Children 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.”
“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.
Peggy 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.