Home > musing > Parenting through benign neglect

Parenting through benign neglect

July 7, 2013

In 1985, when I was 12 years old, I went to communist Budapest by myself, for a month. I’d met and befriended two Hungarian families when I was 11 and they were living next door to me for a year in Lexington, Massachusetts, and when they went back to Budapest they invited me to visit.

So it wasn’t like I didn’t have a place to sleep when I got there, but even so, my parents decided that yes, a trip across the world into a country that needed a visa to enter, that didn’t have a hard currency, and that didn’t have consistent phone lines at post offices (never mind at people’s homes, that was out of the question) was a great place for their 12-year-old daughter to visit by herself.

I also almost didn’t make the correct connection in Zurich, and I am seriously wondering what would have happened if I’d missed my flight. How would I have connected with my hosts? Where would I have slept? What would I have done for money?

I did make my flight, though, and I did meet my hosts, and the worst thing that happened to me was that when the cows got sick, I got sick – very sick. And to be fair, I turned 13 when I was there.

I came home appreciating milk pasteurization, and to a lesser extent milk homogenization. I was skinnier and less spoiled, I knew what really good peaches tasted like, and I was completely sick of paprika. Overall it was a good trip, and I’m glad I went.

And if I or my parents had been more cautious, I wouldn’t have gone. Goes to show you, sometimes it’s good not to think too hard about what could go wrong.

Unfortunately, I’m older now, and my 13-year-old just got on a plane to San Francisco by himself to attend a Model UN camp at Stanford. And all I can think about it what might go wrong.

Don’t get me wrong, it didn’t stop me from putting him on the plane. I’m trying to channel my parents’ benign neglect child-raising technique from which I benefitted so tremendously. He’s got a working cell phone, plenty of cash, and my BFF Becky will be within driving distance of him over there.

Hey, it’s not like he’s going to North Korea – which is, by the way, where he requested to be sent – and I’m pretty sure the milk there is pasteurized, as long as you avoid farmer’s markets.

Categories: musing
  1. Christina
    July 7, 2013 at 11:25 am

    I’m inclined to agree with you in principle, but here’s a fundamental question: what is the acceptable level of risk of a catastrophic event? Does that acceptable level of risk change over time? My parents were more inclined to allow freedom/risk-taking when I was younger. Mate’s father STILL frets when his middle-aged kids drive home at night – (though one is a cop, not exactly a risk-free line of work….). Mate caught some of this and reasons from worst-case scenario. So, how do you draw the line? Is a ten-percent chance of disaster too much? What is?


  2. July 7, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    You know, if your parent’s behavior or your own was treated as, “Oh, that’s what so-and-so did, hmm,” without a lot of agonizing about right or wrong, maybe just an interest in how it turned out, it would be good. That’s probably what you’d agree with, no?


  3. Dave Baum
    July 7, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    This “benign neglect” is sorely missing today. In the 70’s and 80’s children in the U.S. had a lot more unsupervised time (and at an earlier age) than they do in this decade. You can see these differences in parks, schools, and homes. There were some bad effects (increased teen alcoholism and substance abuse), but it also built independence. Today the pendulum has swung completely to the other side, with parents hovering over their kids, trying to protect them from everything. As a parent, striking the right balance can be difficult when society as a whole has embraced one extreme or the other.

    What surprised me the most is that none of this is new or recent. According to “Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069”, this cycle dates back to colonial times. With that in mind, prepare to be amazed at how neglected your grandchildren (or perhaps great-grandchildren) will be.


    • Christina
      July 8, 2013 at 6:27 pm

      I like the notion that there are cycles to parenting. Parents do something, their kids react and so on. What about the families that are off-cycle: benignly neglectful in a neurotic age and vice versa. It would be fun to figure out how their kids fare relative to their peers….(whoops, sorry, I accidentally let my training as a sociologist show there. I hope you mathematicians aren’t going to shove me in a locker for trying to pose and hang with the cool kids!)


  4. LindaCO
    July 7, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    sigh. Just saw my 12 year old kiddo off to a week of camp today. Can’t keep him inside, can’t just not worry about the possibilities. It’s better they go off and do their thing (after the thing has been vetted by me) and then I distract myself for a week.


  5. Savanarola
    July 7, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    Just sent 11 and 13 year old boys for two weeks with their grandparents (the neglectful) in a rural environment. I’m hoping that they come back with all their fingers and no difficult-to-kill parasites. The easier-to-kill ones I’m already pretty equipped to manage, having grown up there myself.

    My parents chucked me on a plane at 12 to transfer alone in O’Hare. But that is nothing compared to transferring alone through Zurich!


  6. Abe Kohen
    July 8, 2013 at 3:25 am

    You are much braver as a parent than I was. Stanford is a beautiful closed environment where my then young daughters learned to ride bikes. Actually, I too, learned to ride a bike there as the campus was too enormous to always traverse by foot. They don’t call it The Farm for nothing.

    If I had only 2 spices I could use it would be paprika and freshly crushed black pepper. But then I usually use about ten different spices in my cooking. I can’t call my cooking Hungarian (I was 5 when we escaped), but it is based on my mom’s kosher Hungarian cooking.


  7. rmb
    July 8, 2013 at 8:01 am

    Actually, it’s possible to buy unpasteurized milk in California, though it may be more difficult near Stanford than in San Francisco.


  8. July 9, 2013 at 10:12 am

    This is the part of your post when all of us Boomers trot out the stories of how independent our parents expected us to be in the good ol’ days. Here’s mine: in the summertime (one long endless paradise of hot sunny time off from school), my sisters and I were essentially kicked out of the house right after breakfast with clear instructions not to return until we were called back in for lunch. We were in charge of our own daily adventures – hours spent riding our bikes, building forts, organizing games, catching bugs in jars, playing on the local monkey bars, and exploring our neighbourhood with all our little friends who had also been kicked out after breakfast. No summer camps, no teenaged babysitters, and absolutely no whining ever about being “bored”. We were supervised, in a way, by our neighbours and shopkeepers who knew every one of us by name.

    Such benign neglect these days would be considered cause for official reports to authorities…


  9. Kim-Ee Yeoh
    July 11, 2013 at 9:27 am

    Reminds me of Charlie Brown (remember him?) and the last movie he starred in:


    It’s a 1980 story, but seems so alien in this age of tiger moms: tweens on a student exchange to the french countryside. Dog flies first-class. They handle a beat-up rental car all by themselves. No longer whimsical, the times have stripped the story of its humor and spat it back out as unfunnily incredulous.

    So Cathy, did you fall in love in Budapest?


  1. July 10, 2013 at 7:18 am
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