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Boss Babies: The pitfalls of child-centered parenting approach

It’s next to impossible to describe how deeply we as parents can feel about the well-being of our precious progeny.  We love and nurture our children; protect and teach them; discipline and guide them; and do countless other things that together all add up to the challenging yet incredibly fulfilling task of parenting.  And while there are many books, articles, videos, blogs that teach us how to discover and develop our parenting style, there are just as many differing opinions on what parenting style is best.

One of the more common styles in the modern-day America (and other First-World countries) is what is known as a Child-Centered style.  The term child-centrism is a relatively recent pop-culture term that serves as a general description of the approach used by those parents who are “highly involved” with their children.

“What’s the problem with that?” we might ask.  After all, wouldn’t it be most beneficial to the child if the parent WAS highly involved?  Don’t we witness countless life stories where the parents are neglectful or worse, causing us anguish and indignation?  Isn’t being “highly involved” better than those alternatives? To clarify, we’ll begin by adopting as our axiom that there is never a defensible enough reason or a justifiable enough excuse for those kinds of actions; and that the cases where the parent abandons or abuses their child are outside of the scope of our discussion.  But outside of those scenarios, placing the entire locus of your caring and attention on your offspring could also cause some damage, both of the short and of the long-term kind.

How?

If we go back to our definition, child-centrism is essentially placing the well-being and happiness of your child far above everyone else’s, including your own.  Parents who parent from a child-centric perspective focus all possible efforts and resources on their children.  This may mean financial, emotional, or social capital – or all the above.  While many parents would heartily agree that they would be happy and willing to allocate these resources toward their children, there is an important distinction here – in an abnormally child-centric family, this is done at the cost of sacrificing the parents’ own needs and preferences.  Overly child-centric families rely on their children to guide their parenting choices and actions while at the same time missing out on an opportunity to truly parent and present their child with appropriate life lessons– even those that include disappointments, compromises, failures and problems.

The Pampered Child

In her 2005 book, “The Pampered Child Syndrome”, Maggie Mamen, a therapist and an author, discusses at length how the fear of our “getting it all wrong” as parents can cause us to become disproportionately permissive and excessively focused on our own child’s approval of our actions. That, in turn, can place an overwhelming burden on the child and lead to an array of problems: mental, physical, social, and emotional. She describes one of her patients, who came to her emotionally exhausted, angry, and clinically depressed.  The patient was aggressive, violent, combative. She described her life as pointless and meaningless.  She struggled with recurring alcohol and drug abuse, frequently experiencing several blackout episodes per week; led a highly promiscuous sex life with multiple partners; had trouble with authority figures and with forming social connections.  She had just turned 13.

In her interview with the teenage girl, Mamen discovered that the girl’s parents were far from being neglectful or abusers.  On the contrary, their life revolved around their only daughter. They, as you can guess, had an extremely child-centric approach to child-rearing (what is also sometime known as “The Little Emperor” approach).  The daughter was the center of their universe, she was included in all of the family’s decisions with an equal vote (one such vote was to have her father turn down a career opportunity because it would mean a move to a neighboring town and a new school district); her every material want was covered on demand; and many other examples of how the parents’ inability to set parenting boundaries and come up with a healthy balance of guidance and respect for their daughter resulted in complete chaos in their child’s life.

The child could not tell the difference between responsibilities, rights, and indulgences and as a result self-steered toward finding the quick indulgent experiences anywhere she could find them (such as sexual encounters and drug use) – and since her parents have not established enough authority to direct her to different behaviors, the vicious circle continued until the girl suffered an emotional breakdown.

Balancing Child-Centered Parenting

However, there is good news here yet – and that is the fact that even in cases such as the one above, there are plenty of positive and perfectly usable components of the child-centered parenting philosophy which, when balanced with the right approach, will yield a positive outcome.  For example, one of the aspects of child-centered parenting is the desire for the child to be autonomous, creative and to be able to make their own decisions.  A parent can continue to foster their child’s desire for independence and autonomy and explain the parameters and boundaries that are acceptable and those that are not, within their family structure.  The final say in the matter resides with the parent, and there is no need to feel guilty if the final decision you made as a parent differs from the one your child may prefer.

Another premise of child-centered parenting is that the children are miniature adults with the same rights as adults.  While it is true that children have rights that must be respected and protected, those rights are not equal to adult rights, and the parents still need to provide guidance and structure on how to handle challenging experiences appropriately while preserving their children’s dignity and showing them unconditional love and support.

It may also be helpful to redefine who “the team and the players” are within the family, so to speak.  The parenting team may look very different across our modern social landscape – it may mean two parents, one parent, two parents who co-parent from different households, stepparents, caregivers in roles of parents – the combinations are diverse and virtually endless, but the point is that the parenting team are the decision makers and that the children are not on the parenting team.  It is important that the children understand that their parents are not their servants, or friends, or ruthless dictators, either.  This understanding will once again help reinforce healthy boundaries of love and respect.

As parents, we have an obligation (difficult though it may be to uphold at times) to serve as trusted authority figures in our child’s life and to guide them, through our (undoubtedly unpopular at times) decision making, toward helping our children become functioning and independent adults.  We can do so by showing our children our values; our belief in the importance of Family; our commitment to teaching them life skills, even the difficult ones such as disappointment or grief; our consistency and resilience; our ability to keep our word and promises; our sense of humor; our trust and pride in them.  While it may take a lot of work and effort to move from a child-centric to a child-supportive style, the long-term rewards for the entire family – and our community overall – will be infinite.

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Julia Hewitt, M.S. Psychology
Julia Hewitt, M.S. Psychology

Julia is passionate about helping others on their self-discovery path, be it with relationships, life's purpose, personal goals or simply coping skills. She believes in the power of words, thoughts and in the beauty of language. She holds a Masters in Psychology and a Masters in Organizational Leadership from the University of Phoenix as well as a Bachelors from Arizona State University, and volunteers on a teen crisis hotline.

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