Benign Neglect: Parenting Style of the Stars?

By Lindsey Johnson
Mom laying on couch ignoring child as he plays with toys

Benign neglect is a popular buzzword lately, thanks to celebrities like Jennifer Garner. The Oxford Dictionary defines benign neglect as “noninterference that is intended to benefit someone or something more than continual attention would.”

Is benign neglect the latest new parenting style?

For many years, “helicopter parents” have been the center of parenting discussions. The Cleveland Clinic defines helicopter parenting as “a type of parent who’s always hovering over their child’s every move.” Helicopter parents try to prevent their children from experiencing disappointment or failure. Psychology Today states that this parenting style stems from fear — no parent wants their child to be hurt or put in any kind of danger or suffer a bad outcome.

However, not allowing children to experience difficult situations such as playground scuffles, bad grades or a tumble off a bike means they aren’t learning the valuable lessons that come along with those experiences. Kids need to learn how to solve disagreements. They also need to learn their actions have consequences and new skills by perseverance and overcoming failed attempts.

What does it do?

While the term makes some wince, benign neglect parenting is a philosophy stemming from love and teaching. In the same way many current parents were raised, benign neglect is the style that allows children more autonomy. It also provides more opportunities to make their own decisions (and mistakes) and develop individual personalities. Some of us remember the days our parents sent us outside to play and told us to return by dinner. Parents that subscribe to this stylegive children unstructured (and often unsupervised) time for them to be creative and entertain themselves. This teaches children the value of problem-solving and how to be self-sufficient. When parents schedule and structure every minute of the day (or spend all of their time entertaining their children), the kids don’t learn how to make decisions for themselves.

Another tenet of benign neglect parenting is allowing the parent to have the freedom to explore their own interests. And this means not feeling guilty that they aren’t spending every minute with their children. This can even be as simple as needing to shower when you have a newborn — your baby may have to scream for a few minutes so you can wash the spit-up out of your hair! When children witness their parents taking time for their own self-care and to pursue their interests, they learn to also make themselves a priority.

What did Jennifer Garner say?

Actress Jennifer Garner has spoken openly about how she and ex-husband Ben Affleck practice benign neglect parenting with their three children: Violet, 17, Seraphina, 14, and Samuel, 11. On a recent episode of the Today Show, Garner said, “Their lives are their own. I just think they’re such cool people, and I want to hear everything, and I want to be around. But I’m not trying to live their life, and I don’t mind that they see that I love mine.”

Critics of this “good enough” parenting style argue that “neglecting” the children too much can lead to adverse consequences. One critic is Dr. Joe Kort, a psychotherapist in Michigan with 675,000 followers on TikTok. He has posted enough content that when you search “benign neglect” in TikTok, the screen is filled with his videos. His definition is a bit more rudimentary. He states that children have all their physical needs taken care of (food, shelter, clothing) but their emotional needs are not being met. They are not necessarily receiving the love, affection and reassurance that most parents bestow upon their children. This makes them more vulnerable to searching for attention in the wrong places. In turn, they may also become victim to narcissists or others who may take advantage of them.

The happy medium

Most parents subscribing to the benign parenting philosophy are likely not this absent in the emotional support of their children. They are looking for the happy medium: the opportunity to help their children build self-esteem by facing and overcoming challenges, by creating solutions to problems and rising above adversity. These parents want their children to experience minor pitfalls while still having the safety net of parent support through recovery. GoodTherapy, a website dedicated to helping users find mental health support, also points out that the teachable moment with a child often comes after the fact. Allowing a kid to experience disappointment, then circling back and strategizing with them afterwards is where the learning happens.

Whether you’re a happy helicopter parent or ready to hop on board the benign neglect train, the most important thing is that you love and support your children. All parents will make some mistakes along the way too, but keeping your child’s best interest at heart with your decisions will help you be the best parent you can be.

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