On Lovingly Ignoring Your Child (and Letting Them Play Independently)

I ummed and aahhed about the title of this post. It seems kind of cold-hearted doesn’t it, but honestly, by lovingly ignoring our children and practising what childhood educator Magda Gerber called “benign neglect”, I feel like I’ve found my parenting philosophy. So let’s dive in – and please do watch out for the caveats woven into this piece.

I first wrote about children playing independently, without adults, back in 2017 when I was navigating working a three day high intensity corporate office job, running this blog and my Instagram page, and looking after two young kids. I didn’t want and couldn’t justify sending the kids to nursery whilst I wasn’t at my official job so had to carve out pockets of time whilst I was with my kids to work on all things Mamalina. These days I still feel as passionately about independent play as I did back then, but my reasoning has evolved slightly. This time it’s less about me getting a moment to myself – though that is also very important – and more about the benefit I see that the child reaps from independent play of this type.

I realised that being down on my knees playing trains with them or making up role play games wasn’t the right grounding from which to develop our relationship with each other or with the world. I tried it, and still do from time to time with our littlest, now 22 months but it always has and still does feel unnatural to me, and crucially, not a basis from which I feel Abe learns.

You see, as long as their basic needs are met, I’ve always had a deep-seated intuition that leaving babies and children alone and giving them the freedom to be in their own company and develop their own view of life, can be the absolute best thing for them, and for us. Right now I’m writing this whilst Abe is a few metres away, playing, totally absorbed and in his own world. He is learning in his own time and developing concentration, independence and creativity – far more so I believe, than if I was down there with him. He comes to me every fifteen minutes or so, we cuddle and “talk” a bit and when he’s ready he’s off again on his next adventure, exploring the area at his own pace and rhythm. He has space and is growing more confident every moment as he tunes into their own inner-controlled thoughts, observations and actions.

If he needs me, he lets me know. I am there, but not there.

As long as their basic needs are met, I’ve always had a deep-seated intuition that leaving babies and children alone and giving them the freedom to be in their own company and develop their own view of life, can be the absolute best thing for them, and for us.

You see, I do not consider my children an extension of me – they are individuals unto themselves, coming and going, and experiencing this wild and wonderful world through their own individual lenses. My children have their own thoughts, and they don’t need me as much as modern Western parenting might have us believe. Indeed, right from day one, we are sold flashing spinning mobiles and loud rattles to shake at a baby, hang from their buggy, their car seat and above their cot. And of course these aids have their use, but I strongly believe that giving our children uninterrupted time and space has been really, really positive for them, not to mention satisfying, helpful and relaxing for us to be able to sit back and watch our small adults (because that is what they are) be content, without us.

My children have their own thoughts, and they don’t need me as much as modern Western parenting might have us believe.

Let’s get to those caveats. First and foremost, if my child is experiencing any sort of struggle or discomfort, then I am and always will be there for them. If they’re upset, cold, tired, hungry, unsafe, or anything else in between, I am their primary carer and I will help make them feel safe and loved until the end of time. I will respond to their needs and help them butter their own toast, wrap them up warm in a blanket, tend to a grazed knee, and listen to their bad dreams in the middle of the night. Secondly, our children have each other (although I operate in this way when parenting Abe when his brothers are at school, just like I did my eldest when he had no siblings). Finally, and importantly, it’s a privilege to have a safe space called home and children that are well, and able to strive for self-sufficiency.

So how do I connect and bond with my children, you might ask? For me, I connect with my kids during the most mundane, the most “boring” and every day of moments that are the stuff of parenting and fill our days. I try to find joy and juiciness in the daily caring routines: on the school run, during dinner time, bath time, getting them dressed. These are all moments that I embrace and (try to) connect with my children.

I try to find joy and juiciness in the daily caring routines: on the school run, during dinner time, bath time, getting them dressed.

Finally, here’s three golden rules I stick to that helps encourage independent play:

Set the scene
Set the (calm) scene and lay out a few (too many will be overwhelming and messy) of their favourite toys or books. Nursery rhymes or a favourite podcast or my personal favourite, a lovely calm playlist will also possibly help to create calm and foster focus.

Lurk don’t Latch
I always like my kids to feel like I’m there but not really there. I might bring in a plate of snacks or call from afar to ask if they’re ok. I find once they physically see my face, I change the dynamic and that’s where they might not be so content alone. Inevitably, your little one may well try to find you or calling your name. If they’re little, now is the time for cuddles and a few short games and rounds of kisses, and to perhaps pull out a few different toys, or if they’re that bit older, to show them some love, and then gently remind them that you’re doing some of your own things and that mummy will come soon. Note: it’s important that you stick to your word, and you do go and check in on them, although ideally they’re totally absorbed in what they’re doing when you do make an appearance.

Take a Deep Breath and Trust Them
Perhaps this is the hardest part: trusting that they’ll be ok without you. You might want to start out by listening in from behind open doors or entrust an older sibling with the job of looking after younger ones.

Do check out my original post for a few more ideas around this concept, based heavily on Magda’s Gerber’s philosophy. which centres on the child as an initiator, an explorer, and a self learner.

Do you let your kids play independently? What’s your take on Magda Gerber’s “benign neglect” philosophy?

Emma xxx

P.S 10 Best Toys for Conscious Play and Gentle Sleep Training – Is There Such a Thing?

8 Comments

  1. Pixi
    November 23, 2021 / 7:44 pm

    Thankyou Emma for sharing you and your babies ways in the world.
    I’m a mama of a 15month old who has been more than content to sit and read solo (I’d be across the room) from very early days, this has progressed and now as a walking little adult she will often head off to play and ‘organise’ her toys and books in various spaces around our home. I remembered being independant like this as an only child and so it came natural to me to do the same for Luna. We still have ripsnort laughing play together, and her Dad is the biggest funnest goof all with her too, but I love when she picks up her fav items for the day and heads off chattering away to herself, I often call out ‘have a great time at work baby’ and she stops and grins and waddles off for a time untillike you I take in snacks or she comes to show me something.
    Yesterday she sat with a pen patiently teaching herself how to put the lid off and on and was soooo over the moon when she mastered it all by herself.
    Thankyou Emma and readers for making me feel like a mama who Is doing it right.

  2. Rae
    August 23, 2021 / 6:54 am

    Hi Emma, I’m a long time follower and have seen you mention this a few times. I wonder if you follow The Playful Den? I totally respect that you’ve chosen a way that works for you and your family and I think your children seem just wonderful in every way. In addition though, I think there are so many amazing benefits to engaging in play with your children. Even if you don’t want to, in the same way you don’t always want to brush their teeth or wipe their bottom, sometimes by engaging in their play and their choice of activity you are providing them with some amazing recognition and are able to scaffold all kinds of development too. Really interested in your thoughts on all this? You seem really confident in your approach but I wonder what you think about my thoughts above?
    This is from total love by the way – I am really on board with many of your philosophies! This one just doesn’t sit as well with me. Our children are 11, 8, 4, 2 and 7 months. They play together a lot, play independently a lot too, but also each has really benefitted with adult engagement in their play and activities. Modelling from us on how develop certain ideas, skills or just how to share enjoyment of something simple together. Sometimes I don’t want to play with my kids and don’t, other times I don’t want to play with them and I do – it’s a balance based on their needs and my needs. Keen to hear your thoughts ..

  3. Emily
    June 24, 2021 / 12:54 pm

    I do this sometimes and I love going to check on them and just seeing them absorbed in something. It makes my heart burst. As above, my 18 month old often likes to do dangerous things so usually I find a good time is when I’m upstairs changing bed sheets and tidying bedrooms so I’m flitting in and out of rooms and they will be in my eldest’s bedroom playing with her little kitchen or car track. That way I can quickly check on them and they’re not too far out of sight and I can get on with some stuff that needs doing 🙂

    • Anonymous
      June 27, 2021 / 1:44 am

      I feel all children have different needs and each family has their own way of doing things. While this philosophy may feel right for some it’s not for others. As long as basic needs are met and children are happy does it matter if you leave them to play or enjoy playing with them?

      • Emma Ross
        Author
        June 29, 2021 / 4:37 pm

        absolutely – every family is of course totally different, with different needs, personalities, spaces, situations, for sure. ive just personally found this approach to be super helpful and positive, for us adults and for our kids. thanks for reading the post, and for being here xx

    • Emma Ross
      Author
      June 29, 2021 / 4:38 pm

      100% this emily! it is such a heart burst moment isn’t it when you see them so absorbed and content, without you, just in their own world. and yes, i often centre chores around where my little one plays so i can be on the subtle look out! thanks for reading xx

  4. Abbi
    June 24, 2021 / 12:02 pm

    I love this concept, I have a 16 month old and I totally agree that the independence is so good for them and us! The problem I have is that he always manages to find something risky to do! And if I’m doing pretty much anything else he’ll want to be involved – especially if that involves a phone or a laptop. So I’m at a bit of a loss. So other than just sit and watch him play (which I do sometimes) I’m not really sure how to leave him to his own devices without him falling off a chair, eating something inedible, destroying my plants, etc.

    • Emma Ross
      Author
      June 29, 2021 / 4:40 pm

      hey abbi, thanks for reading the post and for your question, and i hear you. did you manage to read the post linked in this one ? that one offers up some more concrete tips on how to help them get on their way to independent play. may be worth a read if you have time. xxx

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