Is “benign neglect” best for kids?

New cover op 2Which is better for kids — Helping Them as Much as Possible or “Benign Neglect?”

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D.


Recently, I was visiting a woman at a nursing home and saw in her room a Reader’s Digest article titled “5 Lessons People Learn Too Late.”  I was intrigued and wanted to see what they identified as the 5 lessons we learn too late, so I could think about whether we could learn them earlier!

I was particularly interested in the fact that one of the 5 Lessons people learn too late is “Don’t Overparent.” The article quotes Hara Estroff Marano who argues that “a huge distrust in society’s institutions… pushes people to over-parent.  Parents also lack trust in children’s desire to be competent and don’t accept that nature will influence the course of development.” 

This was one of our big insights when my colleague and I studied unusually mature, thriving young children (infants to 5 and 6 years old) in a Montessori school.  When we studied that environment to understand why these young children appeared so much more capable, confident and considerate than most young children, we identified 8 inter-related keys that distinguished the capable, confident, self-motivated young children from other young children their age.  And one key discovery was that the adults there demonstrated great respect for the native intelligence and natural learning drives of the young children.  Understanding the young children differently, they behaved differently and allowed the young children to guide their own learning to a great degree.

Note: letting young children direct much of their own learning did not mean letting them behave like ruffians!  Failing to educate young children about we behave in our culture is going too far with neglect!  A fork is for eating food, not throwing or playing with.  It’s okay to pet or pat the dog, but trying to mount or ride the dog is not okay.

The Reader’s Digest article argues that “benign neglect is good for kids.”  More and more youth are experiencing depression and anxiety, and developing an unhealthy level of narcissism.  Michelle Givertz of California State University has studied hundreds of parent-youth pairs and found that over-parenting leads to depression-prone, aimless kids (and ultimately, adults) who lack the ability to achieve goals. Parental over-involvement is also associated with entitlement, Givertz says. Kids who are used to getting everything they need without exerting any effort may think, I’m entitled to everything, but I don’t have the abilities to achieve what I want.”  Insecure and entitled– yikes!  Who wants to raise the next Donald Trump?!

In our Montessori school, we discovered that over-parenting starts in the early years, and it seems to hold children back from developing key skills they would develop quite naturally, if allowed. Teachers who taught the class of 3 – 6 year olds greatly preferred getting students who had already been in Montessori classrooms in infancy and toddler ages, because those children still possessed intact natural learning drives. Many of the children coming to the school at 3 years old directly from the community were exhibiting delayed development. They tended to be immature and passive and it took them quite some time to get back to their normal state of natural curiosity and productive activity.

After seeing what a difference these insights made for child development, I sure changed my approach to young children!  I no longer rush to “save” a young child from falling when they’re working at walking.  I no longer make a loud exclamation “oh no!” when they spill or make a mistake.  I have learned to trust in the young child’s capability to cope with challenges.  I let them experience frustration and disappointment and show trust that they can handle it.  I understand that my job as an adult, whether parent or teacher or aunt or adult on the playground, is not to “serve” children, but is to help kids become confident and self-sufficient.

How can we help more adults learn this lesson before it’s too late, before their children become immature, passive, and entitled? 


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