Sometimes parents will pretend not to notice kids doing things they shouldn't: why might you do this and when is it a good idea?

My experience has been that things go much better when parents set clear boundaries. If it's sometimes ok to pick the flowers and other times you get told to stop, there's a lot of trying to figure out what makes these particular flowers or this particular time different from others. Some complexity is unavoidable (you can't pick flowers from the neighbor's garden, you can pick all the dandelions you want) but a parent who's not thinking about it can accidentally make things harder for their kids by being inconsistent (only sometimes stopping them from picking flowers that shouldn't be picked, not making up their mind about which flowers are ok).

With very little kids, what matters is what happens when they try to pick the flower. If you don't stop them, that's some information about what's ok; if you do, it's some information about what's not. Kids who are a bit older are smarter though: they care about whether you've observed them. Picking a flower without objection while being watched is a signal that the flower is fine to pick, but picking a flower while not being watched doesn't actually tell you very much about what's ok. It does tell you a little: it's probably not so hugely bad to pick flowers that a sensible adult would continue supervising. But mostly they understand to only update their model of the boundaries the adult is enforcing when the adult is paying attention.

Which means, very occasionally, you might want to pretend to not observe something. If they believed you'd seen it, you'd need to enforce the boundary or they'd think it had changed. But by pretending not to notice you can give them close to "no signal", as if you weren't there at all.

For example, let's say you have been enforcing a clear "no hitting" rule, and your kid hits an older kid, someone mature enough to stand up for themself. With the boundary you had been enforcing you would need to step in, but, if they both believe you didn't see, they can get practice in resolving their dispute independently ("Don't hit me!") or at least in bringing their concern to you ("Alex hit me!"). This could be part of a process of moving away from a toddler's "hitting is not allowed" to a Kindergartener's "hitting is not allowed, but try to work it out on your own first".

The most blatant forms of this stop working in, maybe, early elementary school, once they get smart enough to either put together patterns of when you don't seem to notice things, or learn what you look like when you're pretending not to notice. You probably can't actually give no signal to a sharp-eyed child; I know I can't. And it stops working earlier the more you do it, because they'll have more chances to learn your patterns.

I don't like that it involves misleading them slightly, but doing it occasionally in ways that help them grow seems positive on balance.

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Another example would be when you are out somewhere that a third party has posted rules which don't make sense. I don't want, as a parent, to actively say "when you are using someone else's space you are free to ignore their rules if you think they are stupid and you aren't imposing large costs on others" but sometimes that's the actual line I want to take. Not noticing that my kids are breaking a rule I think is dumb is a way to thread that needle.

Eventually I would want to be explicit about this, but you're right that there's an age at which a kid is old enough to use your approach and being explicit would get you into "But Papa said if I think rules are stupid I can ignore them!"

Also there's some slippage here -

A - Kid can ignore rules if I, Dad, think the rules are stupid (among other considerations)


B - Kid can ignore rules if she, kid, thinks the rules are stupid (among other considerations)


It's hard to be explicit about A without implicitly giving permission to do B, which I don't want.

This is the same as a bit of classroom management advice I got when I was learning to teach. If you plausible didn't notice something you can ignore it if you want to, but if the students know that you know something happened then you have to respond.

For example, maybe students aren't supposed to use their phones during class, but so many students try to sneak in a text or something that you'd be stopping the lesson every 5 minutes to fuss at a student (and excess fussing can make you seem ineffectual at enforcing the rules because people keep ignoring you). So you can do things to prevent yourself from noticing students playing on their phones. When you notice you'll have to act, but if you keep your back turned to them while you write on the board, look away from where the student whose on their phone is, etc. then you don't have to respond every time. You can still respond often enough that it's clear the rule is in force, but not so often that you can't get on with teaching while one student ignores you.

Also TBH, sometimes you don't have the energy to step in, or you find what they're doing really cute or funny, or sometimes you're just interested in what will happen. Not noticing let's you out of having to step in and enforce the rules.

Some other tricks: 

  • Pretend not to notice but every now and then respond anyway as if you could notice more than it seems. I think this is how my ex-wife got the reputation of knowing, seeing and hearing everything.
  • Look away in a way that makes it clear that you are looking away intentionally, e.g., by turning away very obviously, or making some noises about it. This can be used to teach that some things are borderline, or private, or something else. The stronger version of this is leaving the room and letting them figure out a problem on their own.

I use a version of this second strategy as a pedestrian when drivers are waiting for me to cross when I don’t have the right of way. Often the safest and fastest thing is for them not to have stopped (since they block visibility, are acting unpredictably, and don’t have control over other vehicles on the road). If you don’t acknowledge them, they are more likely to continue on their way faster

If I want to make it clear that cars should continue I turn my back to the road

There are a couple of cases I can think of:

  • obfuscation to prevent easy gaming the rules
  • poorly set boundaries that are impossible to enforce without excessive effort and with questionable benefit

Both of these seem bad to me? Are you trying to describe why you don't think this strategy applies?

The first one is actually a reasonable strategy. You don't want to make adversarial exploitation  easy. Scott had a post about it, I think. The second one is indeed bad, but most parents set the rules without first thinking through whether they are reasonable.

The first one is actually a reasonable strategy. You don't want to make adversarial exploitation

I think this is mostly not true for very little kids? You're teaching them very simple rules (don't go in the street without holding hands) and you do want them to test the boundaries and learn exactly what is and is not allowed.

most parents set the rules without first thinking through whether they are reasonable.

Agreed this is bad, and if you notice you're doing this then "come up with a better strategy for rulemaking" (advice) is a lot higher priority than "get better at avoiding needing to enforce your rules".