Should Your Family Be Child-centered?

This is a controversial and confusing question.  Some people go on and on about how parenthood melted their selfish hearts and made them realize the importance of devoting themselves fully to making their children’s lives perfectly wonderful and completely safe.  Other people go on and on about how children are hedonistic little leeches whose spirits must be broken to show them who’s boss, and responsible parents must schedule their babies’ lives in 15-minute increments.  Then there are a lot of points of view in between.

It’s very easy, as a parent in this fast-paced society, to put a lot of energy into getting everything together for your kid and suddenly realize you’ve been neglecting yourself–or to rush around Getting Things Done and suddenly realize that you’ve been treating your child like a task on a checklist and haven’t focused on his sweet little face for days.  Where’s the balance?

Well, I can’t claim that Daniel and I have it all perfectly worked out, but in our 8 years 8 months as parents of Nicholas, we’ve done pretty well with this basic attitude: “We are all people together.  We are the same in some ways and different in other ways.  Experienced people help newer people learn how to do things.”  Nobody is the center.

This is the approach my parents seemed to be using when I was a child (I don’t know if they’d explain it in the same words) and I noticed from an early age that some other families had a different attitude.  Of course, every family is different, but I think all families could work from the basic principle that we’re all in this together and no one person is the most important.  It seems to me that whenever I wander away from this idea–either by getting dramatically self-sacrificing or by demanding that everybody take care of me–it works out badly.

Here are some of the issues parents often struggle with, and the ways they’ve worked out for our family.

Is it child-centered to allow your child to eat when hungry and sleep when sleepy?  Is it better to have a strict schedule?

Part of respecting a person is respecting her needs and helping her fill them when she cannot fill them herself.  Every member of the family deserves this respect.

Daniel needs more sleep than I do and is more sensitive to disruptions in sleep, so I do most of the middle-of-the-night and early-morning parenting to help him get the sleep he needs.  That doesn’t mean our family is Daddy-centered.

I am prone to sudden hunger that makes me light-headed and panicky, so Daniel has dinner on the table when I come home from work, and Nicholas has to accept that I sit down to eat immediately even if he wants me to play with him now.  That doesn’t mean our family is Mama-centered.

Similarly, understanding that your child needs to nap at a certain time of day or needs to eat frequently doesn’t make you child-centered; you’re just respecting her individual needs.

Nicholas was the kind of baby who can sleep through noise and light and motion, but he could not fall asleep alone until he was 6 years old.  This meant that, for our family, it was unnecessary to arrange our plans around nap time, but it was crucial for a parent to be available to lie next to Nicholas for a while every night and nap time after he got too big for us to carry him around while he was sleeping.  Our sleep strategies got more complicated as he got older because he needed our presence more than he needed structure; the specific times when he slept weren’t important until his school schedule required him to be up early.

A different child might sleep well only in a dark, quiet room, or might need to start her nap by 2:00 or else get a crazy second wind that keeps her up (but shrieking and hitting everyone) until sunset.  As you get to know your individual child, look for the factors that are truly important in supporting his health and well-being, and put your focus on working those things into your daily life–instead of getting stuck on ideas like, “Preschoolers should be asleep by 8pm.” or, “She’s too old for a blankie.”

When Nicholas was a baby, I learned to think of the day in terms of large blocks of time in which certain things need to get done, rather than small blocks when specific tasks will be done.  Between arriving home from work at 5:00 and going to bed at 11:00, I needed to wash bottles, divide milk into clean bottles, unpack my lunch bag, unpack and refill the diaper bag, prepare and eat dinner, prepare and eat my evening snack, nurse 4 to 6 times, do one regular diaper change and later change him into a nighttime diaper, provide an unpredictable amount of cuddles, and do one or more chores such as dishes or laundry or checking e-mail.  I got all this done by considering baby’s needs and mine at the moment and choosing a suitable activity to do next.  If he was very fussy and I was very hungry, I might stick the milk in the fridge for now, cuddle and dance until he calmed a bit, then put him in his swing and have my snack, waiting until after Daniel got home to take the time to fix and eat my real dinner.  If Nicholas was asleep when we got home, I’d keep him in the sling and do as much washing and cooking as possible before he woke.  There were some nights when I had to stay up late to finish everything, but most of the time being flexible about the order of events made it possible to get through all of them.  (The rule of One Thing and Three Things was very helpful in this stage.)

In my family, we all have fast and sensitive metabolisms.  While it is true that we will not die of starvation if allowed no food for 12 hours, low blood sugar makes us feel panicked and furious.  While it is true that eating the “wrong” food when we have strong feelings about what is the “right” food will not kill us, it can cause us a day or so of headache, acid stomach, constipation, or other problems.  Everything goes more smoothly for all of us if all of us are able to eat when we’re hungry and fulfill any strong food cravings.

We have tried being the “strong” parents who won’t let their child “control” them by getting a different food or an unscheduled meal, and we have found that we cannot do it.  It’s not just because his behavior is so horrible when we refuse to let him eat what his body needs.  It’s also because of empathy: “How would I feel if I couldn’t make oatmeal myself and I was looking at the oatmeal up there and being told that if I won’t eat chili I can’t have anything, when I know that my body needs oatmeal now and spicy beans would be very bad for me?”  It’s also because we want our child to be aware of his body’s needs and make intelligent choices about foods, instead of having a distorted and unhealthy relationship with food like so many Americans these days.

That said, when we have cooked a meal for the family and it’s ready to eat, Daniel and I sit down and eat, and our response to requests for different food is, “This is ready now, and we are busy eating.  If you won’t eat this, you’ll have to wait until one of us is available to make oatmeal.”  We won’t make the kid a separate food that requires elaborate preparation, only things like leftovers, sandwich, fruit, yogurt, cereal, etc.

As he becomes able to prepare his own food, he’s becoming able to get alternative food without waiting–but it’s interesting how infrequently he does that and how rarely he does it in any underhanded way, like serving himself marshmallows which he knows we would not allow him to have for dinner.  Even if he can get the food himself, he wants to negotiate it with us to get our guidance about what is or isn’t a good choice of food for this time of day, hunger level, and nutritional needs.

We had an interesting time one Saturday when Nicholas was 4 years old and woke from a late nap just as I was about to start dinner.  I told him we were going to make beans and guacamole, a meal he normally loves to eat and loves to help make, but he got very anxious: “I can’t, I can’t eat that, it’s too–watery? spicy? I don’t know how to say it, but I just can’t eat that; it will make my tummy hurt.”  I said that was fine, but the avocados were perfect and this was what I was making and he could have a sandwich.  He protested, “But no! If you guys are eating that, I’m going to eat it. Because I like it. Except today I should not eat it. But if I see you eating it, I will have to eat it.”  We talked about how sometimes you have to be around other people who are eating things you can’t eat and how we knew he could cope with that because he was routinely not allowed to eat the meat at school.  (But I was thinking: Sometimes you have to be in that situation, but sometimes you’re at home with your loved ones who could wait one day for guacamole out of consideration for you!)  Nicholas said, “If we make Honey Baked Lentils and sweet potatoes and put it all in the oven, then we can play Parcheesi while it’s baking, and in one hour we will have a nice dinner we all can eat.”  Hard to argue with that!  We had all the ingredients on hand, it would be easier than making the other meal plus something for him, and we could still make the beans and guac the next day.  So we did that, and it worked out fine.

Over the years, I’ve come to accept that Nicholas is uncomfortable eating right after awakening and uncomfortable eating a large breakfast–like his dad, unlike me–but that he will eat quite a bit in the evening and prefers to have a series of foods or even two separate evening meals.  I noticed during our family reunion this summer that he was working with the group’s schedule by eating seconds and thirds of whatever was for dinner, but that’s unusual.  During the school year, he grazes on mostly-nutritious snacks most of the afternoon, then eats a moderate amount of dinner, and often has another snack before bed.  In the summer, the snack at day camp is limited (one piece of fruit, one portion of pretzels) and he doesn’t get home until 6:15–and then he can spend the next two hours eating almost constantly!  He’ll have some dinner, then ask for dessert (ice cream or other sweets, if we have them), but right after that or not much later he’s asking for a bowl of granola, an apple, some yogurt, nachos….  Evening seems to be the right time for him to eat.  He’s growing quickly and is a healthy weight.  So we don’t try to limit his eating, except to direct him toward healthy foods and to get the eating finished before bedtime!

Is it child-centered to allow a child to interrupt adult conversation?

It takes years for kids to learn etiquette, but it’s never too early to start!  We say, “You’re interrupting.  Please let me finish.” but then we try to give him an opportunity to speak ASAP so it’s clear that waiting pays off and he will get his turn.

It took me a while to realize how important that is.  I was trying to finish the whole conversation with another adult before giving him a turn.  That’s too frustrating for a young child.  It’s better to let the other adult finish what she’s saying and then say, “Just a moment.  Yes, Nicholas?”  In this situation, I think that balancing the needs of each family member has to include acknowledging that the child has limited patience and that it’s hard, really hard, to understand all the cues that indicate a pause in which it is socially acceptable to change the subject.

To teach good manners, it’s crucial that adults respond appropriately to a child pointing out to us that we’ve interrupted him!  Daniel and I found that we were doing this way too often, mostly because we’re hurrying to get things done and want to move him along instead of listening to whatever he’s saying.  When Nicholas started calling us on it, we realized that we had not been giving him the conversational respect we expect from him.

We started using these opportunities to model the way we want him to respond when we tell him he’s interrupting: “Oh! I’m sorry. Go ahead.”  This has been hard for us because Nicholas often accuses us of “interrupting” when we really don’t think we did–and he often sounds so hostile and accusing that it would put anyone on the defensive.  It is horribly tempting to get into an argument about who interrupted whom and who used a rude voice, completely losing track of the original topic!  Furthermore, there are times when we really cannot keep listening to all the details of what Nicholas knows about badgers because it really is time to get all our stuff and go out the door right now.

Interrupting remains a very difficult issue in our family.  Daniel and I have known each other so long and think so much alike that we tend to finish each other’s sentences, which doesn’t feel like interrupting to us, but if we do it to Nicholas he gets upset.

When I’m chatting with a friend, Nicholas often thinks of some anecdote he wants me to tell the person, which I may think is incongruous in the context of the conversation–but is it “interrupting” to mention it to me?  (I’ve found that if the anecdote does suit the conversation, I’m happy to be reminded and everything’s fine, but when it doesn’t I feel very resentful of Nicholas for “telling me what to say”!)

We’re working on it.  My point is that learning the skills of conversational timing requires understanding that all people deserve respect.  Viewing the interaction as “centered” around a child’s need to be heard right away always because he’s a child so we can’t expect better, or as “centered” around the need for adults to ramble on without interruption no matter what a child needs because we are adults and therefore more important, isn’t helpful in the long run in raising a person who can navigate conversations politely.

Is it child-centered to do “kid stuff” as a family?  Is it better to do only things that are designed for adults?

Popular culture offers lots of movies, music, toys, activities, and food products aimed specifically at children.  I see some parents assuming their child has to have separate everything and couldn’t possibly use adult dishes, chairs, pencils, bedding, hand soap, laundry detergent, bandages, whatever–they always “have to” buy the product that’s specifically for kids.

For the most part, this is a marketing gimmick designed to get consumers to spend more money.  The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz (book review here) includes a fascinating analysis of how niche marketing has divided American families.  I’d much rather share my life and my stuff with my child.  I feel like he’s more a member of the family that way.

However, that doesn’t mean “kid stuff” is bad!  Adults can watch “Sesame Street”, sing silly songs, play games, climb on playgrounds, read children’s books, and so forth–with or without the company of children.  Kids can enjoy things that are aimed at adults, within reason.  We each have our preferences, and one of the fun things about living in a family is being exposed to the new stuff and ideas the other people bring home from their forays into the outside world.  We can share these things as a family, whether they’re “for kids” or “for grownups”, and enjoy them together.

But!  They are only little for such a very short time!  Why not let kids be kids and give them their chance to be the focus of everyone’s adoration?

Because we’re not raising a child; we’re raising a person.  We want him to think of himself as a person and to understand adults as people, too.  We don’t want him to look back on his childhood as the short time when everything was perfect before it all went to hell.  We want this to be just the first phase in a long life full of fun and enjoyment, in which he’ll be adored and adoring, cared for and caring, respected and respectful, all at the same time.

Yes, he is eight years old right now, and this is a precious time.  He was never eight before, and he’ll never be eight again.  I am savoring every moment!  I remember being eight, and I savored that, too, but not because I was the center of everything.  I may have looked cute and small, but I was life-sized, and the things I learned about myself and the world then are still with me now.  It worked for me!

2 thoughts on “Should Your Family Be Child-centered?

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