Authority is leadership

The TV spot for a bank showed a 30-something mother with her pre-teen daughter and friends. Instead of talking to each other, they were — what else? — both texting. The daughter was hot on the heels of some boy named Chas, while Mom was in pursuit of financial freedom. At one point, the mother became terribly excited and exclaimed (I am paraphrasing) to her daughter: “The bank is texting me about my checking and letting me know how much we have in our account.”

My husband groaned out loud. Was he in pain?

“Only existential pain,” he said as waved his hand at the screen. “I mean how much information do kids need these days?”

“What do you mean?”

“A healthy, happy family is not a democracy,” he said and changed the channel.

At first I thought it was just his formal Montana upbringing that found the new intimacy between parents and children a bit unwieldy, even awkward. In his family it would have been inconceivable for his parents to place themselves on such an equal footing with the four children. There was an abundance of love and involvement (they were all musicians and played together nearly every night after dinner), but not at the expense of a very clear hierarchy of authority. One’s mother or father was not one’s buddy.

Being from the Northeast, where people stood on stoops and yelled down to the other end of the block at dinnertime and where our emotions were as visible as our shirts, I dismissed his disapproval as an archaic remnant.

But over the course of the day, as I watched parents interacting with their children at supermarkets, hardware stores, in therapy sessions and at school yards, I began to see his perspective differently.

Parents as friends

What I saw was that most parents wanted desperately to be friends with their children. They dressed the same, talked the same, giggled the same with them, jockeyed for position to be cool or hip. No topic was out of bounds. They discussed their sex lives, their finances, their politics, and the issues they had in their social and work relationships.

I thought I would be appalled, but I wasn’t. I was embarrassed. It was a feeling not unlike watching someone leave a bathroom with her dress tucked into her pantyhose or seeing a colleague do something horribly revealing or inappropriate at a party. In those situations, I would have felt like covering my face to avoid being a witness the next day.

I took to wondering why. Why are parents so reluctant to be parents? What has happened in our culture and in our families that we are more worried about whether our kids like us than whether we properly prepare them for a life that is almost always challenging and sometimes damned unfair?

Many adults today have a difficult time with true authority. They vacillate between a laxity that is boundary-less and a sporadic struggle for power. I don’t believe there is just one reason for this. Authority for some of these parents may have been excessive, unyielding, irrational or capricious. Those people would certainly confuse authority with dominance and cruelty. Precisely because they love their children, they naturally want neither to be that way nor for their children to suffer as they did. That’s understandable. But I think it is still erroneous.

Authority for others may be antithetical to their more modern understanding of love, which is easygoing, permissive, unconditional (often in the wrong way), and blooming with constant emotional reassurance and validation. In their minds, authority says no when love says yes.

Anyone who has trained dogs knows that love and “no” are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I believe the only way to truly give unconditional love is to be able to say no, to love the person and loathe the behavior.

Still others seem to have misinterpreted biblical injunctions about authority with children. They have rejected them out of hand because they have mistakenly come to associate them with corporal punishment and shame. The most obvious interpretive error is the popular one which reads the Hebrew for “rod” (as in “spare the rod and spoil the child”) for a reed or a stick. That’s a misinterpretation. A biblical authority is not punitive. Parents are given the injunction to educate their children and to hold them accountable to the performance of all the commandments — after the children have been helped to understand them.

Authority is compassionate

It is a shame that authority has earned itself such a miserable reputation because it is perhaps the most essential element of truly effective and loving parenting. Authority can be quite kind and loving even when it is correcting negative behavior.

Nature abhors a vacuum. So do children. When parents do not provide authority, children assume the dominant position. It is not necessarily a bad thing. It is survival. Someone has to be in control.

So what is a parent to do? Start by revisiting ideas on authority. Authority is calm, sure-footed, firm, confident and compassionate. If you are tentative, hesitant, punitive or vacillating, you are giving mixed messages and can no longer be trusted to lead. Authority is leadership. Children naturally gravitate to leaders, to adults who seem to know what they’re doing. Children want someone to guide them while at the same time allow them to make mistakes and learn. Authority says: Follow me. I know what I’m doing. Authority says: I understand what you need. Authority says: I will keep you safe.

Most parents do not give themselves permission to be the boss and loving at the same time and are terribly relieved to hear that they may. So are most children.

When as a therapist I did behavioral contracts with children I always warned parents of the imminent dangers of setting new limits. “One, you may be a bit awkward at first. Be patient with yourself and your adjustment to a new role,” I urge. “Two, the better you get at it the more your child is going to test you. He is going to rebel. He may fly in the face of your authority. Stay still. Let him spin. Research has shown that there is a predictable learning curve to that reaction and that the tumult will pass — if you are consistent and maintain the authority over time.”

I have done a lot of hand-holding with parents as they experience the back draft of their newfound authority. But when it’s all done and the heat has passed, there is a new relationship to be enjoyed, one in which the parent is the parent and the child is able to relax in their loving, sure hands.

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