I didn’t write the SCMP headline, but I did write the article and dedicate it to Lucy, Erica, Kathy & Cindy! In fact, this blog is named after that barely paved road we were allowed to cross.
“Benign neglect” is the phrase that would most aptly describe my parents’ approach to parenting in the 1970s. What today might be called “free range parenting” or actual neglect, back then was just childhood.
Our home in rural Pennsylvania bordered a cornfield at the top of the hill and a nature preserve with a creek running through it just beyond. My sister and I had two neighbor girls through the woods on one side and another across a barely paved street that we were free to cross on our own from a very early age. In fact, the five of us were free to do just about anything we liked. We could wander the woods, play in the creek, build forts in the goat shed, collect coal from the yard, watch as much television as we liked and eat anything we could scrounge for ourselves from the kitchen.
I never wore shoes and my feet were as tough as leather from walking barefoot down our gravely driveway all summer. I was dirty, disheveled and, being the oldest, blamed by the neighbor parents for corrupting the language of their children. We spent days writing elaborate plays, producing gymnastics shows, attempting to make a whirlpool in the small swimming pool, flooding the driveway to create an ice skating pond or sawing the cornstalks sticking up from the impromptu rink created by poor drainage in the field. We crossed barbed wire fences, tore our clothing, swung from vines, rolled in clover and picked wine berries from thorny bushes to eat by the bucket load with full fat milk and real sugar.
Today this kind of childhood would be almost impossible to reproduce, and parents who tried might suffer judgment from their peers for neglect or endangerment. For us, it was paradise.
I thought this kind of parenting a relic of a simpler time until I had the pleasure of attending a talk by a leading parenting expert in the U.S. who seems to be encouraging parents to think back to their own childhoods and recapture for their children some of the danger, freedom, resilience and thrill that has been largely lost in the overscheduled, anxiety-ridden, structured world of parenting today.
New York Times bestselling author and practicing psychologist, Dr. Wendy Mogel has turned her focus to counseling parents instead of young children these days. Her two best-selling books, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of A B Minus offer encouraging words of wisdom for parents to give children space to make mistakes and to learn from them.
Dr. Mogel encourages parents to relax and stop “quaking in our boots” parenting. In this age of artisanal parenting, where we pay continuous partial attention to our children, we need to put our phones down and engage when we are with our children, but also give them time when we are not there hovering over them. Humorously, she suggested parents start by reading the online satirical website called The Onion because, as she said, “you need mirth in your home.”
Dr. Mogel implores parents to let children do thrilling things, as this is how they avoid being fearful. She referenced an article about the anti-phobic effects of thrilling experiences. For parents who can’t bear the thought of this, who are worried that something might happen, she replies, “but you are in my office, so you can’t live with your kid now either.” Freedom is how they learn to keep themselves safe.
Dr. Mogel cautioned parents to stop interviewing their children for pain. Instead of trying to uncover all that went wrong in their day, find out what went right. She said that, “Good, healthy, respectful parenting will feel like neglect.”
According to Mogel, girls need to go through phases that will scare parents, and boys need the time to be good tired, not just weary. All kids need to move, not ride around in the car doing errands or going to lessons. Dr. Mogel reminded us that children must have chores for their own growth and to be of assistance to the family.
After all, Dr. Mogel reminds us, the “The whole point of parenting is to make it look appealing to your children so they’ll have children and you can be a grandparent. If you make it look like a burdensome, stressful drag, they won’t want to be parents, and then you won’t have any grandchildren.” Dr. Mogel’s highly anticipated next book is scheduled for release in 2017.
Listening to parenting experts like Dr. Mogel, Dr. Madeline Levine, Dr. Michael Thompson and so many others, their messages are consistent and surprisingly similar. Each encourages parents to lighten up on our kids and to give them a little more space to navigate the world on their own. We have made parenting so complicated and all consuming, we have to remember to stop worrying and start enjoying our kids during this brief time when we get to be the primary decision makers in their lives.