Little Monsters: How Child-Centered Parenting Creates Self-Absorbed Children


When we love someone, we want to take care of that person, nurture her, and give her the best that we can.   We want our loved one to feel good rather than bad.   We want to give to our loved ones and protect them from hardship and bad experiences.

A good parent, of course, loves his or her children.   Loving our children, we experience all of the feelings that typically occur when we love someone.  We want to take care of our children, nurture them, give them the best that we can. We want our children to be happy.   It is painful for us to see our children suffer; we want to relieve their suffering, and protect them from bad things and bad experiences.

Love is an essential part of parenting.   One of the most important things we can do for our children is to show them that we care – to show them that they are loved and are thus lovable.   This unshakable sentiment is part of any healthy parent-child relationship.

However, although we love our children, as parents, we also have multiple responsibilities to our children. , Our primary job as parents is to prepare our children to adapt to the challenges of life in both the present and the future.   Teaching children to face life’s challenges involves preparing them to deal with conflict, hardship and struggle.   It requires that we do what we believe is good for children, regardless of whether our children think or completely understand that it is good.   Although we do not like to see our children suffer, hardship is an inevitable part of life.  It is essential to teach children to adapt to challenges.

Sometimes, parents express their love through a single-minded effort to make their children feel happy.   Parents do this in many ways – by honoring their requests; being available to when children call; managing everyday tasks so that they are not too onerous; allowing children to make choices about things that are important to them; protecting them from strong negative emotions such as shame, guilt, embarrassment and so forth.    Doing things that make our children happy is a way of loving them.  It makes parents feel good.  We may even think that it makes our children love us back.

The negative effects of indulgence.  However, there is a word for the single-minded attempt to make children feel happy: Indulgence.   When we cater to a child’s whims, we teach the child that what he wants is more important that what other people want.   We teach the child that what he wants is more important than what we want!  This produces children who are entitled and self-absorbed (formerly called “brats”).   A child who is indulged comes to think primarily of his own needs.  This is because he has rarely been required to take the needs of others into consideration.   As a result, an indulged child comes to think of himself as special and as entitled to have his needs met.   He does not learn to be responsive to the needs of others.

Changes in narcissism over the past 25 years are unprecedented and quite real.  According to psychologist Jean Twenge, over the past decades, young people have become increasing more self-absorbed, concerned with their own desires and needs, and more focused on their own rights and concerns.   This is shown in the graph that accompanies this page.  Between the years of 1980 and 2006, scores on the Narcissism Personality Inventory have increased steadily among college students.   This inventory allows a researcher to estimate the extent to which people express behaviors reflecting an attitude of authority, superiority, entitlement, vanity, exploitation, exhibitionism, and self-sufficiency. In the span of a generation, something has happened to alter the moral focus on young people.

We might think that “giving children what they want” will make them happy.   When we imagine a loving relationship with our children, we may imagine a state of bliss.   Out of love, we give to our children, including buying them the latest electronics and clothes, and experience the pleasure of their happiness.  We hope that they come to appreciate our giving and love us in return.   However, that’s not what happens.   More typically, indulgent parenting breeds chaos.   Children who are indulged develop a sense of entitlement.  As a result, they place high demands on parents and express little gratitude.   This puts the parent in a trap.   Frustrated with their children’s ungrateful demands, parents shift between indulging children further (giving children what they want in order to placate them) or becoming angry and controlling (scolding their children out of anger and frustration, perhaps even extracting a mumbled “Thank you” from the child).   In this way, the parent who indulges his child out of love produces the opposite of what they set out to accomplish.