I’ve noticed the phrase ‘benign neglect’ slipping off my tongue rather often. It’s a strange term: part salve for parenting guilt, part rallying cry against the modern pressures that manufacture that guilt. It’s a sort of badge for parents of a particular inclination, a statement that favours trust over control, learning over education, less over more. But this intrinsically hands-off concept is open to interpretation, and perversely, my husband and I often stew over whether we’re doing it right… whether we should be doing it at all… We can’t help it, we’ve been taught that there is a right way of doing things. Perhaps that is why we have a rather virtuous take on ‘neglect’. It generally involves getting on with a purposeful activity in the hope that the children will be inspired by our industry to join in or to involve themselves just as heartily in a task of their own invention. One way or another, we hope to allow space for self-initiated creativity and learning that might otherwise have been filled with pre-conceived goals or conscious teaching. Even at a safe distance though, parenting is interactive, so where to pitch our help, encouragement, support, guidance?
Sometimes it all just falls into place… or at least, the unstoppable learning process that we’ve trusted to our children suddenly becomes tangible to us adults. There are brief learning moments in a child’s day that resonate, lightbulb moments that we ‘educated’ adults can read and respond to emotionally and intuitively. These moments are startling precisely because they are entirely unprovoked by us, seemingly out of the blue. Our surprise belies our niggling doubt about the virtues of our parenting approach and our childrens’ progress but it also dissipates it, so that we suddenly find ourselves in the same space as our child, learning with them, and we feel uplifted, vindicated, free… relieved, ir/responsible.
This afternoon, I doggedly dug over the veg beds with a rather listless three year old in tow. For a few brow-furrowed minutes I considered whether this was benign neglect… or just plain neglect. But even before I’d had time to reach a conclusion she’d been seduced by the peaty tilth of yet-to-be-dug-in compost on the lowest bed. I turned round to find her busy drawing roads in it with a stone (this was made all the more clear thanks to the involuntary narration that accompanied the process). It was just a few lines in some soil, but deliciously satisfying – not just the tactility of the compost, but also the way these lines connected with the roads that have been appearing on drawings lately, a recent obsession with our road atlas, a general interest in other places, other countries and travel… I found myself adding some stone houses to her map and she began building her own, ever so carefully. I could tell she was away when the narration stopped – The choice of stones, the precise arrangement/structure consumed her. I returned to my digging, and noted where my experience connected with my daughter’s roadmap: playing on my own as a child, the experience of teaching architecture to undergraduates, a Waldorf-inspired book I read the other day… I logged, sensed, that we were part of a gentle flow of experimentation and learning, one that made a route of its own natural logic across a web of people, contexts, media and time, a flow that would be hard to map by any rational method, that might pass some people by…
If I’d not paused to consider the precise nature of my ‘neglect’ none of this might have happened. It took just a little anguish on my part and a little boredom on hers. Yes, patience, trust and time are needed for this learning journey. It’s uncharacteristic of me to champion such a back seat position, difficult for someone not given to sitting down, never mind sitting back, but what I can’t help noticing is the roads we make when I am not driving.