Leave Them Alone

Children having picnicChildren need time and space to play, to discover—to simply be. This generation has fewer children and more resources than any previous generation, making us intensely focused on our children. From her observations of South America’s Stone Age Indians, Jean Liedloff, author of The Continuum Concept, feels that parenting that is too “child-centered” deprives a child of his ability to learn about the world by observing the adults around him. Instead, she says, when the adults around her are focused on the child, she becomes confused and demanding.

Children don’t need adults to constantly plan play dates and activities for them. They need to be bored—to discover their own inner resources. They need to be left to their own devices to direct their games with siblings or neighborhood friends. When play is managed by adults, children become dependent on adults for direction and problem solving, but when children are left alone, they get to figure out a method of determining who goes first, and what to do if someone isn’t following the rules. In neighborhood play, there are no agendas, and no one has special privileges, because no one is “the guest.”

BENIGN NEGLECT

“Mum, I’m bored,” announces my six-year-old daughter. I remind her that I am writing. She stomps off to her room.

When my daughter’s humming seeps into my consciousness, I knock on her door. It cracks open, and a small girl with a gappy grin peers up at me. She has created a post office, with envelopes made from folded and taped scraps of paper, adorned with handmade stamps.

Later I look up when I hear my son’s exclamations of joy as he pulls a string tied to bells and a toilet paper roll—an amusement his big sister has fashioned for him. Beaming, he comes into my office and rests his head on my leg. I rub his back. After a few moments, he toddles away to discover other things that can be taken apart while I write and parent with benign neglect.

Benign neglect—the purposeful inclusion of solitude in my children’s lives; the refusal to over-manage and over-schedule them. Benign neglect—giving my daughter and son the time alone that I believe they must have to grow up independent, thoughtful, observant, self-reliant, persistent, creative, joyful, and moral.

Margaret Dean Daiss, “Benign Neglect,” Mothering, Winter 1994.

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Peggy O'Mara newPeggy O’Mara is the editor and publisher of peggyomara.com. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering magazine from 1980 to 2011 and the editor-in-chief of Mothering.com from 1995 to 2012.. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four and grandmother of three.

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Peggy O'Mara

About Peggy O'Mara

Editor and Publisher of peggyomara.com. Longtime natural living advocate, award winning writer, and independent thinker.

7 thoughts on “Leave Them Alone

  1. Willow

    I love this and totally agree! My kids prefer to play unorganized sports at the park rather than organized with parents coaching. They tell me stories about the games but what I hear are the lessons they learned.

    Reply
  2. Jenny

    I would love to know the writers thoughts on how tv, computers, video games, basically screens in general, work into benign parenting. I seem to always struggle with my sons (I have no daughters) determining how hey spend their free time with me helicoptering the screen use in the house. I want them to be creative and independent. I grew up he daughter of a la leche legue leader, with a mom who, when I went to her and said, “I’m bored”, would answer, “good, being bored is important, it allows your mind time to be creative.” But that was when there were rabbit ears on tv’s and 3 channels, no computers, no iPads, no gaming (or very little) help! How do us 21st century moms strike a good balance!

    Reply
    • Peggy O'MaraPeggy O'Mara Post author

      I’m of an older generation so there weren’t the temptations. But, there are always temptations and all this media doesn’t mean there’s more quality. We limited TV use to two hours a week and then got rid of it all together. We watched videos and some TV as they got older. I think you’re right to trust your instincts to set some limits on screen time. This article might help:

      Reply
      • Barbara Wood

        Wonderful advice Peggy you are my generation and we share the same Philosophy wish I could put my thoughts into words as succinctly as you.
        I have been happily caring for children in one form or another for 45 years, my first position being in Dr Barnardo’s Children’s Home in the UK in my last I was Director of an Early Childhood Care Centre in Perth WA and was proud to receive Child Care Director of the Year Award just before I retired. I continue to advise young parents on the best way to let children use their imagination,as I always say if you allow children to enjoy their childhood parents will enjoy their children. I wish you continuing success and happiness in your life. Kind regards
        Barbara Wood

        Reply
      • Eliane Sainte-Marie

        Hi Peggy,

        As a young mom in the 90’s I remember being very impacted by Margaret Dean Daiss’ Benign Neglect article when it came out, and finding it a help in applying The Continuum Concept. I’m now a parenting coach and would love to share it with my peeps, but I can’t find a copy of it anywhere, nor can I find any way to contact Margaret.

        Would you happen to have a link to the article or know how I could get a copy of it? I’d love to re-publish it if it was possible to make it available to parents now.

        And I totally understand if you don’t have that info. It’s just such a shame to not have it available anymore when I know how much it helped me!

        Thank you for all you did with Mothering Magazine! Your magazine and words were so supportive and inspiring to me, a wise, real and experienced mentor lighting my path of natural parenting.

        Lots of love to you!

        Eliane

        P.S.: I just published my own article on benign neglect, http://www.coachingforwholeness.com/blog/could-you-be-too-child-centered.

        Reply
        • Peggy O'MaraPeggy O'Mara Post author

          I like your article, Elaine and thanks for keeping this message fresh. I’m going to go look for the Benign Neglect article and hope to publish it here.

          Reply

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