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The problem with child-centered parenting

Updated: Sep 29, 2022



Throughout the last few generations there has been a reaction against authoritarian parenting. Many grew up in homes where it felt like it was the parent’s way or the highway. Parents insisted on standards that made little sense and did not feel it was their responsibility to give an explanation. Then along came the concepts of child-centered parenting. To many, this felt like a much more compassionate and loving way to raise a child. To understand the concept and some of the issues with it, we first must define it. Reference.com defines it as, “The child-centered approach is an application within the field of child development that allows the child to make their own choices and establish their own ideas towards promoting competent communication and learning. The approach focuses on the concept of allowing more freedom to the child, giving them the ability to use their own individual approach.” The idea is to promote individuality and creativity. Who would be against that? According to an article on northshorefamilies.com, here are some key points behind the concept:


  • If we want self-directed children, we should let our children direct themselves. Too much direction will squelch a child’s inherent initiative and creativity.

  • If we want our children to be active learners, we encourage them to explore the world and make their own discoveries. Too much direct instruction robs children of the opportunity to think deeply and make their own connections.

  • If we want children to feel good about themselves, we should praise their initiative, effort and accomplishments. We should avoid critical feedback that can diminish a child’s confidence or self-esteem.

  • If we want children to develop their own moral compass, we should encourage them to think for themselves about what makes something right or wrong. Different people have different beliefs about right and wrong. To take a hard stand on moral issues runs the risk of imposing moral standards onto children, who must ultimately develop their own thoughts about right and wrong.


This line of thinking is appealing because it seems like it will be way less work for the parent. No stand-offs with a two year old. You just let them figure it out. Surely, they will eventually learn that the way they are acting doesn’t work well in culture. Just ask them to think through if this is the type of person they want to be. In the long run this approach is not less work, and it only postpones the stand-offs to a phase when the stakes are much higher.


But what does the Bible say about this idea? Is this the best way to raise a child according to our Creator who knows us and loves us? Well, first of all, there are some positives in some of these points. So let’s look at those before we get to the fatal flaws. We do want our kids to be able to think for themselves, but within the context of biblical truth. If we are simply dictating and enforcing expectations, we are not training their hearts with principles that can be applied to any situation. We must first give them the foundation to think from. Also, it is possible to be so critical that we hurt the child’s view of self. Again, there is a balance here that must be discussed, so we will come back to this one as well.


Proverbs 22:15 (NIV) says, “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far away.” This passage is a key reason why we cannot allow our kids to just direct themselves. The verse points to the doctrine of the inherent sinfulness of every person because of the fall of mankind in Genesis. Humanism says that goodness is in all of us and if it is fostered and encouraged it will just come out. The Bible tells us that we are now sinful creatures, and if there is not parental and ultimately Gospel intervention the things that will come out of us will not be good. Therefore, a major problem with allowing your child to set the tone and figure out things for themselves is that it does not make sense with reality (if you believe that reality is defined by God). This verse tells us that children are predisposed to foolishness. Left to themselves they will pursue directions that will only lead to trouble. Therefore, we are told that the parent must intervene. No matter what you feel about spanking, there is no doubt that the second half of the verse seems to indicate that parents should work tirelessly to push the foolishness in the hearts of their children away. The language makes it sound as if “folly” is a scary enemy that could greatly harm your child, so you should do all you can to get it away from your kids!


Over and over, the Bible is clear that children need direction and even discipline from their parents (Eph. 6:4, Prov. 22:6, Prov. 13:24, Deut. 6:6-9, Eph. 6:1, Deut. 11:19) . There is a reason God gave them parents. You are not just there to feed them and clothe them until they figure out how to relate. You are there to love, direct, discipline, encourage and train. Proverbs 29:15 says (ESV), “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.” If you leave it up to the child to figure it out, it will not go well. But a couple of verses later we are told, “Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart (Prov. 29:17 ESV).” This shows us is that putting in the hard work of training, and directing, and disciplining your child will most likely put you in a position of being able to rest and not worry about who he or she has become. Whereas, not taking that approach will most likely put you in a position of regret. Why? Because, on their own, children do not gravitate towards righteousness.


When parents follow a child-centered approach, the child becomes the center of the family (That gets complicated when you have more than one). The family will run themselves ragged to entertain the child. The child will be placed above the marriage. The child’s feelings are first and foremost. The child’s feelings are more important than his actions. This often plays right in to their sin nature. It can cause them to become more and more selfish. They begin to expect the rest of the world to revolve around them. This will make it hard for them to stay on a sports team because the coach has other players to worry about and can’t revolve everything around one person. It will make it hard for them to keep a job. It could even make it hard for them to stay married. It will also cause others to not enjoy being around your children, which is itself an ethical issue. Why should your child be allowed to act however they want and frustrate whoever they want? It is bad for the development of the child because it gives them freedoms and choices that they are not mature enough to handle. The child’s happiness is placed above his holiness. Interestingly, when a child is taught how to have a strong relationship with the Lord, and they are taught to think through how they live from a biblical perspective, self-esteem will not likely be a problem.


Here’s some practical takeaways from what we have just seen:


  • Ephesians 6:4 says, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” Parents should seek to offer the reasoning behind their decisions and expectations. They should not be harsh with their children when disciplining them, keeping in mind that the goal is to bring understanding and change. Much of what the child-centered approach is reacting against is legitimate. In many cases parenting models of the past were too harsh and authoritarian.

  • We must train the heart while we enforce expectations. We aren’t just seeking external compliance, we are seeking heart change.

  • When kids are younger they only understand consequences. You can’t reason with a two year old. It is our job to direct them and correct them. Many times that comes through consequences. They first must understand that certain actions do not lead to a good outcome. They are not old enough for the freedom to make their own choices. They earn that freedom by showing that they are gaining wisdom.


You are the parent. You have way more experience than your child has. They need you to direct them away from the folly that is inherently bound up in their hearts. The more you take on that role up front, the more peace and joy there will be later.

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