Do Children Need Authority?

In the last newsletters we looked at factors that influence how parents (and teachers) strive to get results in youngsters that they desire, results that reflect the child’s ability to discipline her/himself. We looked at the different definitions of discipline, the meaning of limits, and how the quest of being a strict or lenient parent is often dealt with.

There is another omnipresent term that can be found in any discussion on discipline: “authority”. Unfortunately, this term often adds to the confusion and muddled thinking already surrounding the issue of discipline.

Dare-to-discipline advocates constantly urge parents and teacher to “exercise authority” in dealing with children and youth, and they make the claim that children need it, want it, and will be happier for getting it. They also bemoan the “breakdown of authority” in both schools and homes and wish that today’s kids would respect authority as they think kids did in the past.

Those who counsel parents or teachers to use power-based authority characteristically caution that it must be “loving” authority or “benevolent” authority. They frequently substitute the term leadership for authority. Interestingly, you will never hear the authority champions advocate that parents and teachers be “authoritarians”. They never use that word, despite the fact that the first definition of the adjective authoritarian in most dictionaries is “favoring authority”, and the first definition of the noun authoritarian is “disciplinarian”. Why is that so?

To underscore their argument, dare-to-discipline proponents usually claim that children will respect authority, look up to it, yield to it, rely on it. It’s puzzling, then, why they worry so much about youngsters rebelling against the authority of their parents or teachers, and they rail against the “breakdown of authority” among today’s youth (evidence that adult authority doesn’t always bring respect and obedience.) It’s amazing how rarely the question is posed: if kids respect, want, need and yield to adult authority, why then do we see among youngsters such widespread rebellion and resistance to it – such hostility and lack of respect for the adults who use it?

And even more importantly, why do proponents of discipline not explore the fact that all authority is not the same? Indeed, it’s not helpful that there are, at least, four different meanings of this one word in the English language–a fact that makes forming a consensus about the term very difficult. Authority is not a unitary concept. Without recognizing this we can never have a constructive discussion about authority. For that purpose we’ll take some time in the next newsletter to explore the four meanings of such a complex term and see how the understanding of authority affects family and school culture.