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On Benign Neglect | Vincent Baxter

By Vincent Baxter

I’ve always liked watching things grow. As a school principal I had a deep windowsill in my office. This environment (abundant sunlight, protection from cold) was ideal for plants to flourish. I loved the ritual of tending these living things a bit each day – pulling dead leaves, watering, experimenting. In turn, I earned moments of surprise, finding growth (or not) from one day to the next.

A colleague thought my plants thrived because I took an attitude of benign neglect–I gave the flowers what they needed to live, didn’t fuss much with them, paid regular attention in a small and caring way, and largely left them alone.

This daily nurturing pattern worked for me. I aspire to be a person who falls into a rhythm of daily practice–to be in ongoing conversation with myself about how things I care about are changing. Tracking the relationship between nutrition, exercise, and my physical condition. Cycling the same route each day to observe my endurance shift in subtle ways. Visiting a place in nature with regularity to see how it changes through seasons.


My older son started middle school in 2018 (pre-COVID-19). I surprised myself with how much I was up in his academic business. Through his elementary years, I largely trusted the process and let him be. But something–I’m not sure what, but it had to do with his development as an independent human, and my own anxiety about him growing up–led me to focus hyperactively on his school performance. The opposite of benign neglect. I didn’t like this change in me. His mom didn’t like it. My son certainly didn’t like it.


Quarantine has created stress for me in many ways—wondering what summer holds for my sons, uncertainty about the future of our economy and my own finances, worrying that members of my family–me included–are not getting enough exercise or social engagement. As quarantine began, I tried command and control parenting–school now, outside now, read at this time, no video games after x o’clock, practice guitar already.

That approach exhausts me, and brought on more argument than whatever it was intended to accomplish.

I’m starting to find, though, that approaching my two children with a spirit of benign neglect (rather than commanding/controlling) works better for all of us.

I observe subtle ways they each change from day to day through this unusual stretch of life. I see how their emotions shift when they’re pleased with a school-related accomplishment, or when they dislike what is for lunch, or when they’re angry they can’t play with a friend. And I’m able to respond with what they actually need at that moment – and not with what a busier, less attentive me assumes they need.

So, what’s changed? This quarantine has forced me to be more present for my children. However, as the world changes into the future, I’d like to sustain this attitude—this benign neglect—from now on.

Vincent Baxter is Principal at Smallholding, a consulting practice focused on improved outcomes for people and their communities, and a parent in Washington, DC.