“Help me, mommy, I can’t reach.”
We were at the beach, watching a little girl beg her mother to lift her up onto the branches of a fallen tree.
The thing was, she could easily have climbed onto the branches herself. They were barely waist height.
The mother quickly hopped up and lifted her child onto the branches. “Be careful” she warned, before proceeding to hover inches away to ensure there was nothing to be careful about.
The girl could have climbed onto the branches, but she didn’t know she could. She’d never had to try. This “learned helplessness” is easy to fall into. Too much parental attentiveness teaches a child to ask for everything, instead of trying to work the problem out for themselves.
Of course, parental attentiveness is generally a good thing. It’s just that when all a child’s needs are instantaneously met, they fail to develop grit and tenacity, and they inevitably struggle to solve problems without outside intervention.
In contrast is the concept of benign neglect, or “noninterference that is intended to benefit someone or something more than continual attention would.” In parenting terms, this means letting a kid figure it out for themselves.
In this example, instead of rushing unnecessarily to her daughter’s aid, the mother could have said, “You can do it!” Throw your leg over that brach and climb up there.” Failure to physically intervene would have been a good use of benign neglect.
What’s the worst that would have happened? Perhaps the girl might have fallen off the branch onto the soft sand. Maybe she would have gotten a scratch. Arguably, the stunted growth of learned helplessness is more dangerous than a scrape.
You can practice benign neglect and developing independence every day. But one of my favorite ways is through family travel, which is a perfect real-world laboratory for practicing these skills.
Exploring new places, doing new things and trying new foods are all excellent opportunities for kids to stretch their wings and see what they can do. Their adults are close by to keep them safe and steer them away from real danger. Otherwise, they are free to experiment and learn. I’ve seen travel increase my kids’ adaptability, proactivity and self-advocacy skills. And it’s formed our bond in increasingly positive ways.
This kind of growth doesn’t require much from parents, except a willingness to step back, encourage, and share some good discussions along the way.
The benefits here are huge. And all you have to do is … well, nothing.