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


Parenting Styles – how should we parent?

playing children

This is the first part of the blog reflecting on the way we parent our children. It presents the wider context in which our ideas of parenting develop. It aims to help us understand what shapes and influences us as parents.

How we act as parents, depends on our beliefs and values. These are formed partly by our personality and partly by society i.e. the cultural and historical background we come from, and of course our own experience of being children.

Two major issues regarding parenting styles are: 1) parenting control; the degree to which the child is monitored, controlled and disciplined and 2) parenting warmth; the amount of emotional support and encouragement the parent gives the child.
How to combine those two ingredients in a way which is beneficial to our children? Isn’t discipline contradictory to the warmth and encouragement? Those questions bring us to the roots of our idea of parenting. It wasn’t so long ago, when the firm discipline and control were the accepted way to rear the children. Parenting then went through major cultural transformation, which brought benefits, but also new challenges. Where are we all now? Where could you situate yourself on the scales of controlling and respecting your child?

Authoritarian or Permissive Parenting?

The era of a saying ‘the child should be seen not heard’ is long time behind us. Western society went long way from one extreme idea of parenting to another. In the Victorian era attitudes formed an idea that children had to learn to be obedient, to control their emotions and their behaviour. They were to obey the unquestionable authority of parents, their matrons or carers and all adults. This fitted with wider ideas of how society was organised: in the workplace society was stratified, and authority was layered, the lower class didn’t question the higher class, and a worker obeyed the boss. Also this was the era of the ‘stiff upper lip’ – children had to learn to suppress their emotions, as in adulthood showing emotions wasn’t frowned upon. In terms of ‘parenting styles’ researched and described by psychologists*, this way of bringing up children would be called ‘Authoritarian Parenting’.
In the post-war period, and particularly following the 1960’s counter cultural revolution, we moved to the opposite extreme, which was personified by Carl Rogers Person Centred Approach to parenting. This approach drew upon Humanistic Psychology, the Human Potential Movement and the growing ideology of individualism. Rejection of discipline and focus on children’s individuality brought new challenges for parents, and adults more generally, who lost the capacity to draw boundaries and speak from a position of authority. Parenting derived from this period of social changes, can be characterised as liberal attitudes, following the child and encouraging their expression. We could call this style ‘Permissive Parenting’.
On one side we have a child deprived of expressing their feelings, and learning to control their emotions and behaviour. On the other side, a child learns to express themselves, to focus on him/herself, and who is listened and respected.

The difference between Control and Boundaries

Yet many permissive parents mixed up the issue of being controlling and setting clear boundaries. When this happens, we see children who are not happy, not nurtured but who develop narcissistic tendencies, become demanding, and most of all literally ‘cry out’ for parental boundaries which would make them feel safe and cared for.

Humanistic psychology was created as an antithesis to what was before, and the old world of institutional hierarchy and authoritarian society was rejected as a whole. We are learning today, that being completely child centred, deprives the child of the parenting it needs; it abdicates the responsibility of the parent to be a parent.
It seems we need to respond to children as individuals, yet we also need to be parents and it involves clear boundaries.

How is this synthesis happening in our homes? How do we set consistent, clear and safe boundaries, and also respond to children’s individuality?

The parenting style which addresses these issues is called ‘Authoritative Parenting’, and we will have a closer look at it in the next post.

*Diana Baumrid’s model of parenting styles, described in: Child Psychology. Development in a Changing Society, Harwood, Miller, Vasta (2008).