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Does Child-Centered Parenting Damage Kids Psychologically?

By: Joe Newman

I was excited to see not only Julie Gamberg’s article railing against my time-out blogs, but also the ensuing conversations. She did a good a job of capturing the sentiments of the child-centered parenting movement, and in so doing laid open its many fatal flaws.

Yes, time-outs ARE the new spanking! Parents are now giving children consequences without violence and judgment. Is this supposed to be a bad thing? It’s clear that Ms. Gamberg thinks it’s not enough to take the violence and judgment out of consequences, she thinks we need to take the consequence out of consequences. She attempts to take the conflict and struggle out of life –the effect out of cause and effect –which simply isn’t possible, even for children. Conflict and struggle are natural parts of life, without which children cannot develop into healthy adults.

The sentiment Ms. Gamberg conveys (and I must speak to the sentiment since she offers very little in terms of concrete solutions) is that parents must, at all costs, protect children from struggles and difficulty. I say, to do so is to create children who are psychologically feeble, have difficulty with intimacy, lack self-discipline, and grow up to be unhappy adults.

Words and compassionately given moral lectures are not the same as consequences. If the result of every behavior is the same warm, comfortable, loving talk, how will your child come to understand she can’t have everything she wants? That her needs and desires will often conflict with the needs and desires of others? Or even, where the child ends and you begin? In fact, these gentle lectures, with their subtle use of shame and guilt to influence behavior, are more coercive and manipulative than the non-judgmental, honest consequence and acknowledgment of the child’s independence that I advocate.

When did Ms. Gamberg lose all faith in her child’s abilities to survive even a minor difficulty, struggle, disappointment, or loss that comes with a one-minute time-out? Doesn’t she know that patronizing and the low expectation she communicates do more damage to her child’s self-identity than a thousand time-outs? Handle your children as if they have very little capacity to deal with life’s natural ups and downs–its causes and effects –and they will develop very little capacity.

Parents must learn to allow their children to experience the consequences of their actions, to coach them through difficulties, rather than work to remove them. Otherwise, they will learn this on the schoolyard, in the classroom, in relationships, and eventually in the workplace. And none of these will be as loving, wise, and nonjudgmental as the parent might have been.

Ms. Gamberg’s article shows a superficial, pop-psychology understanding of child development, offers no real solutions for parents with willful children, and ignores the mounting evidence that shows the dangerous results that come from the kind of child-centered parenting she advocates. And while she might be forgiven for reaching some of her conclusions based on the way time-outs are used on Supernanny or Nanny 911 (both of these programs pair the use of time-outs with moralizing lectures, shame, and guilt, i.e. “the naughty spot”), she’s negligent in not recognizing the big difference between those practices and the time-out method I advocate, which emphasizes the importance of recognizing the child’s power –without judging the behavior –while setting a firm limit.

It became clear to me while reading this tirade against consequences that the misunderstanding about child development and the methods I’m advocating runs deep. For this reason during the month of January my blog will focus on explaining child development in terms of the motivations and emerging self-identity of your child. My explanations will be grounded in intersubjective psychoanalytic theory (see Jessica Benjamin’s The Bonds of Love). Intersubjective psychoanalytic theory looks at child development with a focus on how the interactions between subjects (the child and mother, father, teacher, etc.) shape the psychology of the child.

Additionally, this month’s blog will explain how the sharp rise in behavior problems and psychiatric illness in our children can be understood as the consequence of a shift that has occurred in a crucial stage of their psychological development. This shift is a result of the fundamental change in how we raise children. How the shift affects the individual child depends on the innate characteristics of the child combined with the extent to which they are exposed to the shift.

The pendulum has swung from a priority of teaching children the importance of recognition and consideration of others to a priority of teaching them recognition and consideration of self –from an emphasis on self-discipline to an emphasis on self-expression.

The problem is, an imbalance in either direction causes unhappiness and suffering. Today’s imbalance is manifesting both in children who are harder to control as well as a sharp rise in psychological illness among our new generation. Mental illness one hundred years ago wasn’t nonexistent; rather, it manifested in various psychological “issues” that damaged a person’s ability to direct his life in an empowered and self-confident way. When the importance was placed on the connection and consideration of others, but not on recognition of one’s own needs, suffering/illness was directed inward. Today, with the importance being placed on the recognition of self and not connection or responsibility to others, people act out their suffering in their behavior, aloud, toward others.

I’m not suggesting a return to authoritarian parenting that raised children who recognized adults while they themselves were negated –far from it. Rather, it is time to demonstrate new models of interaction that can raise children with both a strong sense of their own power and a strong capacity for connection with others. Instead of child-centered parenting, let’s try relationship-based parenting. Let’s not swing from one extreme to the other; let’s move forward.

If you’re not sure of my conclusions about child-centered parenting you don’t have to take my word for it –the results are already in. Since the 1960’s our culture has moved closer and closer to child-centered parenting that attempts to replace actual consequences with self-esteem, talking, and moralizing –and look at the results…

In the last twenty years the number of children disabled with mental illness rose thirty-five fold. In the last ten years there has been a 4000% increase in the number of children diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a 400% increase in prescriptions written annually for stimulant drugs to increase attention, and a 333% increase in the use of antidepressant medications for children. The GAO, in its June 2008 report, concluded that one in every sixteen of this country’s young adults is now “seriously mentally ill.”

Add to these the startling statistics about the rise in narcissism (see Jeanne Twinge’s book Generation Me) and the freefall in our children’s academic capacities when compared to those of other first-world countries and the jury is in: child-centered parenting is a disaster!

While there are clearly a number of factors that contribute to the decline of our children’s well being (the economic shift that forced parents to work more and spend less time with their children comes to mind) I suggest that our parenting is the most significant and powerful tool to fight, or go with, this trend.

Why am I so passionate about this? Because I’m the guy who catches the casualties of this shift in parenting, teaching, and therapy. I work with the ADHD, the Bipolar, the Oppositional Defiant, the Autistic Spectrum and Emotionally Disturbed kids. After they have tried the popular parenting books on Ms. Gamberg’s list to no avail and doctors recommend their children be medicated with amphetamines, antipsychotics, anticonvulsants or SRI’s, parents come to me for real solutions.

I have too many clients already. I don’t need any more.

Joe Newman is the author of Raising Lions.


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