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Planned Negligence

Abstract: Parents want their children to be happy and successful; most of their children want to be happy and successful too. Unfortunately, what parents and children take to be happiness and success are seldom the same, so all the effort and money parents put into trying to make their children happy and successful frequently seem to fail. Why is that? Here are some ideas.

It is a general principle of a successful life in relation to others that we need to adopt and practise planned negligence. This is particularly true of parents, whose excessive and sometimes obsessive involvement in their children's lives, plans and careers can be very counter-productive. Many people, presented with this principle, see only the "negligence", and so reject it immediately; but there are two words here, and they are equally important. "Planned" means that we have a coherent strategy of non-intervention that incorporates observation and assessment as well as a readiness to step in when it is appropriate; "negligence" means that we don't even so dive in at every opportunity or whenever we see the possibility of a mistake being made because that means that our children never learn to fall over and pick themselves up again; neither do they have the space to discover themselves as independent beings. The days when children still had to learn to tie their shoe-laces provide a good illustration: if parents jump in every time their child fumbles and fails, the child will never learn, and so we are deliberately negligent in leaving them to try again; in that we don't expect them to be able to do it immediately, and therefore exercise discretion in the timing and frequency of our intervention, our negligence is planned.

In considering the relationship between parents and children in the achievement of happiness and success, it is not necessary first to decide on what happiness and success are. It suffices to observe that, if parents and their children have different ideas of happiness and success, there is likely to be trouble ahead. And often, even usually, they do. There are many reasons why this happens, and many of them arise because generation after generation we repeat the same mistakes and continue to hold to the same mistaken preconceptions. Here are some of the these mistaken ideas.

Parents know what their children should be interested in.

No child has ever been interested in something merely because their parents think they should be. Some, certainly, are affected and even infected by their parents' enthusiasm and passion for something, and so become interested in the same thing themselves, but by merely thinking something is good for a child we don't convince them that it is, and we certainly don't instil a passion for it in them sufficient to sustain through the challenges that becoming a successful practitioner of that activity will require. The principle of planned negligence applies to parenthood: we should stand back as much as possible and allow our children to become what best they can become, self-consciously creating the space in which they can grow, but refusing to define what they should do in that space, and intervening only to avert serious danger or when asked for our help or opinion.

The harder you work, the more successful you will be.

Hard work cannot solve all problems or remove all difficulties. No amount of hard work will make most children into great musicians or mathematicians, but the misconception has far more serious implications. The reality is that hard work can often blind us to what matters about a subject, give us tunnel-vision that shuts out its peripheral implications, and makes us incapable of having inventive or creative thoughts about it. But the opposite of hard work is not laziness; it is applied and focused detachment, detachment that remains actively interested in whatever it is that is being studied, but remote enough from it to have the space for creative thinking and learning. Focused idleness is an example of the broader and very important class we call planned negligence.

Troublesome children are the ones we should worry about.

All teachers know how frustrating and disruptive troublesome pupils can be, but most also know - and many secretly regret - that the disruptive ones are more likely to go on to make a success of their lives than the quiet, compliant, hard-working ones. The reason for this is easy to see, but hard to accommodate: troublesome children who are in some way rejecting the educational system or parts of it are showing an independence of mind that is essential for anyone to make their way in the world. The best educators treat signs of disaffection as symptoms of a deeper malaise that requires their attention, rather as doctors use them for diagnosis. Unfortunately, many just treat the symptoms with punishment rather than addressing the underlying issue with care and concern, and so the problem is never resolved. This is the wrong kind of negligence.

Other parents know how to do this better than we do.

Almost certainly false. The reality is that even parents whose children appear to achieve happiness and success would probably, if they were honest, admit that it was largely a matter of luck. To the extent that they exhibited any strategy at all, it was unlikely to have been one of planned negligence. And there really is a question anyway about whether either "happiness" or "success" are sufficiently well-defined or persistent states to be thought to have been achieved in more than a transient fashion.

We know how to measure a school's success.

We don't, and parents who try to evaluate schools based on any available measure of their success are missing the point. Exactly the same difficulty that arises from the transience of rating a life "happy" or "successful" arises for schools and education generally: it is madness to try to measure a school's quality by, for example, the examination results its students achieve at age 17-18; what matters is where they are and what they are doing 10, 15, 20 years later, whether their lives seem to them to be purposeful and fulfilled, etc., and what part their school education played in helping them to get there insofar as it can be discerned. Of course, this isn't much use to anyone interested in marketing because it is too intangible with too many other variables for any school to claim direct responsibility or credit for it, but that doesn't make it untrue. (Passing remark: nothing is made untrue by virtue of being difficult to leverage for purposes of marketing.)


When we cannot measure what we value, we tend to value what we measure.


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