Super-Parents Who Grew Up in an Age of Benign Neglect

When I was a child, my parents often ignored me. It’s not that they were unkind to me. It’s that they had full lives of their own and didn’t like playing Candy Land. They believed that you should open the door and say to children, Go out and play. They were financially comfortable and could afford luxurious traveling and a country club membership. My two younger brothers and I earnestly enjoyed each other’s company, and that’s a good thing because we had a lot of it.

We lived just outside of Atlanta on the cutting edge of suburban sprawl. I now reside in New England, where people sometimes imagine that I was raised on a plantation or drank mint juleps. The book and movie The Help hits too close to home for me because I grew up in a time and place of racial unrest, with two mother figures: my biological one, who raised me and loves me to this day, and Pearl, our “help,” whose love was also foundational to my childhood and to who I became as a woman. I know it will hurt my mother if she reads this. I wish that were not so.

I was a child of the 60’s sent to private school down south when White Flight meant mass exodus from the public schools as they became integrated by busing. I’ve tried to atone for this my whole life, even though it was a choice made by my parents, not me. A choice that benefitted me in some ways but not others down the road. I tried to unpack my backpack of white privilege, attending numerous diversity conferences and workshops when I was a school administrator, and I’ve done a pretty good job of it, although I know it can never be fully unpacked.

Watching the AMC series Mad Men reminded me a lot of my sheltered and provincial childhood, even though the show takes place in New York. I never experienced New York, nor even crossed the Mason-Dixon line, until I was an adult. On Mad Men, when Don and Betty Draper were still married, they had their grownup lives — together and apart — and the children seemed in distant orbit to both. In most scenes during the early seasons of the show, Sally and Bobby are hanging around the house with their “Pearl,” watching a lot of television. But that’s where the similarities end. My parents have remained married and they clearly cared about us greatly, even though they were parenting in an era of benign neglect. If you look at history, all generations of parents before the one now did not have lives that revolved around children.

When I look at today’s parents, I am often astonished by their slavish devotion to enriching, entertaining, sheltering. In three generations, we’ve gone from a country where children toiled in factories and could not be counted upon to survive to adulthood, to a country with a multibillion-dollar toy industry and a parenting book market that is groaning under its own weight. I’m not advocating that parents be less loving or supportive to their children, but I do question such exquisite attentiveness.

Parental neglect has its upsides, it’s own careful love. I’m not talking about the kind of neglect that should come to the attention of child protective services. I don’t mean the kind of neglect that includes not feeding your child, withholding medical care, or leaving your child barely clothed in the winter. I’m using the term “neglect” in a modern way, taking into account how so many of today’s parents look back resentfully on their own childhoods in light of our current culture of child worship. There are some dots to be connected.

If you believe that loving your children requires you to be their constant playmate or to chauffeur them nonstop to a slew of organized activities lest they not be perpetually happy and stimulated, then your memories of your own childhood are apt to be distorted through this Super-Parent lens. Children are not projects nor are they hothouse orchids, but they seem to be increasingly treated as such by anxious and well-meaning parents who are highly invested in outcomes.

Some very important outcomes are being forgotten, however, and these include creativity, independence, resilience, and intrinsic motivation. I believe I possess these qualities, at least to some degree, precisely because my parents did not hover over me or live through my achievements. This aspect of their love is something I appreciate a lot more now than I did then.

Do I resent being left home with my brothers and Pearl while my parents traveled to countries I only visited many years later with my own daughter, so that she could expand her horizons? Yes, I do. But lots of kids in this world do not have the gift of travel. I also wish I’d had a few more afterschool activities. Here’s what’s important, though: I can look back on my childhood and appreciate what I did have, because today’s children seldom have it.

I had freedom and I had woods, acres and acres of woods to explore. There were downed trees from the ice storm of 1972 to make into forts; muscadine vines to swing from like Tarzan; interesting rocks with veins of quartz that could be found while digging to China; creeks and ponds and even a waterfall so high my father refused to believe it existed, until he agreed to come with the three of us one day and see for himself what we’d discovered. I’d while away summer days seeing how much honeysuckle nectar I could collect in a Dixie cup by picking hundreds of blossoms, pulling the stamens out backwards, and releasing one precious drop at a time. I could make necklaces of clover. Many years later, when I made one for my husband while sitting idly in the grass on a lazy Sunday afternoon, he took a selfie while wearing it, enchanted by such a simple skill and simple gesture.

Did my brothers and I sometimes collect Y-shaped sticks, outfit them with wide rubber bands, and shoot acorns at each other’s heads, nearly blinding each other? You bet. And we shot air rockets onto the roof. I had a wholesome childhood, and it was of my own making. My parents took good care of me and loved me, but their lives were not enmeshed with mine. Sometimes I wished they were, but I became an adult who could amuse myself (too well sometimes, if you ask my husband). No one ever had to tell me to do my homework and I had no parental help applying to college or graduate school. My parents would say “great job” when I brought home A’s or got acceptances to good schools, as if it were all my doing and they had no idea what went into it — because they didn’t.

My childhood wasn’t perfect, my parents weren’t perfect, and neither am I. I have no need to blame them for being like most other parents of their generation and the ones before it. I probably wouldn’t even bat an eyelash were I not an educational psychologist and a parenting book author. Those jobs immerse me in a contemporary parenting culture that stands in stark contrast to how my own mother and father did their parenting. In between, I raised my daughter a bit more intentionally, but I left her with plenty of downtime. I aimed for that elusive middle ground between benign neglect and orchestrating her entire life.

I suppose you’d have to ask her if I hit the mark. I always felt like being a wannabee free-range parent meant straddling the judgments of others, such as those who would not let their children play with my daughter in the woods behind our house because of bears and pedophiles, and those who pointed out that by living in a New England town that was mostly white, I was repeating the provincial backdrop of my own childhood with my daughter, who was similarly surrounded by whiteness.

People judge. I couldn’t win, and neither can you, but you can do your best to give your children what you treasured as a child even if today those things are seen as “dangerous.” And you can attempt not to repeat your parents’ mistakes or replicate their choices if you feel they were harmful, as most of us try. You can also choose how you judge your own parents given the times in which they lived and how they themselves were parented. Context matters.

If you feel stuck between the patterns you don’t want to repeat and the craziness of today’s high-octane parenting culture, you don’t have to be. Step off. Step out. I won’t say step up — there’s enough pressure on parents already.

Sometimes less is more. Lots of times, actually.

Lori Day is an educational psychologist with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of Her Next Chapter and the President of the Board of Directors of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center. You can connect with Lori on Facebook or Twitter.