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!