Claiming Parental Authority

A couple throws a birthday party for their four-year old son. Mom is in the kitchen so Dad is outside minding all the little ones. By day, Dad is a powerhouse financier: Palatial office on the 500th floor, a zillion dollars at his command, underneath him an army of junior financiers who fear and respect their boss. In the world of business, Dad in short is a Master of the Universe, so for the sake of his privacy I will nickname him MOTU.

As the adults sit in the sun, MOTU’s son runs over to the remains of his birthday cake and grabs the very sharp knife that was used to cut it. Alarmingly, he then begins running around and chasing the other children with it, doing an impression of Jack Sparrow the swashbuckling pirate. The other adults turn to stare at MOTU.

Feeling their disapproving gaze, MOTU mumbles his son’s name and weakly voices some half-hearted request. He is ignored. Then a mother of another child tells MOTU’s child in a firm voice to put the knife back immediately, and he complies. MOTU is shocked, and stares at her helplessly with a look that says “How did you do that?”.

I have known a number of MOTUs, some of them socially and some of them through my work as a mental health professional. I find them puzzling in that they are generally smart and competent people who have no difficulty exercising power at work but for some reason cannot begin to exercise parental authority at home. The respected judge who can decide whether an offender goes to prison for 5 or 10 years cannot decide when her daughter should go to bed. The skilled physician who spends all day telling his patients what to eat, how to exercise and what pills to consume cannot seem to tell his children that no, they cannot have chocolate cake at breakfast.

At least three things seem to be getting in the way of these people exercising the authority that is required for effective parenting.

Exhaustion: This is MOTU’s primary complaint. He says that his 70-hour high stress work weeks leave him insufficient energy to set limits with his son, so it’s not really his fault. Although this is true of the situation as it stands, it only draws so much sympathy as a justification. A single mom who takes the bus to KFC at 5am each day to start her 12 hour shift has no choice but to be tired most of the time. But highly successful professional people such as MOTU have more ability to work fewer or different hours if work fatigue is seriously impairing their ability to parent.

Guilt: An acquaintance who is a division chief at a large hospital (Let’s call him “Dr. Yes”) rationalizes “Because I am at the office so much I see my children very little and I want to make that up to them somehow, so when I am with them I give them whatever they want”. Dr. Yes’ kids are intolerably rude and selfish as a result, to the point that other children and parents avoid their company. Thus, like the exhaustion argument, this explanation makes some sense on the surface but doesn’t survive closer inspection, because what Dr. Yes is saying essentially is “Because I hurt my children through never being around, I make it up to them by hurting them further with a destructively lenient approach to parenting”.

Confusing authority with authoritarianism: No American parent wants to be an “authoritarian”. That’s the term people apply to dictators and thugs (and bullying parents). Many parents like MOTU and Dr. Yes seem to feel that setting rules is inherently authoritarian and will damage their offspring or make them hate their parents. This is a failure to distinguish authoritarianism from authority. I use an analogy to illustrate the difference, which some struggling parents find useful:

You are on plane for a trip to St. Louis and the captain comes on the speaker as you board. He says “I know you all have bought tickets for St. Louis, but I’m flying to Chicago because I don’t care what you want”. You’d be outraged and would leave the plane in response to such authoritarianism.

Imagine instead that the pilot said “Welcome to our flight to St. Louis. We will fly at an altitude of 32,000 feet. But maybe that isn’t a good idea, what do you think is a good altitude? Also, I have been trained to do something with the flaps right after takeoff to prevent a crash, but maybe that’s a bad idea — what do you think I should do?”. Again, you’d leave the plane, even though unlike the first pilot this fellow is being incredibly solicitous of your views. You’d leave because you don’t want to make those decisions; that’s the pilot’s job. He has legitimate authority based on his expertise and knowledge and you expect him to exercise it.

Likewise, it’s frightening to children to perceive that the adult upon whom their life literally depends doesn’t know what he’s doing. When a parent seems flummoxed by the most basic setting of structure and rules, or meekly consults the child upon decisions that are properly the parent’s alone to make, the child wants to get off the plane because they have no faith in the pilot. They can’t get off of course, so they respond by being anxious, truculent, and disrespectful. In that way failure to exercise parental authority feeds itself as the child becomes more difficult to manage. On the positive side, when these parents learn to start exercising authority they are pleasantly surprised to find that their children are ultimately happier rather than sadder and appreciate their parents more rather than less.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

5 thoughts on “Claiming Parental Authority”

  1. When a parent seems flummoxed by the most basic setting of structure and rules, or meekly consults the child upon decisions that are properly the parent’s alone to make, the child wants to get off the plane because they have no faith in the pilot.

    Unlike in the pilot analogy, the boundaries of autonomy and control aren’t inherently clear and subject to cultural influence and acceptance. Is the practice of ‘arranged marriage’ properly the parent’s to make? Who decides?

  2. I don’t know much about MOTU’s. But leaving a knife lying around is just silly. Of course a kid is going to grab it.

    I think most people have trouble getting children to mind. It’s not easy. That’s why Supernanny gets the big bucks. It is a hard job.

  3. Yes to daksya and NCG. But I also want to expand the issue a little bit and propose that an awful lot of Americans are genuinely confused about what’s really good for kids. Should they exercise parental/adult authority to encourage and elicit desirable behavior and discourage or stop harmful behavior? Or should they encourage the child’s inner nature and desires to express themselves in whatever behavior manifests? Which is truer to the child’s nature? Though I haven’t read the recent book that made a brief splash on the subject, that confusion seems to underlie an awful lot of that observed difference in behaviors between American kids and French kids, and an awful lot of what I see around me when I watch the parents of kids who can control their own behaviors and kids who can’t. That confusion seems to make a hard task much harder.

  4. My wife and I once mediated a case in which two young boys discovered a father’s personal defense 9mm. handgun, along with the (non) negligently hidden key to unlock the triggerguard. One of the boys had surreptitiously surveilled his father for days to discover its location. These two boys then unlocked the pistol and began to take turns at quick draw shooting, each in turn serving as the “indian.” When all was said and done, there was no one to charge with the murder. Most of the people to whom I relate this incident respond with retrojective correction, offering up some surefire policy or method that might have prevented the tragedy. It is in this way that we invariably distance ourselves from the victims – and why this anecdote is so valuable. Until we are willing to endure the horror of the real, and our terrifying inadequacy in the face of it, we will always be the children of “inadequate” parents. Hoping without hope for MOTU to fix that which cannot be fixed, and which therefore, terrifyingly, must be shared.

  5. Of course there are grey areas in parental authority. There are grey areas in every kind of authority, except for that of absolute dictators. That fact says nothing about the non-grey areas, of which I would submit that posing a present danger to anyone who is not an adult family member is one.

    I would suggest that there’s another crucially important reason for MOTUs to abdicate (ahem) parental responsibility: fear of failure. If you use some excuse to stay out of the loop, sure, your kid may end up a disaster, but you will have a good rationization for why it wasn’t your fault. If you pitch in and try to take control (also ahem) it will be very hard work, there will certainly be some very embarrassing episodes of public failure in the process, and your kid may still end up a disaster. You don’t generally get to the top of your field by taking on projects that you’re pretty sure aren’t going to succeed.

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