Two young boys covered in mud


Benign Neglect Parenting is the Best Parenting of All

Mar 17, 2020

In many ways, I think children are just like hearty houseplants — they should be watered liberally and you should ensure they get ample sunshine. But otherwise, just let them be.

Likewise, acting a little bit less hands-on in parenting is going to (probably) result in happier kids. I say “probably” because I can’t ask my own children right this minute; one is out for a solo hike and the other is in Ireland with a friend on holiday.

"I’m only too happy to continue my family tradition of letting kids figure things out for themselves."

I can’t say my parenting method comes from a lot of research and thought, and I promise you that nary a parenting guidebook had touched my hands. Instead, I trust my gut and ask for advice when needed from people who seem to have great relationships with their kids. Other that that, I stand back and let things unfold as they may.

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?

Ever heard of "train your baby like a dog" parenting? Find out how people reacted to that idea here.

I was raised with heaping helpings of “do it yourself,” in a manner I refer to as “benign neglect” — and it’s been my own primary model for parenting. And here’s the best part: it works! I’m only too happy to continue my family tradition of letting kids figure things out for themselves.

I am absolutely present in my kids' lives and make myself fully available to them (after all, this isn’t “ignore them” parenting). I guide and divert when things look dicey, but for the most part, letting kids fail — and succeed! — on their own is what creates resiliency and grit. I hope to be around for years and years to come, but my kids are only kids for a while and they are adults for the greater part of their lives. So while I am definitely their soft spot to land when they need comfort, I am also decidedly “get out of the way” when they want lunch on a Saturday or need to figure out a ride to the movies. (Answers: the fridge is full, you have a bank card if you want pizza from the deli and there are bikes and helmets in the garage.)

"Start small if it’s hard to relinquish control and do something like prepare the kids that this coming Saturday is going to be a free-for-all."

I haven’t made a haircut appointment for my children in years, and that’s because I showed them how to do it themselves. By 14, my daughter was arranging her own appointments and setting up times for things like back-to-school supply shopping. I pay for those things (I’m not a monster), but she arranges it all and figures out a way to get herself there. I also set a budget, hand it over and let her 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.

I still arrange things like medical visits, but my kids have and will continue to go to some appointments on their own. They have never had an issue relaying messages to me from the orthodontist or optician, and if I need to, I follow up with a call to the expert. I asked my kids how they feel doing these things and I only get blank stares back. That’s because this is their normal and they cannot understand a life where they weren’t able to exert some control over their own time, life and bodies.

This mom is not a snowplow parent — read why she's happy when her kids fail here.

Try stepping back a bit. Start small if it’s hard to relinquish control and do something like prepare the kids by making an upcoming Saturday a free-for-all. Even at four or five, I could sleep in after telling the kids they could make themselves cereal or cold oatmeal for breakfast. And since the advent of the iPad, I haven’t had to wake up before 9 a.m. on a Saturday.

When my then 12-year-old son was with a friend for a sleepover, they wanted to sleep outside in the cardboard boxes the new patio furniture came in. My instinct was to say no, but I stopped and asked myself why not. They were in a safe area devoid of bad weather, prowlers and wild roaming animals. You can guess what happened, and it was not “they got eaten by wolves.” No — they got cold, came in around 4 a.m. after a sleepless but super-fun night and now have an incredible and funny memory to take with them when they become parents. This is what the power of “yes” through a hands-off benign approach can do for your kids.

If you think benign neglect sounds a bit sketchy, consider it more like free-range parenting, but in a way that is as beneficial for the parents as it is for the kids!

Article Author Jeni Marinucci
Jeni Marinucci

Read more from Jeni here.

Jeni is a writer with a guilty conscience, a love for humour and a questionable home-haircut. After her children were old enough to make their own sandwiches, she returned to university to complete her BA in English literature — a designation which has provided her with an extensive library and crushing student loans. When no teaching college wanted her, she had to choose between taking orders through a drive-thru window or from an editor. She chose the latter.

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