Benevolent Neglect?

Caring for your kids by preparing them for—not protecting them from—lifes realities.

By Dr. Ehrin Weiss

Your child forgot their lunch at home for the third time this week…what do you do? Your child is having a problem with a friend…what do you do? Your child wore a t-shirt instead of a sweater, despite your reminder that it was cold out, and then called and asked you to bring something warmer to wear…what do you do? Before you answer, consider the long-term consequences.

As a parent, you love your children and want only whats best for them. Theres nothing wrong with that, right? After all, isnt it your job as a parent to protect and provide for your child? The answer isnt as straightforward as you might think. Protecting and providing for your children are, of course, two of your most important jobs as a parent. But whats in your childs best interest may not always be for your child to have only the best. In fact, it probably isnt.

In recent years, professionals have increasingly noticed the impact “over-parenting,” or what has come to be colloquially termed “helicopter parenting.” Helicopter parents are over-protective. They want to make sure their children never experience discomfort. They rush to their childrens rescue whenever an unpleasant situation arises, whether at school, with friends, or in public. Sometimes they even go so far as to try to protect their adult children by running interference with their “unfair” bosses. They do everything in their power to make sure that all obstacles are removed from their childrens way, preferably before their children have to deal with them. They take their jobs of protecting and providing very seriously. But theyre forgetting one of the most important tasks of parenting, and its having long-term negative effects.

Perhaps the most important task parents face is to help their children grow into competent and effective adults. When children are protected from everything, they do not have the opportunity to learn the skills they need to become competent adults–skills such as problem solving, tolerating distress, and persevering in the face of adversity. They may grow up believing that they should never experience negative emotions and that life should always be fair, and they shouldnt have to deal with unpleasant situations.

In other words, they become adults who dont know how to handle their own problems and dont think they should have to, who believe life should be easy, and they should always be happy, and who wonder whats wrong with them that their lives are not easy and they are not always happy. These unreasonable expectations of the world can lead to anxiety, depression, and problems with work and relationships.

I was just introduced to the term “benevolent neglect” as an alternative to helicopter parenting. While Im not a fan of the term, the idea behind it is one that I frequently promote in my work with parents; let your children learn from their own experiences. The word “neglect” implies a lack of attention, while this parenting technique, when applied appropriately, is quite deliberate.

A more appropriate term may be “choice;” children benefit from having choices about things that will not cause long-term permanent harm to themselves or others. When children have the opportunity to deal with mildly distressing situations, especially within a safe environment, they learn that they can handle distress and be okay. They build their own defenses against negative emotions, much like the immune system builds defenses against pathogens; a safe level of exposure builds immunity. This process, known as “emotional inoculation,” builds psychological immunity.

Heres how choice works. Remember that people (yes, even children) learn best from their own experiences. Lets say your child wants to make a decision you do not necessarily agree with, and that its a choice they are old enough to reasonably make. First, determine whether the potential consequences will cause permanent damage to them or others. If not, make it clear to your child that the decision is “their choice,” or “up to them.” You may tell them what you think the consequences might be, but then allow them to make their decision and live with whatever consequences follow.

Avoid the urge to rescue them from the consequences or to say, “I told you so,” or the closely related, “What did you think would happen?” If your child does not like the consequences, its important to empathize rather than dismissing their feelings (e.g., “It sounds like youre pretty upset about that”) and remind them of their choice (e.g., “Maybe youll make a different decision next time”).

Your job as a protector is still important. Continue to protect your children from truly dangerous situations and situations that have the potential for long-term negative consequences, but dont protect them from every minor road-block.

So what do you do about the forgotten lunch? Theres no one right answer, but it is important that your child sees a consequence to his actions–maybe he buys a school lunch, maybe he waits until he gets home to eat, or maybe you bring the lunch, and he pays you back for your time by doing extra chores.

What about the problem with the friend? Try working with your child to generate solutions she can attempt herself before you step in and try to fix it.

And the wrong clothes for the cold day? You could consider bringing it in exchange for extra help around the house or let them be cold for the day. Maybe your child gets to choose which of these options he prefers. And maybe next time he’ll make a different choice.

Dr. Ehrin Weiss is a Clinical Psychologist with Houston Family Psychology (www.houstonfamilypsychology.com), specializing in child, adolescent and adult psychology. Her office is located at 9525 Katy Fwy, Suite 200 .

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