Being Authoritative Does Not Equal Being Authoritarian


After looking at the four kinds of authority in our last newsletter we’ll take a moment in this newsletter to clear up some confused thinking caused by the existence of these four different kinds of authority with regard to children.

Let’s start with Authority E (E standing for expertise.) This kind of Authority is highly-valued and quite harmless in human relationships. Most people, including children, respect those who have expertise, they learn from them, seek out their counsel, and often follow their advice. When parents and teachers (and authors of dare-to-discipline child-rearing books, too) complain about today’s children not respecting authority, they are thinking of Authority P (P standing for power.) They really are complaining that children don’t obey adults – that is, don’t do exactly whatever adults tell them to do, just because adults tell them to do it.

Dr. Gordon points out that it’s widespread that children actually do have a lot of respect for people who have some sort of expertise. In fact, they often overestimate the Authority E that adults have. This is especially true of younger children. They think their parents know everything there is to know. And they often are awed by the knowledge and skills possessed by doctors, dentists, teachers, coaches, carpenters, car-mechanics, fire fighters and others.

What about children respecting Authority J (J standing for job)? Again, usually this is not the kind of authority that is causing major problems. Children usually respect the kind of authority that derives from the generally understood duties, roles, and functions of the jobs that adults hold. When adults are driving a car and tell kids to fasten their seat belts, most youngsters accept this as the driver’s legitimate prerogative, a situation not unlike passengers’ accepting an airline captain telling them to refasten their seat belts while going through some unexpected turbulence. Kids typically stand when commanded by an adult saying, “Let’s stand and sing the National Anthem.” Dr. Gordon would tell us that as the chief cook in his family, his mother had a lot of Authority J, which the kids (and the Dad too) usually respected. Seldom did they fail to comply with her demands: “Time to come in, dinner’s ready”; “Bring the plates in”; “Eat it while it’s hot”; “Clear the dishes off the table”; and so on.

Do children respect Authority P (P standing for power)? The Gordon Model is based on the observation that they hardly ever do! Can you recall ever respecting a teacher who was bossy and used power to coerce you into doing what you didn’t want to do? Have you ever known a child who held in high esteem any adult who consistently used power-based punishment or threats of punishment? Kids, like adults, don’t respect power wielders, although they do usually fear them. Otherwise, why do they retaliate against them, resist them, avoid them, lie to them, and grow to dislike them? I believe most of us know this from our own experience as youngsters.

Often, parents are unclear about the word authority. Many times parents ask us at Gordon Training, “You urge parents and teachers not to use authority. But don’t they have a duty to teach children their values and beliefs and share with them their superior judgment and wisdom?” This question illustrates confusion between two meanings of authority: Authority P and Authority E. We urge parents and teachers not to use Authority P, but we certainly advocate that they should share their Authority E whenever it seems appropriate to do so. In fact, children often seek out the advice, judgment, and opinion of their elders, and they are often curious about what both parents and teachers value or believe.

Suggestions and advice are clearly methods of influencing others by sharing one’s experience, wisdom, knowledge, and so on – Authority E, distinctly different from controlling others with Authority P. In other words: It seldom hurts an adult-child relationship for the adult to be authoritative – Authority E – or to be an authority on a subject; but it does harm the relationship to be authoritarian – Authority P. And we will look into why this is so in upcoming editions of the Family Connection.