The Fertile Soil of Childhood

ByDr. Marshall

The Fertile Soil of Childhood


I wish I had come up with this phrase, but I have to give credit to Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids.  Skenazy happily refers to herself as the “world’s worst mom.” Though I have not yet read her book, it is on my holiday reading list. Skenazy, of course, is openly critical of helicopter parents, those who feel compelled to manage their children’s lives from conception to…hmmm, to when? When does it end? When they go away to college? After they get their first job? When they move out of the house? When they marry (or cohabitate)?

The urge to hover over our children is not new. We have always had stage moms and coaching dads standing close by pulling strings and setting things up so that their child gains a slight advantage. If you want to read about a real helicopter parent, check out Agrippina the Younger, mother of the Roman emperor, Nero. And that was more than 2000 years ago.

Skenazy argues that children will benefit from a little “benign neglect.” That’s not her phrase or mine. It was advice to house plant enthusiasts; stop fussing over your plants. Give them a little fertilizer, give them a little water and let them grow. They will be fine. So too with children. Give them what they need and let them grow; like free range chickens they will find the other things they need. And in the process, they will become stronger, healthier, and more resourceful.

Most importantly, their successes and their failures will be theirs, not ours. Imagine how disheartening it is for children to know that they got an A or they won an award because we orchestrated it for them. When we help too much we deny our children the opportunity to feel a sense of accomplishment. When we stack the deck in their favor, it is our victory, not theirs. Likewise, if we arrange things so that they never fail, we deny them the opportunity to learn to handle failure and disappointment.

Clearly, children today are living in a much more competitive environment. We see it everywhere. They compete to get into specialized high schools or into AP and honors classes. They compete in sports to make the year-round travel team. They compete in the arts to win state and national competitions. But raising children should not be driven by fear that our children might get hurt, or feel disappointment, or, heaven forbid, be bored.

There is also the fear that our children live in a dangerous world and they need to be protected and followed. We have GPS trackers on their phones and in our cars. We are following, monitoring, tracking, hovering, supporting, pushing, and prodding. Skenazy makes another good point when she asks “Do you wish you had grown up with your mom tracking your every move? If not, don’t do it to your kid.”

Remember, we are advising “benign neglect.” Of course, you should protect your children, you should keep them safe, and you should be an enthusiastic participant in their activities. But it is their life, their expectations, their successes and failures. And it is in the “fertile soil of childhood” that they should learn how to do these things for themselves. If you get too close, if you find yourself doing things FOR them rather than WITH them, if THEIR life becomes YOUR life, if you feel the need to know where they are at all times, you are probably too close and it is time for some benign neglect.

Give them a little fertilizer, give them a little water; give them a free range. They’ll find a way and they will be healthier for it.

About the author

Dr. Marshall administrator

Richard Marshall earned an Ed.D. in reading and learning disabilities at West Virginia University in 1982. While completing his doctoral studies he served as an educational specialist in the Pediatric Neurology. Upon completion of his degree he became an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the WVU Medical School. After moving to Florida in 1983, he joined the faculty in the Department of Pediatrics in the College of Medicine at the University of South Florida and worked for five years in the Neonatal Developmental Follow-Up Program. In 1993, he completed a Ph.D. in School Psychology at the University of Georgia with an emphasis in Child and Adolescent Neuropsychology. Upon degree completion, he taught courses in the biological bases of behavior and neuropsychology at the University of Texas in Austin. He also served as developmental psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Austin. He and his family returned to Florida in 2001 and he once more became a faculty member at the University of South Florida. He is presently an Associate Professor in the College of Education and he is an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at the USF College of Medicine. In 2008, Dr. Marshall co-authored the Pediatric Behavior Rating Scale; in 2011, he co-authored The Middle School Mind: Growing Pains in Early Adolescent Brains (2011) and is currently revising the Handbook for Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child (2012). In addition to writing and a busy schedule of workshops and presentations, Dr. Marshall also maintains a private practice in Lakeland, Florida where he specializes in the assessment and treatment of children and adults with emotional, behavioral, and learning disorders; parenting; family therapy; and couples counseling. As part of that practice he maintains a daily blog and he co-hosts The Mental Breakdown Podcast (iTunes, Google Play Music, and YouTube) and the Psychreg Podcast. He has spoken to professional and community groups throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and South America.

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