Benign Neglect of Children Isn’t Benign

We finally headed out to a restaurant we fancy for seafood tonight, and I was powerfully (and painfully) reminded of how often young children are neglected in “benign” ways that are clearly not benign. Next to us was a family with a four-year old. He was given some crayons and a paper by the waitress, yet no toys were brought from home—no books, no nothing to do. He flopped around on the bench while his mother ignored him; when his father and another person showed up a bit later, he continued to be ignored and neglected. Squirming around like young boys do, his father grabbed his arm and scolded him. I thought, “It’s you, Dad, that needs speaking to—not your son.” “What do you expect him to do other than squirm and wiggle when he has nothing to do for 30 minutes?” Kids squirm and wiggle; they don’t hold still and talk like adults, now do they!
This child somehow passed the time for about 30 minutes, frowning and looking angry (understandably). Then I saw him take two forks and begin drumming on his little water cup. “Fantastic,” I thought! A drummer in the making! Then he took a fork and stuck one of it’s prongs up a straw. Clever. What fits where. Remember….we’re speaking of a 4-yr. old. Still ignored but trying to entertain himself. No one was talking with him. He had nothing to do except squirm, imagine, and play with forks.
I went over to his father and smiled, saying, “You have a wonderful son, and I think he may be a drummer in the making.” The father beamed. I asked if I could sit and visit with his boy. “Yes.” (You know, it does take a village, and I’m a willing villager [to help raise a child.]) And so we chatted with our fingers to establish how old he was. Then his big, beautiful eyes probed mine. I said, “You probably wonder who this strange woman is, and why is she talking to you.” “I liked watching you drum with your forks, and wondered how old you are.” He kept staring at me. He’s likely not used to having an adult want to engage him in a little conversation. “Thank you for telling me how old you are.” And I got up and left. I brought him several straws, saying, “Maybe these will be fun to use.” He beamed, and started drumming on the table. The extra woman at the table said something very hostile to him—as if he needed admonishing? I had a tiny urge to smack her, yet know that being positive brings the absolute best energy to both myself and the other—even if I initially want to smack someone for being nasty to a child.
I excused myself and left the restaurant. Standing in the cool breeze outside, I thought the following: “I’m going nowhere without that little bag of cars I have at home or the 3 dollies.” ”If parents are such nitwits that they bring NOTHING for a child to do or read in the long wait for food to arrive at restaurants, then I’ll offer a toy.”
It spoils the evening out for me to be near adults who mistreat children—either through benign neglect or blatant abuse—and to watch children suffer. It’s such a needless waste. Benign neglect isn’t benign; it registers as something destructive. “I’m not important…I don’t matter,” is what may be concluded. If a child’s needs are considered, with just a tiny bit of forethought, a book or a couple of favorite toys could be slipped in a purse or small bag for the 4-yr. old to enjoy.
I imagine it might make you unhappy as well to see this kind of scene. You may also be a “villager” who loves children and wants everyone to reach just a little bit higher in caring for them. So maybe you’ll join me and keep a tiny arsenal of toys with you (or in your car) to loan to a child who needs some attention or something to do. Maybe, together, we’ll set a quiet example that isn’t so benign, either. Maybe it will be powerfully constructive.

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