We are often told that it is good for parents to be “child-centered”.  The child centere movement was an alternative to what is sometimes called “adult-centered parenting”.  In adult-centered parenting, parents set the rules and children are expected to follow them.  In contrast, child-centered parenting is parenting organized around the needs and interests of the child, rather than those of the parent.

Child-centered parenting runs the risk of producing entitled, narcissistic children who lack the capacity to persevere and cope with difficulty.  This is because there is a fine line between being "loving" and being "indulgent".  

photo by kues/depositphotos
Source: photo by kues/depositphotos

Research shows that there is a rather large paradox in child-centered parenting.  Parents who emphasize loving care over high expectations tend to have more conflict in their homes than not.  This is because child-centered parenting often follows a predictable pattern.  Mom will ask Nikki to clean her room, but Nikki doesn't want to.  Out of love, mom lets Nikki put off cleaning until later.  Then mom asks Nikki again.  Nikki promises to do it later.  Finally, mom gets frustrated and screams, "clean you room right now!"  When Nikki resists (and why wouldn't she -- she's learned she doesn't have to comply with mom's requests!), an argument brews.

There are several reasons why many American parents endorse child-centered parenting.

  1. Child-centered parents want to foster children’s autonomy, initiative and creativity. Such parents often feel that children learn best when they actively discover things for themselves.  As a result, they feel that too much parental direction can undercut a child’s autonomy.  As a result, child-centered parents adopt a less directive role.  To borrow a phrase from child-centered education movement, they choose to be the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage”.
  2. Parents love their children.  When we love someone, we want the best for them.  Sometimes, parents feel that loving children means making them experience good feelings and protecting them from bad feelings.  Similarly, parents often believe that children need to feel good about themselves – have positive self-esteem – before they can be successful.  As a result, parents often try to praise children whenever possible.  They withhold critical feedback out of fear that it might damage a child’s self-esteem
  3. Some parents think of their children as if they were “little adults” who have rights that are more-or-less the same as adults.  Such parents tend to see their child more-or-less as equals.  As a result, they may feel that directing their children means imposing their values on their children.  For such parents, this means infringing on a child’s right to make his or her own choices.

While these ideas were born of good intentions, they are deeply flawed.  And while each of these ideas contains an element of truth, they are only half truths.   It is true that children are act out of curiosity, but without parental guidance, children cannot learn to go beyond their comfort zones and learn about things that do not interest them.  It is true that children need loving parents who are sensitive to their emotions, but they also need adults who teach them how to cope with hardship, struggle and failure.  And it is true that children have rights, but these rights do not make them equal to adults.

Parents need to be both directive and supportive; to have high expectations and provide loving care; to praise success but also teach children how to cope with and persevere through failure; to respect children and embrace the legitimacy of their parental authority.  Children come into the world incomplete.  They need the active direction and sensitive support of loving parents to help complete them.

About the Author

Michael Mascolo Ph.D.

Michael F. Mascolo, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts.

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