The Myth of Benevolent Authority

After looking at the four kinds of authority and after exploring why being authoritative does not equal being authoritarian, I’d like to dedicate one more edition of the Family Connection to briefly clarify some myths and facts about authority.

The different kinds of adult authority and their uses are a central pillar of Parent Effectiveness Training. P.E.T. teaches parents how to use Authority E (expertise), Authority J (Job), and Authority C (commitments/contracts) most effectively and constructively to influence children. It also teaches how Authority P (power) is a means to control children and why this often is so ineffective. The critical difference between influence and control is recognized in P.E.T. and is one of the underlying premises the Gordon Model skills are based on.

The universal tendency of discipline advocates is to try to make Authority P sound loving or benevolent, something that has generated lots of confusion around the understanding of discipline and authority. Parents and teachers are told that they can safely use punitive discipline provided they do it justly, wisely, lovingly, fairly or benignly and always with the child’s best interests in mind. They claim that it s perfectly all right to be firm but fair, to be tough as long as it’s tough love, to be autocratic as long as they are benevolent autocrats, to control as long as they are not dictators, to punish as long as the punishment is not too severe, like time out over a spanking maybe…

These ideas are widely-believed, no doubt because they are exactly what punitive parents and teachers most want to believe. Needing to justify their use of power-based discipline to control children or needing to assuage their guilt. Adults desperately want to believe that what they are doing is out of love for the child, for the child’s own good. In other words, people try to make the ends appear benign in order to justify the use of their power-based means.

Can power-based authority ever be benevolent? Dr. Gordon says: yes, if by that we mean that the controller thinks he or she is acting benevolently and in the best interests of the child. But this is not where this question ends, one will also have to ask if power-based discipline actually is in the child’s best interest that is, is it felt by the child as being in his or her best interest? Dr. Gordon says: seldom, if ever.

P.E.T. maintains that children don’t feel punitive discipline is ever benevolent or in their best interest. We’ll document this conviction in future editions of this newsletter. We will take plenty of time to examine what children do when they are exposed to Authority P, what coping methods they employ to fight against Authority P, or what children do to escape from it.

Now that we have cleared up the authority waters that have been muddied so badly, now that you understand the critical difference between the four kinds of Authority, I’d like to encourage you to see if you can detect the ambiguities and imprecise semantics when reading through many parenting books and magazines. You now will be able to detect obscurantism that unfortunately is so much part of what many parents and teachers still believe in today. Share with us what you find please! We would love to hear from you.