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Who Rules the Roost?

Family pillow fight on bed
Photograph by Getty Images/Uppercut

When I was expecting my first baby, Gary Ezzo’s On Becoming Baby Wise was a really popular parenting book. Several people told me to make sure I read it before my baby was born. So I read it as an expectant mom who had no idea what parenting would really be like.

I also wasn’t a child therapist, a child development specialist, or a Ph.D. at the time. Even then, though, I strongly disagreed with Ezzo’s approach, as I do today with all my training and experience behind me.

But I did take away one thing from the book that has stayed with me. One of the messages in the book, as I remember it, is that parents should work to make sure that they are creating a family-centered family, as opposed to a child-centered family. And while I definitely do not endorse how Ezzo suggests parents do that, and how he defines it (I think his “family-centered” approach is very much a parent-centered approach, which some families have followed so rigidly that it’s been at serious cost to their children), I very much like the concept of being a family-centered family.

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So what do I mean when I say it’s important to create a family-centered family? It means that when a decision has to be made, the needs of all members of the family should be considered. Of course, it’s often impossible to simultaneously meet everyone’s needs at the same time—a baby needs to be held, and mom needs a shower; or a toddler needs to be comforted after a nightmare, and dad needs to catch up on all the sleep he’s been missing.

But we can always ask a simple question: Whose need is greatest?

Then, the greatest need trumps. (Note that I’m saying need, not desire, and every family will define those terms differently.)

If mom is so tired that she can’t drive safely, her need for sleep trumps, and something needs to change. If a school-aged child has an anxiety disorder and needs dad to stay at school at the beginning of the year instead of getting to work on time, something has to be done to allow the child to feel safe.

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In a family, sacrifices always need to be made. We can’t meet everyone’s needs, as they are often in conflict. So the way we decide is to reflect on which needs are most pressing. When children are young, their needs usually (but not always) trump our needs. Then, as kids get older, they are more independent, meaning their needs often become less intense and demanding, so our needs can be more easily attended to.

Being child-centric brings its own set of problems, just as being parent-centric does. So even though it can get messy and complicated, working toward being a family-centered family offers the best chance of making sure that everyone is getting their needs met as often as possible, and that the greatest needs are definitely and consistently being addressed. That’s being wise. Family wise.

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