Authority Styles

How you position your authority — whether approachable or absolute — can make a big difference in your relationship with your child.

What's the Difference?

For the approachable authority, all rules are open for discussion, reasons or values behind them available for examination, arguments to the contrary listened to, and all questions answered, with the understanding that, like it or not, the parent still has the final say.

For the absolute authority, the child's speaking up may be considered “talking back,” complaining considered “criticizing,” questioning considered “disrespect,” and arguing considered “defiance.” Absolute authority believes the child should have no say.

Parents have to decide how approachable (“I'm willing to listen”) or absolute (“My decision is not open for discussion”) they want to be. By allowing the child to comment on and disagree with disciplinary decisions, approachable authority encourages active, independent thinking: “I speak up when I don't think my parents are being fair.”

One risk for children socialized with approachable authority in the home is developing an attitude that they are entitled to argue with any outside authority with whom they disagree, and that may get them in difficulty out in the world. For example, an empowered only child (used to being treated like an equal by parents) may question a teacher's classroom rules and be sent to the office for insubordination. Approachable parent authorities can encourage children to speak up, discuss, question, disagree, argue, and not take an initial no as the final answer.

Problems with Absolute Authority

Absolute authority shuts down discussion and dissent, encouraging instead a passive and automatic obedience: “I do whatever my parents tell me, no questions asked.” One risk of being socialized to absolute authority in the home is that children may learn that they should follow social directives from any outside authority without question. For example, they may do what a stranger tells them to do, even if it feels wrong, because that stranger is an adult. Absolute parent authorities can encourage children to shut up, give in, go along, and not think about the merits of what is being demanded of them.

A further problem with exercising absolute authority is that it can suppress normal adolescent desire to experiment with the forbidden, rebel against expectations, and risk independent action. Then the child's first experience of freedom from parental authority causes the child to try everything and anything, and he may make a host of bad choices. So the late adolescent, liberated from automatic obedience at home, decides college is the time to “act crazy” at last.

ESSENTIAL

Most parents alternate between absolute and approachable authority, depending on the situation. For example, stressed by demand, pressed by time, or faced with an emergency, they may decide that being absolute in their authority is more appropriate than being approachable.

In general, approachable authority has less of a downside than absolute authority, particularly once the child enters adolescence and has become more resistant to being managed by his parents. Then, approachable authority can offer a compromise that often works well: The child gets to have his say, but the parents get to have their way. Giving your child a chance to voice objections allows him to feel that he's standing up for himself, even though he ultimately consents to what you want him to do. “Okay, I'll help wash the car before going over to my friend's.”

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