National Trust shares my plea for benign neglect

child on a beach at sunsetToday the National Trust’s Outdoor Nation website posted a piece from me that aims to win parents over to the goal of expanding children’s horizons. I had to think carefully when writing it.

Most of my energies go on persuading others – educators, planners, politicians, regulators, the media – to make it easier for parents to give their children a bit more freedom. Very little of my work is directly focused on parents.

One reason for this is that, as I have written before, I am suspicious of ‘experts’ who try to tell parents how to bring up their kids. But I recognize that parents are a key audience for my work. After all, if they do not care about expanding children’s horizons, there is little prospect that anyone else will do much about it.

The piece invites parents – especially those at the more anxious end of the spectrum – to try their hand at a little benign neglect. It’s a key idea for me, as anyone who has heard me speak on risk will know. This post of mine expands on the notion, and the video below illustrates it (though you have to watch very closely).

Benign neglect cuts to the heart of a central dilemma of modern parenting: how do parents square their wish to keep their children safe from harm with the job of taking their kids that bit further along the road to being confident, capable, resilient people?

I say a modern dilemma, but in fact questions about responsibility in childrearing have been around for decades. Back in the early 1970s childcare expert Mia Kelmer Pringle wrote a book called The Needs of Children – intriguingly enough, commissioned by the then Tory government. In this short publication – highly influential at the time, though largely forgotten today – Pringle asked: “How can responsibility be given to the immature and to the irresponsible?” Her answer is unequivocal: “There is no way out of the dilemma that unless it is granted, the child cannot learn how to exercise it.”

Many people and agencies shape children’s lives. But it is parents who are at the sharp end of decisions about their everyday freedoms. My sales pitch for benign neglect is an invitation to fully embrace Pringle’s insight: responsibility cannot be taught, it can only be learnt through experience.

You can read the piece in full here. Feel free to comment, either here or on the Outdoor Nation page.

[Picture credit: Patrice Dufour, from the SXC stock photo website – a great source of free images.]

8 responses to “National Trust shares my plea for benign neglect

  1. Reblogged this on The Dignity of Risk and commented:
    It cannot be repeated too often than calculated risk combined with common sense guidance from adults is good for children.

  2. Very good! And I love that phrase, “benign neglect.” May I recommend the new book by John Rosemond called Parent Babble?? If you are looking for a parenting “expert” who espouses the benign neglect concept, he’s the one.

  3. Gaina and Molly – thanks for the comments. Molly – I haven’t read Rosemond’s book – thanks for the tip. Based on this piece in the Huffington Post I’d say he maybe over-states his case, and relies too much on nostalgia and anecdote. But I’ll try to check him out (it’s never wise to rely solely on what others say about a book). I’m more sympathetic to Frank Furedi’s views in his book Paranoid Parenting, which does not rely on the idea of a ‘golden age’ of childrearing.

  4. You mention resilience – it’s something that I think many children don’t get the opportunity to develop these days… another attribute that can only be learnt through experience.
    Thought provoking post – thanks!

  5. I think parents are more worried about what others will say IF something goes wrong than they are that something actually WILL go wrong.

    Also, asking my daughter to take her mobile with her when she and her sister played in fields nearby seemed to cause her anxiety where before there’d been none – we’re through this now, but I suppose it made her think she might be doing something that would end in an emergency.

    It feels my heart with joy to see my girls marching around a muddy field picking flowers and trapping insects.

    • I wonder how one sells taking the Moby will affect the effect it has… Make a point of saying its for letting you know things such as if the child changes plans and how much later to expect them than the original plan and it might be less problematical than underling it’s for if things go wrong.
      Of course, it would also be there if things /do/ go wrong, and a resourceful and independent child will realise that and use it accordingly.

  6. I suspect there is a general tendency to label strategies as Good or Bad in a binary way, and to try and maximise the former and minimise the latter. But what we’re really after is a balance between ends of spectra, an optimum compromise between different things any of which have a mix of good and bad aspects
    So we want some degree of safekeeping and supervision, and we want some degree of freedom and self discovery. And the balance will change according to who it is, what they’re doing, and even what mood we’re in today. I would agree that we’re well off balance at the moment, too far towards safekeeping and supervision. We need some of that, but only some, and certainly not as much as possible.

  7. Emma, Tracy, Peter – thanks for your thoughts. Tracy – yes, parental peer pressure is a powerful force. Your point about your daughter’s response to being asked to have her mobile is well made: sometimes, safety measures can have the side-effect of making us feel less safe, because they make us more conscious of what might go wrong. I’ve been told that CCTV can have the same effect (it does on me). It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use these safety measure – but it is something to think about. Almost all risk mitigation measures (to use the jargon) have unintended consequences – because they are used by people, and people respond to risk in complex ways (as risk academic John Adams has been arguing for years).
    Peter – more balanced, yes – and more thoughtful. “Optimum” may be unrealistic (how would we ever know?) but definitely “good enough” (to steal from the child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, whose work has influenced playwork thinking).

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