Balancing child’s self-respect with obedience a tricky task

The generation of adults who raised me and my peers was marked by the abiding parental ethos, “Authority in Principle.” From this ethos flowed the defining claims of these mothers and fathers: “Because I said so. … Because I’m the mother. … Wait until your father gets home. … It’s the principle of the thing,” etc.

The primary, measurable value demanded by Authority in Principle was categorical, reflexive obedience. When I say “jump,” you jump, and ask how high on the way up. Do it now. Don’t argue with me. This is not a democracy. Not open to discussion.

Nothing could provoke the ire (and in many cases, the swift corporal response) of these parents faster than a child who dared to feel (let alone articulate) a disagreeable attitude toward The Grown-up. One could not so much as breathe an irritated sigh without escalating The Grown-up’s hostility. Daring to meet The Grown-up’s eye, setting your jaw and glowering — sure recipes for getting your face slapped. In principle.

I’ll give you something to cry about.

During my childhood, abject defiance was uncommon. Only crazy kids looked at The Grown-up and actually used words to express anger or to declare an intention to independent thought, action or defiance.

Then we grew up and became parents. We tried to temper Authority in Principle. We weren’t comfortable with the demand for unthinking obedience. Many of us felt consistently demeaned, degraded and disrespected during childhood. As the ’60s unfolded, we coined a new ethos trumping everything: Question authority! (See rock ‘n’ roll, Timothy Leary, Watergate, the My Lai massacre, etc.)

In our best moments, we exchanged “authoritarian” for what we believed to be the more integrated stance of “authoritative.” We taught our children to participate in the family hierarchy through negotiation, and we spoke to them as people rather than as Army enlisted grunts.

In our worst moments, we abdicated appropriate parental authority altogether, expected too little from our children and strove to be friends instead of parents. The most generous thing I have to say about this is we suffered a group pathological naivete. We actually were surprised to find that permissiveness is just another way to disrespect children.

When people of my generation come to therapy to talk about their past, my most frequent clinical task is to help them own an appropriate sense of indignation about the unyielding iron fist of Authority in Principle. When those same people come to therapy to talk about child-rearing, my most frequent clinical task is to firm their own iron-fisted grasp on appropriate parental authority.

Authoritarianism injures and angers children. Permissiveness confuses children and renders them incompetent, leaving them injured and angry.

The truth lies somewhere in between. Obedience is an important life lesson, but it should never cost children their parents’ respect. It matters that we respect our children, but never as a dodge for their need to learn obedience.

As a father, I’m aiming for a balance far more art than science. Put clinically, I want my children to develop ego strength sufficient for self-respect, and that includes enough self-respect to know that they are not their father, not their mother and not cultural automatons. Which means they have enough self-respect to disagree with me. Be angry with me. Enough self-respect to conclude I’m daft, ignorant, blind, petty, “small” or disappointing to them, especially when those things are true.

But simultaneously, I want that ego to be properly related within themselves. And a properly related ego is an ego subordinated to the wider whole of the self and the collective world around the self.

Put philosophically, I want my children to know they are not Nothing. And, they are not Everything.

To cut to the chase: I want them to know I see them, respect them, honor them, cherish them … but I’m The Grown-up and they are not. Only when you pay for your own health insurance will I cease to interfere with your right to do willfully stupid things to your body. When you pay the mortgage, you can leave your shoes anyplace you like. Your sex life can be entirely your business only when you are able and willing to be responsible to and for the raw power of human sexuality.

Competent parents know when to be autocrats. Benevolent and wise, we hope — but autocrats nonetheless.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling and Wellness Center in Las Vegas. His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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