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Authority: What Does It Mean?

authorityWhenever I read about different types of authority, the two extremes are always represented as authoritarian and permissive. I think that’s wrong; being permissive is an ideology, not a kind of authority. The permissive parent allows the child free reign out of a belief in the benefits for the child of total freedom, and this has nothing to do with the kind of authority they exert. Permissive parents are just as likely to resort to an authoritarian approach when they’ve had enough. (It always used to surprise me when I would ask my kids where so-and-so was, referring to a child from a permissive family, to be told ‘oh, he’s grounded.’)

The real opposite extreme to ‘authoritarian’ is weak authority, or a total lack of authority. And this is where it gets tricky, because, invariably, in all the advice from any of the ‘nice’ parenting methods (‘attachment’ ‘attentive’ ‘mindful’ etc), ‘authoritative’ is presented as the middle way, but when I read what they actually mean by that, it’s weak authority I see.

The typical advice is to try to understand the need behind the behaviour and to work things out together with the child. That doesn’t sound like authority at all to me, that sounds like a totally equal relationship where nobody has any authority over the other. In fact it sounds like fear of authority, as if we’re so worried about being authoritarian that we’re afraid to exert any authority at all.

At some point, inevitably, the Non Violent Communication method will be advised. Has anyone ever read that book? Well I have, and it’s impossible. You would have to be an incredibly highly spiritually developed person to use NVC language, and who would want to anyway? I am sure it’s really effective when you’re confronted by a knife-weilding maniac (the example always cited) but do we really want to treat our kids as if they are knife-weilding maniacs? You know, if someone treats me like that, I want to hit them.

Someone who needs that extreme level of care and sensitivity around how they are spoken to must be an absolute tyrant, and when we treat our children as if they are unreasonable tyrants they tend to believe us and grow in to the role.

This kind of no-authority-at-all authority feeds into the guilt-inducing ideal, caring, nurturing mother stereotype, and implicitly assumes that the parent (mother) has no needs or rights of her own, and has no wish to give her time and attention to anything other than her child. Because, trust me, if simple discipline involved this amount of care and attention, you won’t have time for anything else.

A true authoritative parent does not waste her energy in endless diagnosing, analysing and placating; she is confident of the right to be in authority, assumes the intelligence and reasonableness of the child, and asserts her own needs and boundaries clearly. She does not (as I have seen advised) ‘see a tantrum as an opportunity to connect’ but as an opportunity for the child to learn to manage frustration appropriately, and as a bloody irritating inconvenience. You know, like any normal human being.

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