Child-Centered Parenting Promotes Self-Interest over Moral Purpose

self-focused child

Americans have always had ambivalent feelings about authority.   After all, the United States was founded on the principle of freedom from arbitrary authority.    The founding fathers wanted to break free from what they took to be the arbitrary authority of the British Crown.   American citizens are self-determining individuals with rights that cannot be violated either by government or by other citizens.  These rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are inscribed in the Declaration of Independence and continue structure American life to this very day.

Given their importance, it is not surprising that Americans would want to promote the values of personal autonomy, independence and self-determination in their family lives.  The child-centered approach to parenting reflects these values.  Parents who adopt a child-centered approach often view their children as individuals with rights that must be respected.  These include the right to self-determination (autonomy), the right to make one’s own choices (when ready), as well as rights to privacy, property, and so forth.  In an attempt to respect the rights of individual children, child-centered parents tend to elevate children to the status of equals or near equals.   Treating children more-or-less as equals, however, comes at the expense of a parent’s authority.  The idea that children should have a say in choices that affect them puts limits on the authority of a parent.

As a result, when it comes to issues of morality, child-centered parents can become a bit squeamish.  Valuing the autonomy of individuals, child-centered parents are reluctant to impose their moral values on others.  When dealing with children, child-centered parents tend to believe that rather than imparting a fixed system of morals onto the child, it is better to try to help children discover their own sense of morality.   In the spirit of self-determination, children should not be taught what to think; instead, parents should help children learn how to think for themselves.

For many parents, teaching children how to think rather than what to think becomes especially important within the global world.   As technology makes it easier and easier to communicate around the globe, it becomes increasingly clear that people differ in their views of right and wrong.   What one person takes to be “right” might be “wrong” from the perspective of another.   And so, for many parents, there is no single “correct” set of moral rules that can be applied to everyone.  This not only tends to make parents pause before expressing their moral values in public, it also makes parents reluctant make strong claims about right and wrong to their children.   Behaviors become “inappropriate” and “not okay” rather than “right” or “wrong”.    Rather than imposing one’s morality onto one’s children, child-centered parents believe that they should support children in their attempts to find their own ways.

The central need for parental authority.  The problem with being a “guide on the side” when it comes to moral development is that children are simply not very good at creating moral solutions to everyday problems.   A 6-year-old who is in the throes of a dispute with a sibling over a toy is not in a position to conjure up inventive ways of resolving her dispute.   Even if she were, she would be poor at putting her solution into action.  Besides, moral behavior is not so much a matter of putting “rational thinking” into action (e.g., “You take half and I’ll take half”) as it is a matter of experiencing moral feeling.  Doing the right thing often requires cultivating feelings of empathy, sympathy and compassion for others.  Still further, avoiding doing the wrong thing is often a matter of experiencing difficult emotions, including feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment and even fear.  These types of moral emotions arise only when parents are active in enforcing moral standards.  They are not experiences that develop on their own.  Protecting children from such feelings is tantamount to inviting wrongdoing.

The idea that one should not impose one’s moral beliefs onto others is something that is most relevant to interactions among adults.  Adults are equals as they attempt to convince each other about the pros and cons of any given moral issue.   However, there is danger in extending this line of thinking to relations between parents and children.   Parents and children are not equalsParents have legitimate authority over their children.  Parents gain their authority in at least two ways.  First, parental authority is legitimized by the twin facts that parents tend to know more than their children are thus are more competent than their children.  Second, and more important, parental authority is legitimized by the fact parents are responsible for their children’s development and well-being.    Thus, parents not only have a right to exert authority over their children, it is their responsibility to do so.  To fail to do so is to fail to fulfill the one’s responsibility as a parent.[1]

Without proactive guidance from parents, child-centered attempts to find self-direction in moral decision-making are likely to fail.   Instead of learning to be responsive to others, children are more likely to learn to act on the basis of self-interest – especially if parents fall into the trap of mistaking indulgence for love.

The role of parents in promoting a moral sense of purpose.  Parents are the most important sources of their children’s moral development.  For this reason, parents should not be afraid to articulate their moral beliefs and hold children to high standards.  This, of course, raises the question of what those moral beliefs should be.  Now, the moral values I have in mind are not the controversial ones.  They are of the All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten variety.  They are the moral virtues that most of us would have little problem agreeing upon.

Perhaps the most important gift we can give our children is helping them to gain a sense of who they are and who they want to be.  This long developmental process begins when children are very young but does not come to fruition until adolescence and young adulthood.  A child’s sense of purpose comes from the thousands of interactions that she has with parents, teachers and peers, especially those that have a strong evaluative or moral aspect to them.   Who am I?  What type of person do I want to be?  What type of person should I become?

A child’s sense of purpose – his or her identity – is a kind of stance.   It is a kind of position in relation to the world.  It says, “This is who I am; this is what I stand for”.   As a kind of stance, a person’s identity or sense of purpose is something that is organized by values.   Because parents are such an important source of a child’s values, parents can play an indispensible role in assisting a child in developing a sense of purpose in life.   As children grow older – and especially as they pass through adolescence –  parents can address such questions explicitly.  Who do you want to become?  What role will school, family, social life, sports, art, and community play in your life?  Who are your role models?  That is, whom do you respect most in your life?  Whom do you respect the least? What can you do to be more like those who are worthy of admiration and respect?

Every child must eventually answer these questions for him or herself.  However, to say that children must answer these questions for themselves does not mean that children must answer these questions by themselves.  Children and adolescence need the benefit their parent’s values and beliefs in their quest to create a sense of who they want to be.  Parental guidance is essential from preschool through high school and beyond.


[1] In placing conditions on the legitimacy of parental authority, it follows that a parent’s authority of his or her children would be de-legitimized if he or she were unable to fulfill his or her responsibilities as apparent.  Thus, if, for some reason, the child’s knowledge or competence were superior to the adults (which often occurs, for example, when the discussion turns to electronic media), then the parent ceases to have authority over that particular aspect of life.  Second, to the extent that a parent fails to demonstrate the capacity to assume responsible for a child’s development and well-being, the parent’s authority loses its moral basis.