Are Modern Parents Afraid to be Authority Figures?

God put parents in authority over their children, and science provides evidence that it’s good for them.

August Heyn (1837-1920), “Weinender Junge beim Mittagsmahl in der Bauernstube”
August Heyn (1837-1920), “Weinender Junge beim Mittagsmahl in der Bauernstube” (photo: Public Domain)

In her 35 years in practice as a pediatrician, Dr. Jane Anderson, a member of the board of the American College of Pediatricians tells me she’s seen big changes in parents when it comes to their willingness—or unwillingness—to be authority figures for their children.

The first big shift, she believes, was in the ‘70’s when the idea of permissive parenting became popular and rules, to a large degree, went out the window. Then in the ‘90’s came the idea that parents could—and should—be friends with their children. But she thinks the most destructive trend of all is the current notion that it’s the parents’ responsibility to maintain their children’s happiness.

I asked Dr. Anderson, now a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, whether it’s important for parents to have authority over their children, and why.

“It’s crucial. It’s the foundation of family. It’s the foundation of society. As James Dobson said in his book Dare to Discipline, as children learn to respect the authority of their parents, then they can learn to respect authority in society—from teachers, to police, to the legal system. The flaws that we see in family relationships get played out in society, and that’s what we’re seeing today. We have a generation of young adults who never learned to respect authority.”

Of course, Anderson acknowledges that there are exceptions.

As a Christian, Anderson believes it’s a biblical mandate: God put parents in authority over their children. And she notes that science provides evidence that it’s good for them.

The findings of psychologist Diana Baumrind back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s that evaluated different styles of parenting are still foundational for child psychologists and pediatricians today. Baumrind looked at children’s behavior in preschool and elementary school, and then examined their parents’ style of raising them.

Put simply, Baumrind divided parents into three categories: permissive parents, authoritarian parents, and authoritative parents. Permissive parents were those who were reluctant to impose rules and set standards. Authoritarian parents set the rules and expected children to obey them without providing any rationale or reason for them. Authoritative parents provided rules and standards—usually high standards—but were nurturing, responsive, loving and respectful of their children. Anderson calls them the “nurturing, loving, rule-setting parents.”

Baumrind determined that children raised by authoritative parents have the best outcomes. And science has repeatedly backed up her findings.

I asked Anderson how parents can start out being authoritative.

“As a pediatrician, I try to get parents at the one year visit. At that point there needs to be a transition that can be very difficult for parents.  I tell parents it’s no longer their job to keep their child happy. And that throws them for a loop. Up till now they’ve been trying to keep their child smiling and avoiding disappointment and frustration at any cost—because that’s what you do for a baby. But that’s got to change at the preschool years, starting at one, but definitely by two. What are you teaching your child if you are constantly providing for their happiness? You’re teaching that the child should expect immediate gratification and to be entertained. Is that really what you want to be teaching your child?”

Most parents would probably say they want to be teaching diligence, self-reliance and patience. According to Anderson that only happens if you set limits and say ‘no.’

“If you say ‘no,’ guess what’s going to happen? The child’s going to be disappointed. And then that child’s brain has to start problem-solving. ‘Hmmm. If I can’t have that cookie I wanted, what else can I do for fun? I’m really frustrated but how can I deal with this creatively’?”

The argument many parents make for not saying ‘no’ to their children is that they don’t want to stifle the child’s creativity. But in reality, says Anderson, that’s exactly what they’re doing by not saying ‘no.’ “Unless a child has experienced hearing ‘no,’ that child doesn’t have to think creatively or problem solve.”

Most of the time for very young children, say one year to 15 months old, the ‘no’s’ are going to be for safety issues, according to Dr. Anderson. Don’t touch the stove, or go near the fireplace, for example. Starting at 15 months it’s often going to be for what she calls little anti-social behaviors: hitting, kicking, spitting, biting, etc. Later on, starting at age 3 the ‘no’s’ might be for how they’re treating a friend or being disrespectful to parents or not doing their chores.

I asked Dr. Anderson how authority plays into raising faithful children.

“That’s why it’s so important to start demonstrating parental authority early on. Otherwise, as children are going through their preschool and elementary years why would they accept your moral authority and biblical standards? If it hasn’t been established that parents have authority over them, why should they believe that God can be an authority over them? So for Christian parents it’s even more important. Love sets standards and holds people accountable. That’s very biblical. There’s a constant tension throughout the Bible: justice and mercy. And that’s the tension for parents. Holding to standards with an underlying mercy of ‘I love you.’”

For further reading, check out the “Authoritative Parenting” section of the American College of Pediatricians website.

In my next column we’ll tackle the dreaded “D” word: discipline.