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Jennifer Garner lets her kids experience ‘benign neglect.’ Here is why you should, too

Jennifer Garner said she enjoys her kids and wants them to see her enjoy her life as well.
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Jennifer Garner said she enjoys her kids and wants them to see her enjoy her life as well.

By Madeline Holcombe, CNN

(CNN) — Actress Jennifer Garner isn’t a helicopter mom.

“I want to be around. But I also think it’s OK if they suffer from a little bit of benign neglect,” she told Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager on NBC’s “Today” this week.

“Their lives are their own,” she said. “I’m not trying to live their life, and I don’t mind that they see that I love mine.”

Garner probably wasn’t advocating for ignoring children’s needs, said Los Angeles parenting coach Oona Hanson. It was likely a playful phrase that offers an alternative to helicopter parenting, she said.

“This interview has caught attention because I think a lot of parents are hungry for permission or role models on how to take a step back from that kind of intensive parenting,” she said. “I think it is a handy way to say like, ‘Yeah, I’m stepping off this intensive parenting treadmill that wasn’t serving me or my kids.’”

Those striving for this alternative are giving kids room to grow, Hanson said.

“They’re creating a safe loving environment, and they’re letting kids be bored or letting kids figure things out on their own, or letting kids make mistakes and aren’t feeling so anxious about whether or not their child can handle it,” she said.

Alone time means creativity, independence and problem-solving

Catherine Newman’s kids did not want to go to summer camp.

She was fine with that, so long as they respected her working hours and entertained themselves, said Newman, academic department coordinator of the creative writing center at Amherst College and author of “How to Be a Person: 65 Hugely Useful, Super-Important Skills to Learn before You’re Grown Up.”

For years, Newman’s children figured out how to spend their summers, and they even made up games that she still finds remnants of now that they are in their 20s, she said.

“They were like incredibly imaginative and self-sufficient, and I got to not feel like sort of that dread and guilt all day about abandoning them,” Newman said.

Having that time to be bored or try things out without an adult hovering over them not only gave them a chance to be creative and make memories, but it also helped foster their development, she added.

Being involved with everything your children do can instill in them a feeling of learned helplessness, Hanson said.

“They start to feel like ‘I can’t do anything on my own. I have to have an adult by my side, correcting me and guiding me, or maybe making sure I don’t ever make a mistake,’” Hanson said. “We see that hurting kids in a sense of self-efficacy, their independence and their confidence.”

When parents or caregivers show confidence that their children don’t need them right away, it can help communicate that it’s OK to feel stressed or anxious or even fail at times, said Dr. Janine Domingues, a senior psychologist at the Child Mind Institute in New York City.

“It’s an opportunity to learn how to get through those moments and also start to problem solve on your own, which are all skills that a kiddo is going to need as they go forward in life,” Domingues said.

Being you helps take care of them

Yes, it is good for both you and your kids to have a life outside of them, Hanson said. But it makes sense that it is hard to do.

“Even before helicopter parenting, this idea that motherhood should be martyrdom was, you know something I think a lot of families struggled with — the idea that you should, like, completely sacrifice your whole self in service of your children,” she said.

But what kids may take away in that struggle is that adulthood — and parenthood — are not enjoyable times of life, she said.

Instead, it’s important to model the adulthood you want your kids to have, Domingues said.

“It’s really important for your kids to see you prioritize you so that when they grow up they know that it’s really beneficial for them to prioritize themselves and have an identity (outside of being a parent),” she added.

Newman’s goal was not to be involved with her children all the time, but rather to be what she calls “all in or all out.”

“My goal was either to be absolutely present with them playing a game or talking to them or reading with them … or to be completely absent so that they could get involved in something else,” she said.

Being present with her kids was helpful in creating an environment where she really got to enjoy them, Newman said.

“Probably been the single most important piece of parenting for me is lighting up when they come in the room and that feeling of just like craving their company,” she said. “I think that’s a really lovely way to be raised.”

How do you leave your kids alone, exactly?

Unfortunately, there are no exact rules as to when to be involved with your child, and when to step back — all children have their own needs and development, Hanson said.

And parents often don’t make a conscious choice to be overinvolved, she added. How someone parents can be related to many factors, such as culture, community and the needs of the family.

But there are ways to start incorporating some “benign neglect.”

The first step is setting up an environment that’s productive — both physically and emotionally.

On those summers that her kids were at home, Newman made it a priority to stock up on arts and crafts supplies and board games so the children had opportunities to find things to do other than just staring at the television, she said.

“You also want your child to know that you are there for support when it is needed,” Domingues said.

If they come to you with a problem, she recommends acknowledging the difficulty and seeing what they have tried or might do to solve it before jumping in yourself.

But with serious matters such as safety or bullying, it is appropriate to let your child know you will intervene quickly, she said.

And in a time when parents are so often told they are doing it wrong, one of Hanson’s biggest pieces of advice is to let go of impossible parenting standards so that you can work with your family’s individual needs.

“It’s really about parents having compassion for themselves, listening to their intuition and finding community,” she said.

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