Last week, in the post, “Benefit of the Belief“, I brought up the idea that although we parents are the “authority figures” in the family, part of our parenting job is helping our kids become “authorities” on themselves. A lively discussion ensued, which I think was edifying to all involved (and hopefully for some lurkers as well). But over the course of following days and other discussions, I have begun to feel as though I might not have been clearly understood originally. So, in an effort to be as precise as possible and at the risk of being utterly redundant, I am going to revisit the subject of the two kinds of authority in the home (and respecting both) today.
Last week, to illustrate the two different definitions of authority, I wrote: “It’s an interesting word — authority — meaning both an aspect of one’s power over another, and (sometimes though not always simultaneously) also a description of one’s prowess or knowledge in a certain subject area or practice.” And I’d like to highlight here, that although these two can become one, they are not the same thing, by any means.
On the one hand, in parenting our children, we are undoubtedly the “authority figures”. There’s no getting around it — call it karma, luck, divinity, or grace — we were born to be the grown-ups with our particular children this lifetime. And simply that birth position — us first, then our kids — means that we have to look out for, and take care of, and teach, and guide, and curb, and when necessary, yes, restrain, remove, and bar the little ones who came from, or were given to, us. But more on that in a minute…
On the other (and sometimes totally unrelated) hand, in raising children, there are at least two authoritiesª in any given interaction — two experts, two people with “knowledge in a certain subject…”, which in this case is the child. One of them is hopefully the parent — who, based on experience and presence of mind and genuine interest, “knows” the child and what he likes and what he usually wants and needs, etc. Hopefully the parent knows something about how she wants to be with him. Hopefully she has some kind of information upon which to base her understanding of what her child is experiencing as he develops. In this sense the parent is “an authorityª on her own kid”.
The second expert in the room is, of course, the kid.
Don’t believe me? Well just who is it that, barely out of the womb, was able to clue you in when you still didn’t have it quite right? Who is it that taught you everything you know about the child in front of you? Our kids bring so much of who they are with them that we can learn a great deal about how to best help them (and ourselves) by just listening to them, watching, noticing, and respecting their expressions of how they know and show themselves. Our children are also always formulating, growing, and manufacturing belief systems about every single thing that shows up in their lives, including and in this case especially, about themselves. They are learning to be authoritiesª of self. And that is something we really, really want for them.
We want them to know what moves them. We want them to know what they like, and what they don’t like. We want them to know how they feel, and what they think about what happens to them. We want them to want to know themselves. More importantly, we want them to know they can be trusted to know themselves. And maybe even more importantly than that, as parents who assumably want to have a longterm relationship with the children in question, we want our kids to know that we can be trusted when they express who they are, and what they know of themselves. And let’s not forget, they will be teens for a decade of that time…
When our kids are younger, I think we risk doing them a great (potentially lifelong) disservice if we are regularly or continually:
- interfering with their processes of knowing and laying intellectual claim to themselves and their world, and/or
- subjugating their clear ideas about themselves to our own, and/or
- telling them that we know better than they do what they most need, and/or
- ignoring their requests and expressed needs, and/or
- coercing, tricking, or threatening them out of their current emotional state when they are upset about a need perceived as unmet.
I think this sort of use of our authority risks undermining our children’s ability to become authoritiesª on themselves. I think not letting them discover and express themselves, or not respecting those pursuits, risks short-circuiting children’s natural conceptualizing of themselves, leaving them feeling as though they cannot be sure what’s them and what is what they have been told to be and do. I think regularly forcing them to bend themselves to our wills can lead to frustration, anger, relationship distress, and even hatred. I also happen to think that the continual subjugation of children’s wills and authorityª of self to those of their parents (no matter how loving those parents may be) sends the erroneous message that what they think and feel about themselves isn’t as important as what the “authority figure” says is true about them. And I know however seductive that may sound when we are speaking about our kids and us, now, we’d all agree that having them learn to mistrust themselves in the face of any other “authority figure” would be potentially dangerous. That is how things like the Holocaust happen, right?
This is just an aside, but I’ll never get why we as a culture (or group of cultures) insist on parenting children in a way totally different than we will expect them to behave as adults. We spend so much of our children’s youth using any means necessary to force, coerce, trick, or train them to obey commands irrespective of what they think or know or want, then when they are jettison into adult life, we expect them to suddenly take responsibility for their own lives and make their own decisions about themselves as though they had been trained to do that (ever).
So, back to how we express our power over our children… For starters, like I was saying up above, you’re the boss this lifetime, that’s just how it is, so you’ll likely be the one(s) making the decision on this. That’s the bottom line for all parenting choices, right? We will each find our supporting evidence, if need be, which seeks to underscore that ours is a child-centered approach, but let’s face it, most of any parent’s approach is parent-centered, by default. We couldn’t help that if we wanted to. But in this case, and with an eye for the longest possible run, I hope that each of us finds a balance between using our authority to guide them, and providing space for the blossoming of our children’s authorityª of self.
There will be plenty of opportunities for us to be the know-it-alls in our kids lives. They’ll look to us naturally to fill them in on all kinds of things. They’ll silently rely on us to be the ones who know what happens next, and how to get places, and how to do things. They’ll leave it to us be the experts on making their favorite foods, providing their favorite clothes, and taking them to their favorite places. There will even be times when they won’t want us to know what is best for them, but because of our roles this time around, we will. And there will be times when they won’t agree with us at all about what they need and we will still have to make sure they get it.
We parents have been entrusted will all of the authority in the relationships we have with our kids. We’re the bosses. But we aren’t the only authoritiesª in those relationships. Our kids know what moves them. And like I said before, “we’d better get used to them knowing themselves, if we want our children to reach full maturity.” And further, if we want them to take the reigns in their own lives as adults — well, we better give them chance to learn how to ride — hadn’t we?
Good luck balancing on your (not too high) horses, partners.