Unsolicited Child Training Tip #1: Benign Neglect
By Dawn S. Davies
A few years ago, one of my daughters, who was happily and healthily bored, was outside coloring the bark of a tree red with Kool-Aid powder mixed in oil. Kool-Aid is a wonderful permanent dye that I suspect may color-fossilize the small intestine of anyone who drinks it. Kool-Aid stains never go away. If I ever got into tattooing, I would consider using Kool-Aid powder to mix my pigments, seeing that my mom has a Kool-Aid stain on her counter top that I put there 25 years ago, which has proven itself immune to bleach.
So anyway, my 12-year-old daughter mixed some Kool-Aid up with water, and some with oil, and spent an afternoon trying to figure out which one held a stain better. Earlier in the afternoon she had done some noninvasive animal testing on her little brother by trying to dye his Mohawk red with Kool-Aid, and had moved on to the bare, stubbley sides of his head above the ears, and then, punitively, beyond—on his face and neck, since her brother was breaking one of the cardinal rules of little brotherhood: he was Speaking Too Much, and she must always Put Him In His Place whenever she accidentally found herself enjoying a quality moment with him.
Disgusted with the camaraderie, my daughter left her brother dripping Kool-Aid stains so far down his naked torso that he began to stain his own butt crack, and went out front to see what she could do with the leftover Kool-Aid mixture. She spied the dog.
“Comere, Rocks,” she said.
The dog cowered under our truck as if he were about to get a bath, not knowing that he had escaped the much more humiliating fate of pink-stained blonde terrier fur.
So my daughter started pasting the Kool-Aid and oil into the crevices of the bark of a big tree, and began to race stripes of it down to the bottom. She was naming the stripes in honor of famous Thoroughbreds when she spied a friend of hers getting out of her mom’s car.
“Hey…ya wanna come color this tree bark with me?” asked my daughter. “Uh, I dunno. I have to check my schedule,” said the friend. My daughter’s arms dropped to her sides, staining her shorts and thighs.
“You have a schedule?” my daughter and I said in unison.
“Sure, “she shrugged. “Don’t you?”
It is true. My daughter’s friend, even smack dab in the middle of summer, had a schedule of activities that she followed, which included strength training, speed and agility specialization, soccer practices, and soccer games, not to mention soccer meetings. She was twelve.
We have met so many kids like this throughout the years that, in comparison, my children appeared to be neglected slackers, since I purposefully did not book too many scheduled activities for them. Sure, my kids played sports, but they also played with stuff. I let them take apart my old small appliances and electronics that broke down, then I let them remake them into little cities on the floor. I let them paint furniture, set up fish tanks, breed mice, cut up cloth to sew clothes for the dog, and take the boat out alone for miles in the canals in our neighborhood. Doing these things without a hovering parental drone to correct or second-guess them allowed them to expand their abilities to take care of themselves, make sensible decisions, get out of scrapes, and do things without needing approval, not to mention it left me alone for two seconds, which is important to my survival and theirs, because I am not a natural lover of children, noise, chaos, questions, or even bright light most of the time
We are the trailer trash of our solidly middle class, suburban neighborhood. I cut my family’s hair. We drive used cars and repair them in the driveway. We light firecrackers in the backyard just for fun. We do rocketry — sometimes with real rockets and sometimes with Diet Coke and Skittles. We do our own house repairs. We buy used everything except socks and shoes and underwear. We take clippings of other peoples’ plants and plant them in our own yard. If everyone who lives on our block donated one of their luxury car payments to, say, Angola, there would be enough money to feed and deworm every child in that country for a quarter of a year, and as such, I am sure some of our actions are viewed as “low-rent” by our neighbors, but we don’t care. Our kids have grown up grubby, active, usually happy, occasionally busy, and sometimes bored.
Some of the best learning, thinking and creativity come from bored kids. Here’s how you train bored kids to become people who can amuse themselves while stretching their creativity:
Turn off the television, put away the video games, and ban the internet for a significant part of each day. Let your kids get so bored that they start plucking at their shirts and whining and pacing about the house. Suggest to them a “fun” activity, such as scrubbing grout, cleaning out their closets, or organizing that little drawer in the kitchen that holds all the old batteries, solar calculators, stubs of colored pencils and orphan power cords.
After you suggest these truly awful ideas, quietly set out a pile of magazines, some glue and glitter and scissors and paper in the middle of the table. Ignore the little whiners and start washing the windows. See what they do. When they ask you if they can use it, don’t say “yes,” because then they will think you want them to do it. Instead say, “I don’t care, just don’t cut each other up,” and go about your business. They will be drawn to the glitter and glue as if they were candy, and they will make you some fine art. Later, do not bitch about the glitter you find everywhere: your shoes, your toothbrush, the baby’s labial folds, the refrigerator, or in your husband’s beard. They should not be punished for this activity in any way.
Or, put an empty bowl, a spoon, and a box of brownie mix on the counter and leave it there while you are doing whatever it is you do at home. Don’t speak except when spoken to, because you don’t want them to think you care. Sing loudly to yourself. Do not say the word “brownies” because if you suggest to them that they might want to bake the brownies, they will decline, as they know that if you have brought it up, it must be Educational, and therefore something to avoid. Out of the corner of your eye, watch them bake brownies on their own. Do not yell at the mess that arises from this foray, and do not grumble to yourself when, later that night, you step in a drying piece of brownie splatter that pastes your sock to the floor.
Or, get some old telephones, appliances, or speakers from bulk trash or yard sales. Give your kids some tools. Let them take stuff apart, and put it back together again. What better way to learn about technology than to understand the mechanics of some of it? When my husband was nine years old he built a floating wall for his parents’ Colorado home, to accommodate the swelling and heaving of the basement walls. He was the type of kid to take apart appliances and put them together and he grew up to be an engineer. I still count on my fingers and can’t match the right Tupperware lid shapes to the bottoms, but I do okay in life overall, so mechanical lack is survivable. If they can’t put the eviscerated gadgets back together, no matter: their futures are not hopeless. Let them count and categorize the bits, or draw them. Let them use a slingshot to launch the prongier spare parts into a hunk of old cardboard you lean up against the side fence in your yard. Maybe instead of engineers, they will be marksmen or markswomen. Or inventory specialists, or deconstructionists.
And I know it sounds like child abuse, but send your children outside with a watch and a bottle of sunscreen, and tell them not to come in for at least 45 minutes. If you give them some jars, they can collect bug carcasses, strange leaves, birds’ nests, wild herbs, chunks of bark or other natural bonne bouches. You can have a show-and-tell when they get back in, after you have a nice bath with a book, or catch up on some of your own work.
Are these activities really less valuable than a summer of elite soccer training, enrichment courses, or time spent online? Despite modern society’s drive to create mini-me child prodigies who specialize in something that will ensure a Full Ride somewhere down the line, I am certain that these free, borderline-chaotic exercises are just as valuable. In fact, I think untimed, unfettered activities give their minds freedom to think more creatively, in the way people used to think before technology crept into our lives like kudzu.
Some people call my parenting style lazy, but I call it benign neglect. When done well, it can add a boost of independence and creative thought for your children that will serve them well for the rest of their lives. If they learn to keep themselves occupied without becoming bored after five minutes away from television or the iPad, they will be well on their way to being lifelong learners, and hopefully immune to the constant need for external stimulation, which to me, is far more valuable than twenty-four hundred dollars’ worth of summer agility training, and well worth the slog of time it will take to bleach the Kool-Aid stains, scrape up the dried brownie, and pick the tiny shards of glitter out of everything you own.
Author’s Note: One of my daughters recently thanked me for parenting her the way I did—denying them TV time and unfettered access to technology, and, horror of horrors, dragging them to the library every week. Best of all: she said she plans to raise her kids the way we raised her. I guess I wasn’t an evil despot after all.
Dawn S. Davies (www.dawnsdavies.com) lives in the South. She is the mother of a blended family of five kids. Her work can be found in River Styx, Ninth Letter, Fourth Genre, Green Mountains Review, Chautauqua and elsewhere.
Photo: © Elista | Dreamstime.com