Is Parenting By Benign Neglect Really Such A Bad Thing?

by Kristina Wright
Originally Published: 
Two little girls playing in the sand with plastic buckets and shovels.

About 15 years ago, long before I had children, I asked a friend’s mother—a successful judge—how she’d managed to raise equally well-adjusted and successful children. My friend was a psychologist, her siblings were likewise professionally successful contributors to society. She gave me a two-word answer: benign neglect.

I’ve thought about that phrase a lot over the years, especially since having two children of my own in the past five years. Benign neglect. What does it mean? At the time, I took it to mean she simply let them do what they wanted, as long as it didn’t harm them or others. My friend, the psychologist, was an avid outdoorsy type, sailing and hiking and other adventurous activities, as well as being a romance writer. Was benign neglect the secret to her adventurous ways? Was what her mother called benign neglect what we call “free-range parenting” today? I’d love to ask her, but I’ve long since lost touch with my friend and her mother. I still think about that phrase though and wonder if I’m brave enough to actually use it while my children are still as young as they are. Or ever.

I often suspect my parenting style is exactly that—benign neglect—though I’d never call it that because I know how it sounds. Neglect? My children? Oh dear, call the authorities. Searching the word “neglect” online brings up hits about what is currently considered parental neglect, with cases that are firmly in the grey area of what most people would consider inappropriate. One of the most publicized cases in recent months has revolved around the Meitiv family, the Maryland parents who have been in trouble with the police and child protective services for letting their 6- and 10-year-old children walk around their busy suburban neighborhood. But they are far from being an isolated case. Neglect has a bad connotation in almost all circumstances, but especially as it relates to children. And yet, these parental choices that are being criminalized in 2015 would hardly have warranted a conversation in previous decades.

There seem to be two parenting camps these days: the free-rangers who harken back to the good old days, whether it was the 1950s or the 1980s, when kids were kids and parents were busy with their own lives. Neighborhood adventures, exploring places beyond the boundaries of one’s own backyard—we all have those stories, right? I have a scar on the inside of my wrist from climbing a 10-foot chain-link fence behind my friend’s house (that just happened to be state property) when we were 14 years old and home alone. My sleeve got caught on the top of the chain link and punctured my wrist. That didn’t stop us, nor did anything—or anyone—else.

My husband has his tales of adventure, too, growing up in Tennessee with a younger brother and parents who worked. I think most boys of a certain age have those stories, maybe more so than girls. But girls have them, too. Bike riding through the woods, crossing major intersections to go to the 7-Eleven for a Slurpee, taking the city bus to the beach even though our parents told us not to. The list is long—and I’m not sure if it was so much parent-sanctioned as it was assumed that we would break the rules and they’d deal with the consequences if and when there were consequences to deal with.

What changed? The world didn’t get more dangerous; we are simply bombarded with the dangers that do exist. It’s horrible when a child is abducted and it lingers in the collective conscience for a very, very long time. I was a teenager in South Florida in 1981 when 6-year-old Adam Walsh was abducted from a suburban shopping mall and murdered. Shock rippled through the community—how could this have happened? Parents kept a tighter hand on their children in the weeks and months that followed and that name—Adam Walsh—still lingers in my memory now that I have two sons of my own. While my inclination may be to let them roam the toy department at Target while I shop for a birthday gift for one of their friends, I find it almost impossible to take my eyes off them for more than a few seconds. Adam Walsh’s name pops into my mind in those moments they’re out of sight and I’m off to find them, the faintest tremor of fear vibrating behind my breastbone.

Logic tells me the odds are slim that my children will be abducted, especially if they’re together. Logic tells me that I did far more as a child than I feel I’m allowed to let them do on their own in this modern era of nosy neighbors with cell phones reporting any suspected infraction of parental guidance. It may take a village to raise a child, but it only takes one person’s misguided—or malicious—attempt to land a parent in jail. And so we hover and we watch and we childproof the world our kids live in. And to what end? If the world isn’t any more dangerous than it was on the day Adam Walsh was abducted (and, in fact, statistics suggest children are actually safer than they were in 1981), then what is the purpose of constantly monitoring our children?

It does seem to have become a measure of good parenting as to whether you are supervising your child’s every activity. And so many of those activities have shifted from free play in the neighborhoods and parks and streets they grow up on to organized sports, music lessons, clubs and planned events. In his book Free to Learn, developmental psychologist Peter Gray writes about the 50-year decline in the free play allowed to children, with a range of reasons that include the increase in single-parent households, the focus on more rigorous academics as influenced by No Child Left Behind and, yes, the fears of parents as spawned by television and media. “We are pushing the limits of children’s adaptability,” he says. “We leave them ever less time and freedom to play, explore, and pursue their own interests.”

Between the long school days where recess has shrunk, to 10 minutes after lunch, to the numerous after-school activities designed to improve the chances of getting into a good college, to the fears of abduction in neighborhoods where we no longer even know our neighbors, free play is not something children are allowed much of anymore. Kids need the ability to explore their world and develop their confidence and independence, but how do parents allow that without finding themselves facing down a police officer or judge or even a well-meaning neighbor who doesn’t believe in benign neglect?

My sons are preschool age. There is time, I hope, for me to figure out a satisfying compromise between being the cautious 21st-century parent I’m expected to be while also indulging in some good old-fashioned 20th-century benign neglect. Right now, that takes the form of pretending not to hear them when they drag the garden hose across the yard to turn a bare patch of dirt into a mud puddle they can wallow in. Or biting my tongue and ducking away from the window when they climb to the top of their backyard fort and perch precariously on the edge, looking for me to scold them because that’s something only “big kids” should do. Whether it’s letting them walk across the Starbucks parking lot beside me but not insisting they hold my hand or letting them walk out to the mailbox alone to check the mail, these small acts seem like a tremendous rebellion in the face of a growing anxiety about unattended children. No, I’m not going to let them wander the aisles of Target alone—not yet—nor am I going to let them bike to the store as long as we live in our current neighborhood that connects to a busy road with no shoulder, much less a bike lane. I’m not willing to take those risks, though I am constantly at war with myself about just what are real risks and what are irrational fears instilled by too many television crime dramas and sensationalized news reports.

I don’t know what the answer is, or what it will take to ease up on this and future generations of children and allow them to play and learn independently. I don’t think the solution will be found in stricter laws, more involvement from government agencies or increased policing by neighborhood do-gooders. If anything, I believe resolution will be found in the neighborhoods we live in—in sharing the responsibility of watching out for each other’s children to make sure they get home safe, in recognizing the importance of connection and community when it comes to raising a healthy, independent generation of children. For my part, I’m going to do whatever I can to give my kids the freedom to explore the world on their own while also trying to stay on the right side of the law in the process. It’s a grey area we’re all trying to navigate while being true to our parenting beliefs. May we all find our way safely.

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