Benign Neglect

In a recent comment on the “Stinks & Bangs” post, my art partner Lee wrote of the longed-for playhouse she eventually created herself when her father failed to follow through on his promise to build one for her. Years later, from an adult’s perspective, she could accept that her father hadn’t intended to hurt or disappoint her. He was merely using what physical energy he had to begin a new life for his family as a farmer in the San Joaquin Valley. With the distance of time and maturty she could see that her creativity had instead been encouraged by “benign neglect.”

“Benign neglect” – what a phrase!  Neglect suggests a careless inattention to something or someone yet without the intent of malice. It’s the inevitable bump-in-the-road, stuff-happens we all encounter being in relationship with others. But modify neglect with the word benign and you have a phrase that suggests gracious disregard – an inattentiveness that leaves something undone yet doesn’t threaten life or limb. And possibly provides opportunity. 

Born over a hundred years ago, my mother recounted stories of the early days of Pasadena’s Rose Parade and the chariot races that predated the New Year’s football games in the Rose Bowl.  Our maternal grandparents lived in a large five-bedroom Craftsmen-style home on Hudson Ave, two blocks south of Colorado Blvd’s parade route. Yet, our parents NEVER EVER took us to see the Rose Parade! Sixty years later both my brother and I still wonder at the depth of this profound cultural neglect.

If I imagine myself in my father’s green Naugahyde™ recliner and attempt to see things from his 1951 perspective, what I see is a large TV console that has recently become the focal point of our living room. Given the choice of sitting comfortably in his own home with a cup of coffee and a cigarette or driving in pre-freeway stop-and-go traffic along Ventura Blvd, was there any choice?  Benign neglect…

Even watching the parade in black and white, the beautiful floral floats were still awe-inspiring. By six or seven I was so inspired that I decided to build my own tinfoil-covered styrofoam float, bedecked with yellow hibiscus, pink and purple fuchsias, and maidenhair fern, for my royal court of Nancy Ann Storybook dolls. My parents’ “benign neglect” provided one of my earliest opportunities for something-out-of-nothing creativity. Their gracious disregard unwittingly encouraged my parade of flowering creativity. Like Lee, I’ve come to see their benign neglect as a gift of grace.

What are your stories of benign neglect? What kind of creativity flowered in you out of others’ gracious disregard?

As always, lookin’ forward to your comments. 


5 comments to Benign Neglect

  • Robin Rice

    Having just launched my youngest child, I have been doing a lot of the parent guilt thing lately….I should have done more of this, why didn’t I do that? My husband mentioned casually to me “You did a lot, you are a very involved parent, stop with the guilt already.” I love this phrase “benign neglect”….makes it what it really was, just something we didn’t do, not something that was cancerous.
    Robin Rice

  • Deanna J Bowling

    I would hear my mom tell others when I was 13 or so that I was so quiet that she wouldn’t even know where I was sometimes. I at the time didn’t feel like there was room for me in the family anymore, so would spend hours “in my head”. As Robin said above, mom had just launched her third child, and was busier than I had any sense of knowing. My roommate has been in Ethiopia for the last almost a month, and I have been taking care of the house and dog and working in the yard. Now I have more of a sense why mom was so busy, and I don’t even have three children.

    The benefit though that I gained from spending hours “in my head” is that I have a vivid imagination which carries me a lot of the time, I love to read, and I love, love, love to study scripture. My being comfortable in my head helps to enrich me in many ways.

  • The benign neglect in my life would be not having any toy or memento from my childhood. We made a cross country move when I was 13 so much was given away at that time. Then after my mom died when I was 17 and I left for college at 20, everyone (including my step mom) got rid of more things. The one thing I did have somewhere in the attic was a maple doll cradle my dad made for me when I was two. I was later told that he figured I didn’t want it so he gave it to the church nursery. Uggg. I’m sure it made it’s way home to someone’s house.

    How did this experience serve me? Well, I’m not a hoarder. But I did keep some of my children’s best toys. I recently had the joy of pulling them out when our son and his wife and their two little foster children came to visit in August. It gave me great satisfaction to have them stored away for just such a moment and watch them bring smiles to little faces. They bring back so many wonderful memories.

  • Sharron Luft

    In the cold darkness of early morning, my younger brother and I were loaded into the backseat with pillows and blankets for the hours-long drive to a high mountain lake where my parents would spend a long day fishing for trout. My brother would make a mini-village from rocks and sticks;driving his small toy car up,down and around, he was content. I spent those days with my best friend, Nancy Drew. On the rocky bank of the lake, I’d make myself a cozy-as-possible nest of the blankets and read, read, read. I can still make a nest anywhere and I always have a book to read. Why, I’ve been around the world; I’ve met every possible kind of person and have considered most of life’s most pressing problems. My parents’ most gracious disregard gave me the freedom to enjoy solitude and the opportunity to develop a love of reading. Do you suppose it started me on my desire to write as well?

  • Tom Stephen

    Lots for me to think about on this one. Both how I’m giving my kids the gift of B.N. and how I received that gift from my parents.

    Perhaps one area has been in the area of my spiritual life. We never had family devotions and I can hardly think of a time when I prayed with my parents. I had to learn that on my own (well actually with the help of friends in college). My prayer life became a place of intimacy with God and I had not baggage of trying to get rid of my parents giving me “too much religion.”

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