“Benign neglect”

As I think about different posts that I would like to write for this blog, I sense that there might be an important theme… of laziness.  It’s not so much laziness but that because I’m actually a cognitive scientist, this means I have a (more than) full-time job in addition to all the little things that need to happen to keep a home functioning (e.g., laundry, cooking, washing dishes). Preparing to add full-time responsibility for taking care of a small low-functioning human being is daunting.  So many of my current machinations revolve around reaching the goal of raising a decent child with an efficient use of resources (e.g., namely time and energy).

I wish someone would write this book… The sweet spot: Raising the best possible kid while being the laziest possible parent.

One of my goals is to be like Janellen Huttenlocher, a prolific and highly influential cognitive developmentalist at the University of Chicago. According to folks who knew her when she was a parent of younger children, she and her husband liked to say they practiced a philosophy of “benign neglect.”  Long story short, apparently, her kids are fantastic!  In an age of helicopter parenting and a baby industry devoted to making parents crazy, it’s a refreshing ideology.

My own parents (we immigrated from South Korea when I was still an infant) unintentionally practiced benign neglect. They just didn’t have the cultural capital to be a helicopter parent. The first time I was grounded, it was in high school because my mom had recently heard about this and we both knew she was making up the rules as she went along!

So in my quest to practice benign neglect, I’ve been thinking hard about both those parts… how to be benign… and neglect my kid just enough.  Not too much, not too little… how do I strike that balance?  While I’ve been mulling over this question, the issue of television for tots has been at the forefront of recent news reports (e.g., NYTimes) due to this week’s announcement by the American Academy of Pediatrics… (unsurprisingly) screen time not beneficial for children under 2 years old. Not really groundbreaking in its insight, but a good reminder to us nonetheless.

From the “benign neglect” POV, on the surface, it seems that plopping  a kid down in front of a tv show or a computer game for 20 minutes isn’t bad (benign) so I should throw caution to the wind and say, “Whatever, let them have iPads!” However, I can’t help but also think about the opportunity costs associated with screen time that pushes this over to the “not-so-benign neglect” side.  When a child is occupied in one activity, the opportunity costs are all the other opportunities that the child loses out on.  One major opportunity cost of screen time is the loss of face/parent time.

Patricia Kuhl and colleagues report in PNAS (2003) that American infants interacting with a real Mandarin speaker show pronounced benefits in Mandarin speech perception but not when they are exposed to a video recording of a Mandarin speaker.  Among many other interesting implications of this finding, the one that strikes me is the importance of contingency… real humans respond to the things you do even when you cannot fluently communicate with them. As babies cannot fluently communicate with anyone, contingency is probably what makes the entire experience interesting at all!  Other studies have shown that contingency helps infants infer animacy and engage in social referencing (using the other being to guide their own actions), contingency is highly rewarding (all of Rovee-Collier’s work rests on this assumption), and is a fundamental learning mechanism (contingency learning by any other name is operant conditioning!).  So the real detriment to screen time… is the lack of rich contingencies (although an iPad game might have some contingencies, I would surmise that human interactions are much richer).

So I guess my research-based benign neglect course of action is this: buy a struggling college kid an iPad and in exchange have them come over and interact with my kid. Voila.

Update: Another NYT article on children’s use of apps and “the app gap” (high SES kids are more likely to use apps while a third of low SES parents don’t know what an app is)


6 thoughts on ““Benign neglect”

  1. This actually relates to your previous issue because the more you neglect the kid, the more they are forced to become independent of you and thus to become capable of making independent choices. However, according to Mary Ainsworth, independent behavior in infants requires reliable parenting to develop. The parents are supposed to provide a base of safety which gives the child confidence to explore by itself further and further afield.

    I also think that kids with siblings learn about sharing and empathy first by dealing with their siblings, just because the latter have sometimes conflicting interests and thus there’s a need to work things out. My theory for only children is that the parents have to take the place of the siblings in this respect – that is, the parents have to make the kids aware of their own wants and needs, rather than selflessly acceding to everything the kid wants. Only then will the kid learn basic social morality. Since this is what I want to do anyway, it works out fine. Would love to see a theoretical justification.

  2. treevalley says:

    hahah! you crack me up with that final conclusion! it makes sense. hahah! hopefully we get enough face time with the lil kiddo too. like Mr. B, i say “letting the child practice independence” rather than “neglect” or have another baby!

  3. pilgrimslens says:

    People often say to me, “Oh you’re a pediatric nurse? That’s perfect preparation for parenting!” My reply is, “Well, I work in a pediatric ICU, so that’s not really true because if our kids act up, we just give them drugs.” I am going to have to learn a new method of “benign neglect” if and when our time comes to have kiddos. Btw, I love the title of your proposed book that I fully agree, someone ought to write!

  4. teachingninja says:

    Hahahah! I totally laughed out loud TWICE for this one. At the title of your book (which I would totally buy!) and your final solution. Hilarious!

    As for Benign Neglect, I think some parents should practice it more! I read an article once about how higher SES parents giving ridiculous attention to child gives them a sense of entitlement w/ adults and forget their place as kids. Certain neglect is how kids start to play amongst kids and become independent too.

    Of course though, that article was read from a very biased point of view last year and you know me and remembering details… it kinda fudges over time and I only remember what I thought was important…

    Btw, when talking about kids learning contingency, I thought it was something close to “noon-chee” before looking up what that word actually meant. haha.

    OH! I should write a book titled, The sweet spot: Maximizing student learning while being the laziest possible teacher. It’s totally my theme for this year and it’s so working! Man! You make me want to blog again~! I think I shall steal this idea for a blog series!

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