Why Child Centred Parenting Is Not What Our Children Want… Or Need

People are often surprised to learn, that although I advocate for gentle, peaceful and natural parenting, I do not advocate for child centred parenting.

Child centred parenting is the phenomenon of primarily filling your time with activities specifically for the child, along with asking them for direction and allowing them to choose what the whole family should do.

Perhaps confusingly, I do believe fully that a child has the right to freedom of choice, but the key difference I see in child centred parenting is that the scales are tipped in a vastly unbalanced way, often giving the child the control over the choices of the entire family and setting them in the place of the “leader” of the family.

This is another major difference between Continuum families and Attachment parents, and although I consider myself both, child centred parenting is something I see far more of in the AP world.

So what is the harm in child centred parenting?

Well, as Jean Liedloff famously wrote in The Continuum Concept:

…his main business is to witness the actions, interactions and surroundings of his caretaker adults or children. This information prepares babies to take their place among their people by having understood what they do. To thwart this powerful urge by looking inquiringly, so to speak, at a baby who is looking inquiringly at you, creates profound frustration: it manacles his mind. The baby’s expectation of a strong, busy, central figure, to whom he can be peripheral, is undermined by an emotionally needy, servile person who is seeking his acceptance or approval. The baby will increasingly signal, but it will not be for more attention: it will actually be a demand for inclusion in adult-centred experience.”

To be child centred is not a natural way to parent. Traditionally, children have grown up surrounded by productive adults, role models for life. They have observed the work we as adults do, imitating and joining in, as and when they choose. The adults have not been child centred – to do so would be disastrous for their survival, they simply did not have time to forego the work they needed to do, in favour of child centred activities.

For parents who have always struggled at the modern, child centred parenting groups, feeling inauthentic and squashed by sitting in a circle, watching their child play and feeling the need to commentate on their every movement, there is a good reason you feel this way and it is not because you are no good at this parenting thing! It is because child centred parenting is not natural.

It always confuses me to hear of parents “needing” to use the TV as a babysitter so they can do the housework or cook some dinner. The very activities the child would get the most out of being a part of are done when they are not around to see them. Instead, parents throw themselves into the role of chief entertainer, taking them to child centred groups, asking constantly what the child wants to do, and playing with them, becoming involved in all their games all day long. It is no wonder they have no time to do the tasks they really need to do and end up utilising the TV to be able to cook dinner.

Meanwhile, the children, ill equipped to deal with this level of attention and focus directed on their every action, demonstrate their discomfort in a variety of ways. They become dissatisfied with everything, never impressed or engaged for long. They demand more and more, desperate to learn where the limit lies, how far the parent will go. They become unable to entertain themselves and struggle to play independently. The situation is stressful and unfulfilling for everyone involved.

What children really crave is to observe and be free to become involved in real life activities. This is not to say that playing with your children in itself is harmful. Not at all – It’s about balance and it is about the way play is approached. Are you doing it for fun, to build a connection and enjoy each others company, or are you doing it out of a sense of duty, resenting the feeling of being controlled by your child and worrying about all the things you still have to get done? There is a big difference, and if you feel it, believe me when I say, they can feel it too.

Don’t be afraid to step back, to ask them to do it alone and most importantly, to include your children in real life activities that will benefit them the most. Don’t be afraid to be the role model for life that they need you to be.

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What are your thoughts on child centred parenting? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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13 thoughts on “Why Child Centred Parenting Is Not What Our Children Want… Or Need”

  1. What about the kids that refuse to play independently? My little one (21-months-old) has always constantly needed my attention. Even as a newborn I couldn’t leave the room to go to the bathroom without him crying. His pediatrician was shocked by how early he developed stranger anxiety. I try to encourage independent play while I’m getting tasks done, but he pulls at me and cries after only a short time if I don’t stop what I’m doing and go to him. I think he is getting better, but he seems to want me involved in every aspect of his day. Today he was playing in his new water table and I was thumbing through a magazine while sitting nearby. After a few minutes he came over and started pulling at me to come over and play. If I gently tell him he can go ahead and play and I will sit and watch (or something similar), he gets upset and pulls even harder. Help!

    1. This article may give you some ideas for encouraging independent play – http://loveparenting.org/2013/02/12/how-to-encourage-toddlers-to-play-independently/ It is not always easy, but toddlers are fascinated with the things we do. If you can involve him in the work you are doing and work side by side rather than separately, he will have less reason to attempt to get your attention and pull you back to what he is doing. He can wash bowls at the sink while you cook, sweep the floor or help you to sort the laundry. It takes time to demonstrate expectations and change the way you have been doing things, but toddlers are fast learners!

  2. I aim for a mix. We do have some activities specifically for Monkey (like playgroup and kindy gym), and I try to involve him with ‘adult’ tasks like cooking, dishes, laundry and vacuuming as much as I can (even though it makes them take significantly longer!).

    The thing I struggle with is that my actual money-earning work is all on the computer – there’s nothing for him to see, help with or emulate. So I try to just do that while he’s sleeping, but sometimes there just aren’t enough hours! So what do you do then?

    1. It’s important to remember that computers are not natural, and sitting around watching a parent stare at a screen is very unstimulating for a child and leaves them feeling frustrated. My work is also mostly done on the computer and I have found that it is too much to expect my son to wait while I get on with it in this way. He needs something more to imitate, and so I tend to do my writing on paper first. This is something he can more easily understand and copy, and he enjoys drawing in a notepad of his own while I write, or playing nearby. The typing up and remainder of my work I do when my husband is home so I can go upstairs alone and get on with it, or after my son has gone to bed. Computers are boring to watch, yet fascinating for a toddler to try to understand, and I have found that my son wants to press buttons, see the screen and is unable to give me the space to work when I try to use it around him. It is only to be expected, so to avoid a stressful situation for all of us I try to avoid it.

      1. Oh yes, Monkey loves to press the buttons!!

        It’s impossible to do any part of my work without a computer – I write software. So I shall continue to wait for the sleeping times! It’s really the only way.

  3. I have to admit that I am beyond relieved to hear this bit of news!! I have read countless books on parenting, child phychology, development, etc. and not one has made this statement.
    I have lived with an astronomical amount of guilt, since becoming a mom 13 years ago, because I have life of my own that also needs tending to!! I have mostly worked from home, running my own riding school and stable, and have schlepped my kids around outside in all kinds of weather, 365 days a year, caring for the horses, and many other animals.
    I have felt like the worst mother in the world for subjecting my children to this lifestyle, even though my heart tells me that this has been the “norm” since the dawn of time!
    I have had family tell me that this lifestyle is not good for my kids, and my oldest daughter will tell anyone who will listen, that she hates this lifestyle! She will not lift a finger on this farm, and claims that she wants a “normal” life….one that involves going to the mall every weekend, getting mani/pedis, and every other self serving entertainment that she believes is the life she was meant for….which is the exact opposite of our life!!!!
    I can now see that her distorted views, quite possibly, are the result of comparing her life, with her friend’s….friends who were more than likely raised by child focused parenting.
    Kids who believe that it is their God given right to be constantly entertained and amused, if not by their parents directly, then by their parents credit cards.
    I suppose that I should now wonder what the heck I did wrong, that she was raised on my back, on a farm, and all of the benefits of this lifestyle have eluded her. She is 13 now…. I have a little miss 2.5, who is now in the same place as the 13 year old was, but I so desire this little gal to “pick up” these benefits, and love this lifestyle, but worry that the results could be the same again.
    I guess my point was that I make time, everyday, to play with the little one, because I can see that she can really only handle so much of watching me work, and then really seems to need some of my complete attention while doing her work, (play).
    This article has lifted a small amount of guilt (because we moms love to feel guilty) that I experience everyday, because I don’t spend the entire day playing with the baby, as I believed that I should. Isn’t that crazy??

    1. Honestly, it sounds like you are doing a fantastic job and creating a very interesting environment for a child to be around. I highly recommend you read The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff – The book that has been my biggest parenting inspiration. It may give you more confidence that what you are doing is completely natural and healthy for your children. Thanks for commenting!

      1. Thank you for taking the time to recommend this book. I will look for it.
        Thank you again & God bless:)

  4. I’m always sad reading things like this…because deep down I agree. But I work outside of home. So I think naturally my child wants and needs more concentrated attention than watching me cook. We do ok doing together sometimes. Actually much better now that he’s 3. When he was younger he went through “obsessed with cooking” phase…It was SO stressful!
    It helps when his father can play with him while I cook, or other way around. Coming home from work and not doing any child-centred activities just doesn’t seem right.

    1. Don’t get me wrong, we still play, especially his daddy, but it’s about finding a balance that works for everyone and doesn’t leave the parents feeling unable to do their own activities as they are always so focused on what their child wants. It is about creating harmony for ALL family members.

  5. This is interesting. I’ve tried to take a “homeschool” approach to raising my son that leaves me as the person guiding child-centered activity after another. It has left me frustrated. He and I feel exactly as you’ve described and I appreciate this perspective. I definitely have relied on the t.v. to get things done, and for the exact reasons you describe. I’m on your site as a part of a search for some new parenting models and I’m glad I’ve found this.

  6. Nicely said, thank you. We made big mistake being too much child centered with our first daughter – we noticed as early as when she was 1.5 years old that it is not good and since then we are trying to change it with little or no success (she is 7 now). But with our second one this things just come naturally without making effort. We are spontaneously not child centered, she is more self sufficient since birth. I found it hard with the first one, being AP and SAHM not being child centered, despite all the theory (and despite having read Continuum Concept and got the idea how things should be). But now with two of them I feel like we’re mini tribe and everything just flows.

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