The virtues of ‘benign neglect’

In a recent interview, Sir Anthony Seldon spoke about how he deplored the pressure which modern parents routinely put upon their children, even if it is generally with the best of intentions. I do not always find myself agreeing with Sir Anthony, but on this occasion we are of one mind. Indeed, I suspect most parents would also agree, so why do we (as the mother of three I use ‘we’ advisedly) persist in this unhelpful behaviour?

It is natural to want our children to do well, but doing well might not necessarily entail getting higher grades or percentages than every other child, representing the school at every sport, having the lead part in the play, having more party invitations than anyone else or being school prefect or indeed head girl or boy. Whisper it perhaps, but there may actually be other children who are more talented or more deserving than our own offspring. That does not mean that our children are not deserving of our love or indeed worse people than those chosen, simply that they have different strengths to those required, or that the competition was too fierce.

If we think about the qualities that lead to a successful adult life they are those such as reliability, resilience, drive, generosity, optimism and the ability to communicate well. These are not always rewarded in a school context. As a teacher, I have seen charming young people who have blithely chatted through every single lesson. Clearly not an ideal way to accumulate knowledge, but good training for careers where building a rapport with others is crucial.

I know how hard it is to parent in a consistently encouraging and firm way. I find myself sorely tempted to ask where my children came in the class after they tell me their test result even though I know as an educationalist that in the final reckoning it doesn’t matter where they are ranked vis-à-vis their peers as long as they have achieved the exam result they need for the next stage of their lives. After all, nobody asks a well-qualified GP or a barrister how they ranked against their peers in Year 7. If my children don’t get the captaincy or prefect role that they believe they deserve and are beaten to it by someone, in their opinion, far less worthy, it teaches them nothing if I ring up their school to complain. My role is to help them to put their disappointment in context and see how to improve for next time.

It can require a real effort not to expect our children either to follow in our footsteps or to achieve all the things that we wish we had achieved but didn’t. But we must remember that they are not a sort of mini-me and their success or failure does not improve or diminish our own standing.

One of the parents at St Swithun’s has coined the phrase ‘benign neglect’ when describing her parenting, meaning that we should step back and let our children simply get on with their lives without undue interference or pressure from us. There is absolutely nothing neglectful about this, on the contrary if we do not set our children free we run the risk not only of creating anxious and pressurised children but also of them growing into adults incapable of doing anything for themselves. That would indeed be neglectful.

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