Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Benign Neglect or One is Enough

A departure from my usual style, this post is inspired by the SVMoms book club choice for this month, Just Let Me Lie Down by Kristin van Ogtrop. The book is an “alphabetically arranged dictionary of terms, observations, lists, complaints, questions, musings, and the occasional diatribe about the little joys and major nonsense” of being a “half-insane working mom.” I have chosen to focus on her entry “benign neglect,” which Ogtrop defines as “the Bad Mother habits you eventually allow yourself to fall into once you’ve gotten all of the hypervigilant, 100 percent-organic goody-two-shoes-ism out of the way with your first child (p. 107).”

This is not the first time I have heard this sentiment expressed. I hear it everywhere…, “oh wait until you have your second,” “I used to be like that, too. You’ll loosen up after the first one.” “She’s your first, right?” And so on.

I realize I run the risk of sounding na├»ve…but here goes…the way I’ve chosen to raise Sophia, what I believe Ogtrop is referring to as “hypervigilant, 100% organic goody-two-shoes-ism”…without television, computers or video games before three, without processed foods, pesticides, and additives, without Wiggles and Barney and SpongeBob SquarePants, …these are my values. Why, oh why would I change my values upon having a second child? And, if it’s because I would no longer have the time/energy/financial resources to adhere to these values, why oh why would I decide to have a second child? If it was good for the first, why is only good enough good for the second?

Is this why first children make earlier gains in language development, have higher IQs, and do better in school? Because second children get second best? Research says: yeah, maybe.

I decided to ask a dear friend of three (twin boys followed by a girl) if she’s doing things differently, the second time around. I expected a true confession. She surprised me by saying she wasn’t…and she had a very good rationale for why not. First of all, she had learned a lot from the first go around…that it was important to keep to a sleep schedule, to actively engage them, to speak to and acknowledge their early attempts at speech. And with this experience came responsibility. How could she do less? Sure, it’s hard, she told me, exhausting…but its her job. And now, she’s reaping the benefits of her early efforts with the boys—they are articulate, well-behaved, healthy, and have amazing attention spans for two year olds. “I’m motivated by them to give her the same.” And, as a dedicated, stay-at-home mother, she can.

But I think she’s in a minority. Not only does Ogtrop have three children, she’s the editor of Real Simple magazine. I imagine, something had to give. But I do wonder if this tendency to belittle the attentiveness of the first-time mom (or what she deems “less experienced” fellow moms) is really a sort of defensiveness against anxiety that she has lowered the bar in order to retain the half of the sanity that she has left.

In other words, do most people really think it’s okay to plop their 2-5 year olds down in front of the TV for 32 hours/week (I didn’t pull that stat out of thin air. It’s the national average for this age group.)…or do they do it because it’s easier than entertaining them/allows them to get work done/is better than listening to the kids whine? Are their claims that “their kids are learning so much;” “they derive so much joy from watching the Wiggles;” “I could never expose them to the variety of things they see on TV” thoughtful observations or guilt-minimizing rationalizations? Do these parents feel good about these choices or are they trying to feel good about these choices?

This isn't an accusation. It truly is a question in my mind: What contributes to the shift in attitude from baby one to baby two? At the core of my question is fear. I still think about having a second child, but I already feel so stretched. And I'm not the editor of Real Simple. I'm a stay-at-home mother with a strong network of support. What if I have a second child and wind up yelling more and explaining less? What if I have a second child and I have to shortchange one to meet the needs of the other? What if I wind up doing a poor job with both of them?

It may be that the only thing these second, third, and forth-time mommies have let go of is guilt. Because, I can admit, it isn't simply benevolence and love that motivates me to cook dinner from scratch or read the same book 20 times. There are times when I feel guilty if I think I'm not living up to who I want to be as a parent. That's what I'm trying to grapple with here. And if having more children leaves less time for the guilt, maybe I DO need a second child.

However, I remain unconvinced that there is such a thing as benign neglect. I think every child deserves our best effort, however we define it, whether they are first, last or somewhere in between. But until I can figure out a way to make that happen, one is enough for me.


Christine said...

I actually have a lot of could say on this topic. There is a middle ground between the hyper vigilant 1st time mom and "benign neglect."

For my first I was definately more obsessed with making sure I was doing all of the right things,etc., etc. I take offense at your term "circle of neglect." Sometimes, you have to put a kid down and make dinner. Just because they are in there doesn't mean they are being ignored. And just because you let your children watch some television, it doesn't mean that your toddler is watching 32 hours of TV a week. There is such a thing as moderation.

And from experience, you do settle down as you have more children. And it's not a bad thing for them. Yes, my 3 year old gets dragged around with me a lot. She has to come to the elementary school when I take pictures, she has to go to the supermarket with me, she has to watch her middle brother's sporting events.

All things considered, so far she is my most independent, happiest, well adjusted child of my three kids. Sometimes it's good not to be the one and only center of your parents' world. She is the most adaptable, the most social, and very content.

It is without question that my first has the highest IQ of my three children. However, he is the least socially able. To the point that he is in a special class because he cannot deal with a regular classroom. He is the child that got all of the attention the first go round. Given all the right foods, lots of books, no television, etc., etc.

My second one is definatley weaker academically, but he has a lot of friends and is very active in sports. I hear all wonderful reports from his teachers about how hard a worker he is and a delight to have in class.

And as I said, my third is just a delight. Ask anyone. Her teachers think she is particularly bright and independent and social. She has truly benefitted from having a more experienced and relaxed mother.

Before I had kids and when my first was a toddler, I had lots of opinions on what is the right things to do. "I'd never do that" "That must be bad parenting", etc., etc.

I'm over it and my children are better for it. I am in no way a lazy or neglectful parent. Being less obsessive does not = a bad parent. Personally, I think it equals a better parent.

Melissa said...

Dear Christine,
Thank you so much for reading my blog. I truly appreciate your comments. So much so that I went back and edited the article, to try to get at how the entry on "benign neglect" truly made me feel without turning it into a mom against mom issue. I'd be interested to know if you think I accomplished that. I tried to be honest with myself. I do believe in moderation. It sounds like you are very happy with the balance you've arrived at and I admire you for it. I've also heard that second and third children tend to be more laid back go-with-the-flow kinds of kids...of course there is something to be gained (and probably lost) by virtue of each sibling position. I know I'm too obsessive. I hope that I can learn from those who have been there and gotten over it, rather than be teased or ridiculed as I felt when I read Just Let Me Lie down, for something I take very seriously.

Anonymous said...

I think the "benign neglect" comes from realizing that you don't want perfect to be the enemy of good.

I think many things are possible with one child that aren't possible with three or more...or maybe just don't seem AS worthwhile as having a few minutes to one's self while said child or children watches Sesame Street.

There's a new Po Bronson book out about raising children..."Nurture Shock". It's very interesting. Kind of along the lines of does parenting have to be perfect to be effective.