I taught my older kids how to cook eggs, make instant ramen, and fry Spam, I figured they were ready for college. Throw in a vegetable (but why — amirite?) and it’s the best struggle meal on earth — not to mention balanced!

Third, I can only do this because I have ensured that our home is stocked with easily accessible foods and utensils that I both stored where they could easily reach and put in the time to teach my children how to make. I taught them oven and stove safety, how to read and follow directions, and made sure the kids were empowered (and hungry) enough to take care of themselves. Plus, now they can make me food and even if it’s a limited menu, any food I don’t personally have to make is the most delicious food ever. That’s a scientific fact.

It’s not a perfect system. There have been some minor burns and broken dishes. But I believe pain is a great teacher and though I’m sure they’re missing some vital nutrients and their bones are hollow, that’s what essential oils and multivitamins are for. Isn’t better living through chemistry amazing?

And now that my husband bought the kids a cheap ten dollar phone off of Amazon — I have now achieved the dream of texting my children — thus eliminating the need to ever leave my room or speak to anyone in person ever again.

You may be asking, “How can I, too, have children who are independent but also a smidge feral?” Well, friend, I’m so glad you asked. The secret to succeeding at this heretofore unheralded parenting style is a comfort and familiarity with despair and defeat.

You must accept that your kids will be really bad at whatever life skill you are attempting to impart — and you must resist the overwhelming urge to just do it for them so it’s done right already. It’s like when you first trained your partner to do the dishes and load the dishwasher the right way (yours). At some point, you have to ask yourself which is more important: that the dishes are washed by not you or that the dishes are washed in the manner to which you are accustomed. I mean, sure, both would be great, but we live in the real world of deferred dreams here so you only get one.

I choose not me. Every. Time.

Bonus: my children are now all excellent negotiators and my oldest is brilliant at managing both up and down. Every time he has work he needs to complete, he will do one of three things: do it himself, delegate, or if it depends on my presence, remind me that he cannot do his job without my help. Half the time, I tell him he doesn’t have to do it because I don’t want to do it, either — but now it’s my fault and not his.

If this isn’t the daily struggle of the average office worker, I do not know what is.

And isn’t that what we all want to raise? Average office workers?

Judge me all you want, but you know what? I’m one of the happier and more satisfied mothers I know — and it’s all because I put myself first. Some folks may call me selfish, but I call it a gift.