Saturday, March 12, 2011

Benign Neglect as a Parenting Strategy

I realize there are as many parenting styles as there are parents. And of course, we usually think ours is the best approach. I can definitely say as the parent of three kids that one method does not necessarily work for every child. My three children are all cut from their own cloth and respond to things quite differently.

Overall, I think I've been a pretty good parent. Some probably think I'm way too lenient. I think they're way to strict. Some think I let my kids run all over me. I think I listen to them. In the end, the measure I use is this: as my children move into adulthood, do I like them? Do I want to hang out with them? Are they the kind of people I respect? Are they good, compassionate, helpful, kind? And here's the other piece: they all seem to want to hang out with me. Now, I'm not stupid. I realize that this is in part because they need money. But it's more than that. We have forged a relationship that holds meaning beyond the parent-child spectrum. We genuinely like one another. (Most of the time.)

I have often described my parenting style as one of benign neglect. Or laziness. Benign neglect sounds better. But here's the thing. It basically boils down to letting the kids deal with whatever consequences arise, unless I think they are putting themselves or someone else in serious danger. (Which has never happened yet.)

So when my child wants to stay up all night, I merely ask that they keep it quiet so I can sleep. They will discover tomorrow that they are tired, don't feel well, can't stay awake in class--whatever. And they almost always learn they don't enjoy that. Same with drinking a gallon of soda. I don't lecture them on nutrition. They've heard all that before. But when they don't feel good the next day--they know why. I've never censored television, books, movies, music, or anything else. They have proven that they have enough sense to self-regulate. I mean, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that most of tv is just trash and not mentally satisfying in any way. So they give up watching it.

I know friends who think I'm a wuss. Who think I'm not willing to stand up and be a real parent. Who think that I should learn that I can't be their friend. But here's what I notice. They are the ones struggling with their children. They are the ones whose kids continually go down the path their parents don't want. They are the ones who can't get their kids to talk to them.

My main goal as a parent of teenagers is to be the kind of parent who is approachable, who they can talk to about anything without being afraid they are going to get into big trouble. I would rather know where they are and who they are with and what they're doing so that I can help if things get to the point where someone is in danger: drugs, alcohol, sex, whatever. If they won't talk to me, they could get into big trouble that is difficult to find your way out of. Those things are way bigger than if they stay up too late at night or get a bad grade in a class.

My children know the expectations, though. They know that if they commit to something, we expect them to honor that commitment. They know we expect them to take school seriously--but not too seriously. Peter, our 14 year old, has some pretty awful grades right now. Instead of grounding him or lecturing him, we talk to him about it. He already felt bad, already made a plan to bring up the grades. We knew they were mostly a result of missed assignments, and that it will all come out in the wash by the end of the quarter. Peter knew he wouldn't get in trouble, so he knew there was no reason to hide his grades from us. He knew we expected better, and what's more important--HE expected better of himself.

That's really why I find my benign neglect strategy to be the best one for us. Our kids learn to think, plan, make mistakes, redo, and try again. They don't respond well to lectures or punitive actions. And I thinks that shows that they already know if they messed up, they already figured out what to do about it, and they know that for the really big mess ups in life, we are here to help them out.

I'm not putting this out there to say my way is better than yours. I'm just saying that I'd rather make sure my kid, say, uses birth control than have her be afraid to ever talk to me because she's worried I'll just ground her or something. I'd rather have my kid talk to me about drugs than to find him shooting up in the alley because he's worried I'll kick him out (for example).

And it seems to be working. None of my kids hesitates to talk to me about all manner of things. And none of them engages in dangerous behaviors. Why? I think because they only have to look around at their friends' lives to see how messed up drugs make you, or what crappy jobs their non-college-degreed friends are stuck in. They've mostly learned to think for themselves, rather than doing only what they know won't get them in trouble. I value that very highly.

1 comment:

  1. Love it. I grew up in a pretty controlled household and I aspire to raise my kids differently - more along the lines of what you are discussing. But it is a challenge when contrary opinions abound. I love your openness in the end - it's about finding what works best for each child.