Parental Authority – out of fashion?

Authority needs to be imaginative, If you become authoritarian, you loose your authority’, Simon Western.

The dirty word

There is a problem with word ‘authority’. As said in a previous post, Authority is very often associated with the Authoritarian Parenting, characterised by little warmth, huge control, and harsh, punitive discipline*. In this light authority seems to be the tool of devil and many parents would be inclined to claim authority free parenting, and set up standards for Permissive Parenting – a warm and highly accepting style, employing reason rather than force, and indifferent about applying parental discipline.

The Parental Authority figure

Whether we like it or not, a child sees their parents as an authority figure, as this is part of developmental process. Usually parents are the main point of reference for infants, the first significant ‘others’ in children’s life, their first role-model of how the world is organised. Children carry parents in their minds and use those images when engaging in all further relationships and decision-making. In this sense, our way of caring, our values and beliefs are consciously and unconsciously the strongest of influences on our children. It is not to say that we have a full control on what we pass onto our children, other social factors also occur. Yet parents are always an authority figure to the child, as the child is always influenced by the parent… they carry parental authority whether they choose it or not. The question is how do they use this authority?

The need of authority

What is also missing in the polarised picture, represented by authoritarian and permissive parenting is the notion that children need authority to feel safe when learning and exploring the world. Applying parental authority with confidence, clarity and love provides firm, safe and consistent environment, which is the basis for children to develop.
Children are their carers’ dependant, which is not an equal relationship. It involves the use of power to make things happen. This is parent’s task to make children do or not do something, draw clear boundaries, lead actions and use their power – for children’s own safety and benefit. Put in practical context of basic needs – it is parents’ responsibility to feed children, keep them safe, warm, offer emotional security and encouraging conditions for learning.
Big part of children’s learning happens through testing, pushing boundaries, through challenging parents’ power. The hope is that through this process children learn to understand the sense of boundaries, and learn to create their own boundaries, for their own safety and benefit.
For example, it is expected from the very early stage of life, that children will be trying to break the rules, do the things which they want to, regardless parents prohibition. But provided with very clear and consistent message from parents – regarding what is right and not right – they are also expected to recognise their own benefit in moving within the boundary, and be able to take care for themselves.

Authoritative Parenting

Drawing boundaries and providing a consistent discipline is part of the safe and pro-developmental environment. The other part, equally important is emotional warmth and support. There is no right and wrong way, no absolute rules, the challenge is that as parents we must find our own way, taking account of each child’s individual needs and personality. Each parent has their unique styles of applying parental authority, and different children have unique responses and needs. The task for parents is to navigate the child’s needs whilst not avoiding their parental responsibilities.

According to the Baumrind’s model of parenting styles* these are the characteristics of Authoritative Parenting, which is claimed to be the most beneficial for children. The following lists presents the main elements of the style:

  • is accepting of child; displays frequent expressions of affection
  • sets high standards for behaviour
  • maintains consistent discipline and limit setting
  • employs reason rather than force
  • listens to child’s points of view

What is your baggage?

We all differ in a way we speak from the position of power. The way we enact authority is deeply rooted in our history of relating to important others. This why, when learning to take up the authoritative role as a parents, it is important to explore some of those topics below:

    1. what emotional reactions do you notice in yourself
      when trying to set boundaries for your children or telling them to do something?
    2. how do you look and sound like when speaking from your authority as a parent (for example talking about crossed boundaries)?</
    3. who was your first or most important authority figure?
    4. what emotional reactions did this important person evoke in you when speaking from the position of power (i.e. telling you what to do, telling you off)?
    5. what similarities can you point between you and your first authority?
    6. what differences can you point between you and the authority?

*from the model of parenting styles by Baumrind, described in: Child Psychology. Development in changing society

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