The Benefits of Ignoring Children (Sometimes)

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When I first became a mother I was always “there.”  You know.  Answering every question.  Watching every special moment.  Paying attention so as not to “miss out” or “harm their self esteem.”  Of course as time went on and I added more and more children to the mix, this became impossible both because of time and a desire to maintain my sanity.

One day I realized that my children expected to be listened to all the time.  I realized that they felt no shame interrupting a conversation that other people were having to announce that they were wearing socks.  As it turned out, they had gotten the message that the entire world was about them.

In fact, looking back I remember a visit I had with a friend of mine with five children.  I had only one child less than a year old at the time and I was HORRIFIED that her youngest child was not constantly held or picked up at every sniffle.  Sometimes he played alone, sometimes with his siblings, sometimes he even fussed.

Looking back now of course, I see that she was juggling a household of children, needs, and responsibilities and doing it incredibly well.  All her children were kind, attentive to the baby, loving and recognized the needs of others, not just themselves.  In fact, I remember this mother saying something that seemed horrid at the time but which now I recognize is wisdom we often forget.  She said, “They thrive on neglect.”  She was kidding, of course.  True neglect is an awful and damaging thing.  She wasn’t and never actually neglected her children.  But she did do something wonderful for them and it is something we often feel GUILTY for doing even though most children need a little more of it.

What she was really saying was:

Sometimes you just need to allow children to BE.  (Even if that means “be bored.”)

Children need free play.

Children need to recognize that other people have needs (even their parents) that sometimes supersede their own.

Children need the blessing of downtime.

Children need the gift of not being the most important thing in the universe every second of every day.

Children THRIVE when their activities are not always controlled, overseen, and regulated by large and powerful adults.

Children learn important lessons about life and interaction when drama, bickering, discord, and problems are allowed to happen.  They learn to find their own solutions without an authority stepping in.

The mind of a child will develop in a more normal and useful way if we don’t hand them a video game or a movie every time they start to get noisy, annoy us, or make a mess.

LET THEM HAVE TIME TO THEMSELVES — time that is not overseen, interrupted, controlled, regulated, or organized or watched.  We will see happier, healthier children who are capable of solving their own problems and manipulating their own world rather than expecting somebody else to manipulate it for them.  We will see children who recognize the needs of others sometimes trump their own desires.  We will see better and more giving children who just happen to be HAPPIER.

When I think back to the time to when I thought kids needed every question answered and every moment observed and appreciated, I realize I was feeling guilty and comparing myself to a mother that never existed.

I felt guilty if I read a book or took time for myself or (gasp) spent a moment on Face book.  (I still feel guilty if I do too much of that. MODERATION!)  But the reality is that no mother in the history of the world ever spent every waking moment making sure her child had age appropriate toys, organized sports, educational experiences and stimulating conversations where their self esteem was validated.

Women a few hundred years ago worked their butts off every day helping their family survive.  They planted and harvested, killed and prepared their own food.  The children either watched younger children, played (often unsupervised) or worked right along side them.  Women who had to work outside of their home had other people or family members care for their children while they cared for others.  The wealthiest women probably had other paid servants care for their children much of the time.    Children played with other children.  Children worked.  Children solved some of their own problems and they found things to do.

Just think back to your own childhood.  Was somebody hovering over your shoulder every moment?  Were you constantly entertained?  Did somebody drop everything every time you opened your mouth to speak?  Or did you play down the street or in the yard or out on your property by yourself or with neighbors?  Did you get a chance to figure things out and make mistakes and enjoy the consequences of them?  Did you learn that everything doesn’t revolve around you?

I think too often we take attachment parenting of an infant (who biologically NEEDS constant care and contact) and we extend it to our three and four and even ten year old.  Healthy infant attachment doesn’t need to extend to helicopter parenting our children.  I fear that if we try to do this a few things will happen:

1) We will find this task impossible.

2) We will feel guilty for failing.

3) We will be stressed out for not sticking to an unrealistic ideal.

4) We will have stressed out children who can’t function without a constant guiding hand.  Not to mention, they will really love interrupting conversations that other people are having.  Why not?  The world revolves around them!

5) In the end, our constantly  monitored and listened to children may not even be HAPPY — the thing we are trying most to give them.  It is pretty hard to be happy and have any self esteem if you never learned that you can do things ON YOUR OWN.  Constantly supervising and solving don’t teach self esteem- it teaches that they are incapable without you.

So this is me.  Writing while my children wander outside.  Telling them those famous mom words, “Not right now.”  Letting them solve it on their own.  Reminding them that bored children don’t get a movie, they get to clean the floor.

I’ll let you know how it turns out in 40 years.

Wish me luck!

12 thoughts on “The Benefits of Ignoring Children (Sometimes)”

  1. I know that once baby #2 is here and old enough, he and my DD will be playing well without the supervision I provide my DD right now. I am guilty of trying to keep her entertained at all times or just turning on a movie. I would much rather her play in her room by herself, but she seems to be so incapable of doing so. Is this a first child thing since there is nobody else to play with? I know some kids that are only children who do play very well alone, but not that many. :-/

  2. My fourth baby will be one next week. I loved reading this. Sometimes I have felt like my siblings who have one or no children think I am a bad mother because of how I parent. I hope someday they will see this way does work.
    I believe you will see great results in 40 years! Thank you for this encouragement!

  3. I have a seven week old and this is all already common sense to me. Honestly, I feel like this article should just be called “It’s OK to Be A Mother AND Have A Life”. Honestly people, leave your kids alone and handle your own business! Take a bath, read a book, they’ll definitely let you know when they need you.

  4. I could not agree more and I see this playing out all the time where I live here in Kenya. I think the difference is that modern Western mothers are often so isolated. And with fewer kids (siblings) and no immediate group of constant playmates just outside the door (as is the case for rural kids here) it’s hard for kids to find those playmates who are so crucial to the kid’s development. So, they spend so much more time with mom, which is often not good for either mom or child. It’s not that kids need to be ignored per se, it’s just that they don’t necessarily need mom as their everything.

  5. I actually just attended a workshop about how to extend attachment parenting well into the teen years. While I agree whole heartedtly that helicopter parenting is never good, I would also NEVER ignore my child. If they want to tell me something, or need help, or want a favor like a snack…I would be happy to help them. That is just my take. In my experience with my own children and those i have worked with very attached children who always know that they will have a listening ear, help getting a glass of water, etc are also very good at playing alone and entertaining themselves because they have no anxiety about getting their needs, both physical and emotional met.

  6. My husband and most wealthy kids from India are raised with an extreme form of attachment parenting. I have seen firsthand how it can cause boundary issues and lower self esteem, which doesn’t always become apparent until they are expected to function like adults in the real world. I strongly agree with this article, and I also strongly feel that outright ignoring a kiddo is sometimes necessary and OK. Since I am on my second pregnancy and my DS is almost 2, I have just not physically been able to keep up with him every moment. That is just life, and I knew sooner or later I would have to welcome him to the world. It is scary for me to sometimes walk away when he would clearly love my company, but he is thriving and it has actually improved our relationship greatly. I realized what was once instinct for a baby is now just insecurity I need to let go of. He has actually gotten BORED, even, and cried because of that. He is adjusting now to mom having less time for him, and he is learning how to deal, and my instincts tell me it’s a good thing. I save my precious energy for things like kissing booboos, important discoveries, etc.

  7. I think the big insight in this article is that so often it’s our own anxiety that causes us to hover, rescue, and otherwise helicopter. Secure attachment comes from meeting the baby’s needs. That means that intrusiveness and over-control actually create insecure attachment. And of course as kids get older, they need to learn from engaging with life and with themselves, which does mean they benefit from some benign neglect, and, of course from limits such as “I’m talking with your teacher right now, I will be with you in a minute.” I don’t think, however, that kids ever benefit from our ignoring them when they’re upset. The bottom line is intervening when the child actually needs us — which is less often than we might assume — rather than from our own anxiety about whether we, or they, are good enough.

  8. When I read the title “ignoring” I thought I would disagree with this article. Instead though, I love it! This is something I struggle with. I see so clearly the benefits of not letting the world revolve solely around my girls. They need to entertain themselves. They need to play alone and together. With me and without me. They actually NEED to see me reading books and taking downtime for myself. They need to learn to let other people have conversations without needing to be apart of them.

    And yet it’s so hard to do because of the guilt. I think we have this myth about the super mom who devotes every ounce of herself to her children even though intellectually we understand that this isn’t super. It’s damaging in its extreme.

    So yea, next time I go to pick up a book for fifteens minutes, I think I’ll head back to this article to remind myself why it’s so important!

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