02/27/2011 11:45 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Pitfalls of a Child-Centered Family

I talk to many parents who experience difficulties because they make decisions on the basis of what their children want instead of what is good for the family unit. These parents say they're too busy to take care of themselves (e.g., taking time to get exercise) because they're always driving their kids from place to place. They are loath to inconvenience their children by dropping them off at their grandparents' so they can take a long weekend for themselves. They avoid getting their kids upset by insisting that they get rid of old toys in an overly cluttered, messy room. They tolerate cell phones at the dinner table. In short, they operate on a child-centered basis.

These parents believe, "I should do whatever it takes to make my children happy." Ironically, many children whose parents hold this belief grow up to be less happy than others. They don't learn to respect and honor the needs and desires of other people. They believe the world owes them something. They get easily frustrated when thwarted. They handle disappointment poorly. They expect that everything should go their way.

A more adaptive belief for parents is: "If I want my kids to be happy, now and in the future, I need to help them function within a good family unit." The latter includes giving children responsibilities and chores, from as young an age as possible. Even three-year-old children can learn to put their own toys away. Most four year olds can clear their places after a meal. Five year olds can put their folded laundry in the bureau. And when they're a little older, they can help the household as a whole, for example, by taking turns to help in cooking or cleaning.

Functioning within the family unit may mean allowing children to be temporarily unhappy because it is sometimes more important for their parents to go for a walk than to play a game. It may mean letting children take other modes of transportation instead of insisting that a parent drive them wherever they want to go. It may mean trying to do their homework by themselves without depending on parental help.

Functioning within the family unit also means that children learn they are entitled to their negative emotions but may need to calm down (they may need to be taught self-calming techniques) so they don't take out their unhappiness on others. Once they are in a better frame of mind, they can approach their parent for help in solving the problem.

Parents need not, and should not, sacrifice their needs (and some of their desires) for the sake of their children. They should be able to make decisions based on what is good for individual family members, including themselves, and what is good for the family as a whole. Trying to overly please children will get the family in trouble, sooner or later.