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‘Loving’ or ‘indulgent’? ‘Child-centred’ parenting and its implications for the child

I’ve given many talks over the years, to a wide variety of audiences but recently I’ve delivered a number of presentations specifically targeting parents of primary school-aged children. I’ve offered similar talks to schools over the years, but of the handful I’ve delivered, they’ve attracted very small audiences. It’s always a battle to get parents to attend any presentation around alcohol and other drugs (AOD), but if they do come, it’s usually when they believe their child is starting to be exposed to the issue, i.e., they’re starting to be invited to parties and gatherings or they have actually discovered that their teen is drinking. I think most parents of primary school-aged children who see an AOD talk advertised believe this is something they’re going to have to worry about in the future and brush it off, saying they’ll attend something like that when it becomes an issue. Of course, prevention is better than cure, so it makes perfect sense to get to parents nice and early and to provide them with some simple strategies that could help either prevent, or at least delay, potential problems in the future. Lay the right foundations when they’re young and parenting during adolescence will be so much easier.  Unfortunately, ‘get it wrong’ during the pre-primary and primary years, the implications for the future can be frightening, particularly when it comes to socializing and, of course, that’s where alcohol and other drug use comes in.

No-one can tell you how to parent your child, not your sister-in-law, a so-called ‘parenting expert’ or your best friend. Unfortunately, your child does not come with a rule-book – you and your partner are the only ones that can or should make those decisions. That said, there’s a wealth of research that you can use to inform your decisions, so with that in mind, here are some things to consider if you are a parent of a pre-primary or primary school-aged child.

One of the keys to getting your child safely through adolescence, particularly in relation to alcohol and partying, is ‘monitoring’ them effectively, i.e., know where they are, know who they’re with and know when they’ll be home. It’s a message we hammer home to parents of teens – keep up the monitoring. This needs to be age-appropriate and adjust as they get older. When it comes to parents of young children, however, we know that the vast majority monitor their children extremely well. So, if they’re getting the monitoring so right, where could it potentially go wrong? Essentially it boils down to a move towards more ‘child-centred’ or ‘indulgent’ parenting.

Child-centred parenting arose in response to ‘adult-centred’ parenting, which was regarded as the norm for previous generations, i.e., parents set the rules and children were expected to follow them. There was no explanation given as to why the rules existed and this was often regarded as quite ‘brutal’ or ‘top-down’ parenting. In contrast, child-centred parenting is organized around the needs of the child, rather than those of the parent. In a 2015 online article, Michael Mascolo identified three reasons why this type of parenting has become so popular with parents in recent years:

  • child-centred parents want to foster children’s autonomy, initiative and creativity, believing that “too much parental direction can undercut a child’s autonomy”, therefore adopting a less directive role
  • parents love their children and want the best for them and want to protect them from bad feelings.  They believe children need to have positive self-esteem – praising them whenever possible, often withholding critical feedback fearing that it might in fact damage a child’s self-esteem
  • some see their children as ‘little adults’ who have rights that are more-or-less the same as adults.  As such, they are hesitant to ‘infringe’ on their child’s right to make their own choices

Mascolo goes onto say – “Research shows that there is a rather large paradox in child-centred parenting.  Parents who emphasize loving care over high expectations tend to have more conflict in their homes than not.” As much as this may seem a really positive way of parenting, we know that in many cases (but certainly not in all) it often leads to a range of problems.

When it comes to socializing and alcohol and other drug use, what are the potential issues? Most parents who support this type of parenting believe allowing children to make their own decisions from an early age ensures they’re better equipped to make healthier choices when they’re older. The problem that parents are increasingly facing is that after allowing their children to make these choices when they’re in primary school (that usually don’t involve a great deal of risk), they find their teens also want (and expect) to make their own decisions about going to parties and drinking. Quite quickly these parents discover that if they want to keep their child as safe as possible, they’re going to have to have an input about what does and doesn’t happen and, of course, this inevitably leads to conflict. Put simply, if you have a home that revolves around your pre-primary or primary school-aged child and they’re having too much of a say in the decision making that takes place, you should prepare yourself for a rocky road ahead, particularly in the teen years. The good news is that if you act now, you can make a difference. Sure, you should love your kids but there’s a difference between being ‘loving’ and being ‘indulgent’.

How do you know if you’ve crossed that line and you now have a ‘child-centric’ home? If you find yourself answering ‘Yes’ to 4 or more of these questions, my suggestion is it’s time to ‘apply the brakes’:

  • Are you constantly negotiating rules with your child?
  • Do you need to ‘bribe’ them to do tasks?
  • Are their demands being met simply to ‘keep the peace’?
  • Are you not following-through with consequences because you do not want to deal with their response?
  • Are you asking the school to ‘parent’ for you?
  • Do you use their teacher as the reason limits have been set instead of ‘owning’ the rules yourself?
  • Are you allowing them to do things you do not feel comfortable with because they say ‘everybody else does’?
  • Are they never satisfied with what they have and always wants what others have, and then you give it to them?
  • Are you constantly shielding them from potentially difficult situations and emotions?
  • Do they have too much say in what your family does in daily life?

Applying the brakes, particularly as they get older, isn’t going to be easy but nothing about parenting ever is – but trying to get that balance of love and strictness right in the early years is so important and worth the effort. And to those parents who still believe that child-centred parenting is the way to go and strongly relate to the reasons that Mascolo put forward as to why many gravitate towards that style of parenting, I’ll leave you with a quote from his article that highlights the inherent flaws in that argument:

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.”

Mascolo, M. (2015). The Failure of Child-Centred Parenting. May 15, Psychology Today, article accessed 2 November, 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/old-school-parenting-modern-day-families/201505/the-failure-child-centered-parenting.

Published: November 2017

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