Parenting 201: Ignore or Intervene

stop sign in a field

I am on vacation this week in the Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania, famous as the location of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. It’s a quiet and beautiful four-season destination*, and our rental home incredibly lacks wifi and cell phone service. It has been a nice break.

I am not alone: my wife and two children are, as well as my brother-in-law, his wife, and their two children—and a sole grandmother to ensure that adults outnumber kids.

Suffice to say there has been a lot of parenting happening out in the open and behind closed doors this week. Whenever I have the opportunity to observe alternative parenting styles, it is always eye-opening and educational. I assume it is the same for others observing ours.

One of my nephews is developmentally delayed with severe behavioral issues. It has been a long, difficult road for his parents, to say the least, but they have risen to the occasion. My wife frequently speaks to her brother on the phone about our nephew’s problems, but it is only on rare visits such as this week that the struggle of their daily life is manifest to us.

Not unexpectedly, the challenges of parenting have been in the front of my mind this week.

*I have no financial relationship with the Laurel Highlands Visitor’s Bureau

When to ignore and when to intervene?

For me, the single most challenging parenting issue—the one that results the most arguments between my wife and me—is when to ignore undesirable behaviors, and when to verbally or physically intervene to stop the behavior. Each situation is in which the ignore-or-intervene choice arises is unique, making the “correct” decision all that more elusive. My in-law’s choices are further amplified by the heightened sensitivity and unpredictability of my nephew’s reactions.

This week has provided countless opportunities to exercise our ignore-or-intervene choice. Most commonly, it has involved the use of inanimate objects—rocks, sticks, seltzer bottles—as projectiles.

I’m not gonna lie: my brothers and I had rock fights on the regular during our childhood. Had our parents chosen a larger-caliber landscaping fill stone, I might not be writing this post.

In my own parenting, I hypocritically discourage rock throwing and will choose to intervene if I observe it.

Some other “opportunities” this week to ignore or intervene have included:

  • Leaving the dining table without asking
  • Arguments over legos
  • Screaming for no reason
  • Climbing on a pool table
  • Dumping water from a balcony
  • Running circles around the living room
  • Bringing moss into the house
  • Eating roasted marshmallows with bare hands
  • Peeing and pooping outside when bathrooms are nearby
  • Remaining in bed and quiet after lights out

rural mailbox

A parenting questionnaire

Some of these transgressions are obviously more serious than others, but they all represent undesirable behaviors. When deciding whether to ignore or intervene, I like to ask myself a series of questions:

Which reaction is more likely to produce the desired outcome? Ignoring can be deceptively more effective than intervention in many situations, but can also be exceptionally difficult to execute.

Is the behavior causing physical harm to anyone? As the chance of broken bones increases, so does the probability of intervention.

How much longer is the behavior likely to continue? Will the child likely outgrow this behavior with time? Pooping in the back yard should go away on its own, for example. If intervention is very difficult, and the behavior is rare, it may make sense to ignore it for a few years and let time work its magic.

Has this behavior been observed in other settings, such as school? Is it isolated to specific situations? A problem behavior that occurs only at home or only at school might be occurring for a specific reason, and might be more amenable to a specific intervention.

Where on the undesirable spectrum does the behavior fall: annoying but otherwise harmless, socially unacceptable, or dangerous? The closer to dangerous, the more likely an intervention is in order.

For any given situation, these questions may not have definitive answers for one child, let alone all children. More, it’s impossible to answer all of them in the heat of the moment. I like to consider my answers in a post-hoc analysis, when I am more emotionally calm and rational; future (inevitable) similar behaviors can then be addressed with a fully thought-out response.

Being a parent challenges the mind and spirit. Parenting 101 is a course in survival: how to feed, bathe, burp, and change that little human in your house. Once you have the basics down, parenting 201—the open-ended course that occupies your consciousness for the next 18+ years—begins.

How do you decide when to ignore and when to intervene with undesirable behavior in your children? Is there a third option I’m missing?

4 Replies to “Parenting 201: Ignore or Intervene”

  1. I’ve never thought of it this way. It just feels natural to ignore sometimes and other times natural to intervene. I guess it’s a sensitivity question for intervention. Similar to what you would experience in radiology when you decide to call a Lung nodule suspicious or not. Maybe you need another scan in a few months to see if it’s a real problem. Maybe it’s clearly round, small calcified and stable. Maybe it’s enlarging, spiculated, enhancing and John Wayne pack years.
    I guess I approach your posed decision the same way. Take my experience with kids (limited) and observation of others, add some data from a few books and quality blog posts like this and make a snap reaction. I think the times I have to really take a moment to consider rather than trust instinct are when the behavior has higher risk for harm physically, emotionally etc. otherwise it’s a snap judgment like throwing to second when the double play ball is hit. You know from practice where your going with the ball, but the action is thoughtless.
    I might be a few milliseconds more mindful now that I’ve read this. Maybe that’ll be the difference. Cool post.

    1. This post was more of an analysis of process than an attempt to find what is the “right” decision in each situation. Like you, I made most of these decisions on the fly and based on a gut feeling, but I began to wonder if that was the best way to approach it.

      Who knows. I’m not even sure that parents have much influence on the ultimate outcome of their children. At least if I analyze it, I feel like I’m doing something 🙂

  2. There are many layers to the situation you were in. Some kids can be asked to not climb or come down from the pool table and they’ll do it, and others won’t. Sometimes with other kids a ‘normally well behaved child’ will push the boundaries. Especially if your nephew has development differences, his parents may ignore behaviors, and your son may use mimicry to see what his boundaries are.
    We had family friends growing up, and called them our cousins, their parents – aunt & uncle. One of the twins had development delays and often ‘got away’ with more. I saw my (younger) brother and sister act differently when we would visit. (I was 10 when the twins were born, so 12-14 as they worked out their independence. ) But we would also all see what we could get away with when friends were over or at friends’ houses. There was no pooping outside in any of the scenarios, thankfully.

    I like your insights.

    1. Thanks Jacq. I don’t think anyone would deny that every household and every child is different. For this reason, I think most “parenting” books are BS. What is a perfectly effective discipline technique in one child may be woefully ineffective or even harmful in another. It’s hard to know until you try it.

      Parenting is hard 🙂

      Dr. C

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