When I was a little girl, left in the care of my father, he would often take me along with him to work on week-ends and during the summer months. His job at the time was principal of small rural high school. About the size of Brock for those readers from Texas.
I tagged along behind him trying to keep up with the strides of a 6’4″ rather imposing figure as we entered the empty halls of the deserted school building. Dad’s job entailed it all — from distributing the mail, to scheduling the basic repairs and maintenance for the building during down time, to hiring all the staff, and to communicating with parents about future school plans and concerns. He would point me in the direction of an empty desk in the office, give me a box of colored pencils and some white copy paper to keep me quiet while he completed his tasks at hand, often leaving me alone in the office while he was in other parts of the building or chatting with the custodial staff or coaches.
My dad, before his job as a principal, was a biology teacher. He loved to explain to me why my eyes were blue, just like his,while mom’s were green. While he was not an especially artistic person, he did show me how to draw amoebas which I did with great attention to detail using many different shades of color and combinations. I didn’t know at the time what all these amoeba parts were called or their function but I imagined chocolate chip cookies, suns and planets inside a lake. My dad encouraged my creativity and gave me the gift of time and an important parenting technique that I call, benign neglect. I spent quite a few hours drawing amoebas of varying sizes and shapes, often stopping to sharpen my pencil on the wall-mounted sharpener next to my desk.
Practicing benign neglect as a parent is not about abdicating responsibility, ignoring limits, or letting go of all boundaries. On the contrary. It is about creating clear limits and boundaries, which all children need (I knew not to leave the office except to go down the hall to the bathroom) allowing for enough freedom within those limits for true learning to occur. It is about watching and waiting and being intentional in the ways we intervene. It’s about allowing our children to feel some discomfort, letting them struggle, and helping them work through it. It is about loving them enough to let them experience the world in a way that lets them grow and learn, even when, with every fiber of our being, we want to shield and protect them from the bumps and bruises they will get along the way.
So in 2017, give a kid a little benign neglect (the only love I know): a packet of colored pencils, blank paper, a quiet corner and see what they create.