Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Making the Case for Benign Neglect

Biological parents in nineteenth-century children's literature are a sorry lot, to say the least. They are constantly succumbing to influenza or typhoid, and when they manage to survive past their offspring's tenth birthday, as Jim Hawkins' mother does in Treasure Island, their behaviour is an almost suicidal mix of foolishness and cowardice. They may be kind and loving, but a few white blood cells and a rudimentary survival instinct would go a long way.

Twentieth-century parents are an almost equally endangered species, as Harry Potter and the Baudelaire orphans can attest, but now they tend to be murder victims, prey to the machinations of Voldemort and Count Olaf. No longer can writers depend upon a convenient outbreak of illness to set the stage for adventure.

Neil Gaiman's children's books embrace the adventure formula with gusto, but instead of murdering the parents or wiping them out in an outbreak of avian flu, Gaiman simply distracts them. In The Wolves in the Walls for instance (a book my children's literature students regard as sure to afflict my children with buried traumas, due to the wolves' gory obsession with strawberry jam), the parents blithely disregard the heroine's many warnings about the scratchings and clawings coming from within the walls. When the wolves finally emerge, it's up to Lucy to save the day while her parents play the tuba and plan out fantasy vacations.

Perhaps more to the point, Gaiman's other picture book, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish features a dad who placidly reads his newspaper while the neighbourhood children pass him along in a series of swaps for items such as a gorilla mask and a pet rabbit. When his son finally tracks him down, the dad is absent-mindedly munching lettuce in a rabbit pen, wholly oblivious to his surroundings. As his son solemnly quips, "My dad doesn't notice much of anything when he's reading the newspaper."

I picked up Gaiman's juvenile novel Coraline last week while Pie and I were at the bookstore. While Pie browsed through a stack of Disney-themed I Can Read books, I swallowed the novel in a single gulp. Coraline is an only child whose parents are experts in benign neglect. Her mother serves microwaved meals, but her father is worse: he cooks up meals with ingredients like fennel and goat cheese (as Coraline reminds him, "You know I don't like recipes!"). Both parents work from home and spend most of their time absent-mindedly telling their daughter to run along and play. When Coraline finds a secret doorway in the wall, leading to a mirror-world inhabited by her "other mother," there is a certain appeal.

The other mother is an excellent cook: she prepares all of Coraline's favourite meals and stocks her other bedroom with carefully selected toys. Most of all, she gives the girl her undivided attention. All the time. Coraline quickly grows weary of this disturbingly intense focus and spends the bulk of the novel trying to rescue her oblivious parents from the other mother's captivity. (When she succeeds, her parents manage not to notice that two days have passed of which they have no recollection.)

The earliest children's novels - Little Women is a good example - feature docile children learning from the wise example of their benevolent parents. Roald Dahl may be the best example of the backlash against this trend: his novels are usually touted for their child-centered focus. Adults in Dahl's novels are either monstrously abusive or more childlike than the children; their villainy and incompetence set the stage for the powerful child hero to emerge.

Gaiman's brilliant innovation, I think, is that he takes this "child-centered" formula and makes it irresistibly appealing to parents. The parents in his novels are distracted, inattentive, and beloved. Their children are confident of their parents' love and willing to undertake significant risks to rescue them from peril. Gaiman's child characters actually prefer their parents' unavailability to the alternative: a kind of devouring attention that would eat them alive. I have no doubts about the appeal of this rather transparently self-serving adult fantasy; what I'm less sure of is whether it's as good for the kids as it is for us parents.

31 comments:

jess said...

Coraline is a good one. With the exception of Neverwhere, I prefer Gaiman's children's books to his adult work.

What about C.S. Lewis's Narnia books? Those parents are loving and attentive but entirely absent, but there are several key adults who know about Narnia.

Is it because adults are usually unable to enter in to the imaginative world that children inhabit? Or does it say more about the authors? I don't know about Gaiman but Lewis's mother died when he was young and his father subsequently drove he and his brother batty. They spent their time trying to escape his notice.

I just reread Summerland by Michael Chabon. In it the scientist dad refuses to believe in anything supernatural until he's forced to, and he has to be rescued by his son. So he is present, but not much help.

jess said...

p.s. I should not write comments directly after waking up.

cinnamon gurl said...

Oh, I feel all uncomfortable and squirmly with those descriptions... WAY too familiar... where do we find the balance? I mean, in books, absent(minded) parents help plot development. But real life is all about character development, isn't it? And there's a lot more at stake in real life. Oh, squirmy squirmy business.

Gwen said...

Have you read Un Lun Dun (China Mieville)? The parents are similarly clueless and figure into the story not much at all, but the heroine feels intense affection for them, and for the concept of family, and it drives her actions.

This could help me feel better about my own benign neglect, but for some reason .... it doesn't. Sin's nailed it: squirmy bidness.

Bea said...

Jess - I bet Gaiman's lovably absent-minded parents owe a lot to the Professor in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - he's the ideal adult: detached, sympathetic, and mostly unavailable.

Sin, Gwen - It was particularly squirmy for me at the bookstore when I was trying to combine a minimal level of attentiveness to the Pie with my desire to finish the book before it was time to pick Bub up from nursery school...

Lady M said...

Interesting. I'm home on maternity leave now, and in the periods I'm not feeding the baby, I'm actually able to give "intensely focused time" to my toddler. I think he likes it for the novelty right now, but he's getting better at running off to play by himself after a while. I guess we're figuring out a balance!

Andrea said...

He's got another picture book out right now, too--did you see it? The Dangerous Alphabet. More absent-minded adults and kids on adventures, this one quite grisly and for a younger set (but Frances seems to love it).

It is a difficult balance but I think the key might be listening to the kids. As long as they're not asking us for more (directly or indirectly), should we assume that they need it?

Alpha DogMa said...

I can't really comment on this post. I'm too guilt ridden about ignoring my children so I can play on the interwebs. No doubt they are plotting some kind of revenge against me, their fennel loving blogging mother.

Cyndi said...

Man, I want to take one or all of your classes.

That's funny- you know I don't like recipes.

I will have to check out this author!

Trillian said...

Gaiman has a blog, which is wonderful and wheere he talks about writing and his writing process a bit.
You should read (if you haven't already) Ray Bradbury's "Something wicked this way comes" and "Dandelion Wine." I think they have examples of loving parents who are a bit distracted, although I don't know if the books fall into children's lit exactly...there is the homicidal maniac in Dandelion Wine. ;-)

minnesotamom said...

Is that what I loved so much about Roald Dahl as a kid? I bet it was...I haven't picked up some of my favorites in awhile; I'm sure since becoming a mother I will have a somewhat more cynical view of the parent figures.

I haven't even heard of Gaiman--I'll have to check something out next time I'm at a bookstore. While being overly attentive to my daughter, of coures.

PinksandBluesGirls said...

I must say... you have me very intrigued about Coraline. Ironically enough I am heading to Barnes & Noble tonight for some (gasp) alone mama time... I am going to look this read up!
Love your blog! Found you through Chicky!
Best,
Audrey

Beck said...

I think a bit of loving absence is fine, but not too much. My kids certainly don't want me hovering over them, butting into every facet of their lives - but neither is it good for them if I'm emotionally absent, if I do not really connect with them.
However, I've seen more parents justify the most obviously horrible nonsense by saying that "my child will be happy if I am happy." Uh, that's not how it works. For the most part, a lot of parenting is BEING THERE - and so I think you're right, that this is a type of emotional fantasty for adults.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I wonder if it *feels* to kids like their parents aren't paying attention, just because their parents aren't giving them undivided attention. Right now for example my kids are in my room playing with the guinea pig, and they probably think that because I'm at the computer, I'm not aware of what's happening -- but in fact I am; I'm waiting for a squeal or a shriek or the silence that means the guinea pig has escaped & is hiding under the bed...

A parent could make a pretty good case that her child never gives *her* undivided attention. Shoot. My son is always doing at least one other thing while talking to me.

Veronica Mitchell said...

I remember when I was a kid I always found the absence of parents in fiction kinda puzzling. If I had found a wardrobe to another world, the first thing I would have done is enlist my parents in the adventure. Narnia with mom and dad would be exciting; Narnia without them would be scary.

But then I was afraid of Mary Poppins, so clearly I was not the standard for anything.

Also, my favorite review of Roald Dahl's books ever referred to his "cheerful detestation of children." It seemed so accurate.

Mad said...

I'm wondering too if this is a contemporary trend. I remember seeing it in Gaiman when I read Coraline just after it came out but then there is Summerland (as Jess suggested) and what about the parents in Holes? (Which you promised me you would read, right, because it is so super AWESOME) The inventor dad is so caught up in his own world. Then there's also the amusingly self-absorbed (but also absorbed in their kids lives) extended family in Surviving the Applewhites. Mmmmm, I'm going to have to start looking for this--that is if I ever manage to finish more than a book a month.

nomotherearth said...

It's a delicate balance, for sure, and one I'm still trying to figure out. I used to be a total Helicopter Mom. Since the Little Guy was born, though, I've gone to the opposite end of the spectrum in that I expect the Boy to just magically amuse himself without help. I must find a middle ground. But how?

Owlhaven said...

I think my mom practiced benign neglect, and it tends to be my style too. A relative of mine is super-super involved with always keeping her kids occupied. When we go camping together she brings multiple crafts for her kids -- and mine--to do each day. I think it is kind of her love language, and so I have struggled with the irritation I feel over it. Yes, I truly wonder if her kids will learn to entertain themselves. But I have to admit that part of my irritation stems from guilt. Maybe tossing my kids a few buckets and shovels and telling them to go play in the sand is not really good enough?

Mary, mom to 10

Sue said...

I'm going to have to check out those books. Not to help me rationalize away my time on the computer, but because they sound charming.

I struggle with finding a good balance that isn't based on selfishness OR guilt, but on the actual needs of my actual kids. It's trickier than I thought it would be.

Bea said...

Sue - It was your post that got me thinking about this one. I suppose John Meredith may be an early version of the distracted parent - created by a mother who worked at home, and whose sons would push flowers under the door to her while she stayed behind closed doors, writing her novels.

Cole said...

I remember as a child identifying fully with the neglectful parents of literature. A movie example was Labyrinth. I remember identifying COMPLETELY with the poor heroine, always trapped at home to watch the baby while the parents go out to party. As a teen I really felt her pain. I knew I had reached adulthood when I happened to see the movie again and all I could think was "what a whiny brat". The beauty of children's literature is that, unlike Disney films, it is still written for children, not parents. It appeals to their fantasies and allows them to be the star, to flex their forming hero muscles from the safety of imagination.
That said, I still get the squirmies as my mommy conscience is pricked and I wonder yet again if I've found the proper balance in my children's lives.

Sarcasta-Mom said...

Coraline was a good read. The button eye people really tripped K out though. I'm going to have to checck out his other kid ones. I'm a big fan of his grown-up books :)

marymurtz said...

I wonder at times if the "fantasy" of the absent parent wasn't a by-product of larger families, back when it wasn't uncommon for there to be multiple siblings and children couldn't receive hyper-focus because there was so much happening to distract parents' attention.

Or maybe it was just a convenient literary device to remove the adult element to entice children into a fantasy world where THEY made the decisions, especially back in a time when children were to be seen and not heard, and preferably not seen.

Benign neglect is a weird and, as previously posted, squirmy, prospect. Our one child spends a great deal of time hovering around us, with us frequently admonishing her to "run along." I don't know what the happy medium is. I don't know if there is one.

wheelsonthebus said...

And then there was Mr. Bennett. Boy, was he ever a benign neglecter.

TEOM said...

I am a big believe in the power and importance of benign neglect. The problem with it, however, is not crossing the line into malignant neglect.

b*babbler said...

An interesting idea - and a timely one at that, as tonight I watched my daughter get wound up by a friend that I know rarely practices any sort of benign neglect, opting instead to cuddle, play, amuse, tease, cajole and on and on. I like to think that I generally find myself in the middle ground, alternating between spending time with Peanut and reading quietly while she does her thing (or am I just fooling myself?)

kittenpie said...

I think it's an interesting thing, given that the major commentaries and criticisms of current parenting either lie on the side of "we are all wrapped up in our children and make them the centre of everything and it's no good" or the flip side, the criticized hipster parents who "refuse to grow up or adjust their lifestyles to the fact that they are adults with children to be responsible for and it's no good."

Pieces said...

Excellent review and observations. The Penderwicks is another book with a father who is distracted yet loving. Other adults are evil with the exception of the chubby cook who coddles and nurtures. I've got the chubby part down. I don't know about the rest.

Mimi said...

I met Neil Gaiman. He was adorable. That is all.

Elaine said...

Coraline is a good book, but the button eyes still bother me, and I haven't read it in years. Of course, nothing fun or interesting can happen under constant, close supervision of attentive, loving parents, so there are a lot of literary adventures that would otherwise never have happened.

If you read modern YA novels about bullying - e.g. King Dork by Frank Portman, 19 Minutes by Jodi Picoult - the neglect is no longer benign. The parents are always clueless and ineffective. I'd love to find one book that reflects attentive parenting with effective strategies in a bullying situation - just for the encouragement.

lildb said...

Jenny gave me that book for my -- uh, maybe it wasn't my birthday. whatevs. anyway, yes, she gave it to me (I would've not ever picked it on my own, in all likelihood) and I was amazed at the dark, weird beauty, and simultaneous semi-horrific characters, etc. devourable, indeed.

excellent analysis of it, too. you kind of finally resolved my issues with the thing.