Authoritarian Parenting and Adult Children

Writing on this blog is like watching synapses in my brain suddenly connect. I love the Ah ha! moments and I’ve just had another one, thanks to a comment on my last post:

I find it hard to love my mother after such a type of chilhood… I think fear doesn’t dissipate so easily.

I have long wondered why my transition to adulthood has been so difficult. I want to be able to stand by my parents adult to adult, equal to equal – which is, of course, what we now are. But the truth is, I’m scared of my parents. I approach my every interaction with them with fear and trepidation, knowing that it shouldn’t be this way and faking the confidence and assurance I find so difficult to muster. I‘ve always connected this to the painful psychological and emotional manipulation I endured from them when questioning their beliefs, but now I think it’s more than that. I think it has to do with authoritarian parenting. And that, quite simply, was my Ah ha! moment.

After being taught absolute obedience all the way up through high school and punished for disrespect or the delayed or incomplete obedience, how am I supposed to switch from a hierarchical relationship backed up by a fear of punishment to an adult-adult relationship of equals? Part of the reason I fear my parents is that this fear – fear of consequences or punishment – was used to govern my behavior all through childhood and adolescence. Sure, they wanted me to obey them out of love or an acceptance that what they said was right, but when it came down to it their commands were backed up with the threat of punishment, or even simply stern disapproval, which could be just as bad. And now, even though they can no longer punish me, well, those psychological pathways don’t disappear over night.

I think a quote from Michael Pearl will illustrate what I’m talking about:

Never reward delayed obedience by reversing the sentence. And, unless all else fails, don’t drag him to the place of cleansing. Part of his training is to come submissively. However, if you are just beginning to institute training on an already rebellious child, who runs from discipline and is too incoherent to listen, then use whatever force is necessary to bring him to bay. If you have to sit on him to spank him then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he is surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring and are unmoved by his wailing. Defeat him totally. Accept no conditions for surrender. No compromise. You are to rule over him as a benevolent sovereign. Your word is final.

This is how my parents disciplined. Their word was final. Obedience had to be immediate, complete, and cheerful. Anything less was unacceptable. While I wasn’t spanked past age ten or twelve, there were still punishments for disobedience. Their word was still final. Now here’s the thing: I was actually rarely punished once I reached high school. The reason was, quite simply, I never disobeyed. I made sure to do everything my parents wanted me to do. Their word was my law, and I followed it closely. But even though I rarely experienced punishment, I knew that if I disobeyed I would.

I recently read a very good post on the Friendly Atheist about this. The author says the following:

Instead of being able to explore right from wrong and discern it for themselves, scores of Christian children are being subtly taught that obedience to authority means avoiding punishment — not that it’s morally correct to avoid the behavior in question. Like so many others, I was obedient in order to avoid physical punishments (and, later, removal of privileges), which led me to focus more on finding the right path through the punishment maze rather than sorting out what I actually believed for myself.

The punishment maze she discusses is very real. For the parents who follow the child training methods of Michael Pearl, James Dobson, and others, the most important thing is that children obey parental authority, and an intricate punishment maze is set up to ensure that they do.

And then I grew up. And you know what? That feeling that if I displeased my parents I would be punished didn’t go away. That fear of disobeying them didn’t evaporate when I turned 18. My entire relationship with them had been built on authority and obedience. How was I supposed to change 18 years of habit overnight? I couldn’t. I’ve been working on it for years now, and it’s getting better, but I still have to smother my underlying thought patterns and underlying emotional reactions.

Melissa at Permission to Live wrote about how she and her brand new husband faced this same problem in her conclusion to her courtship story:

We had never been allowed to be our own persons, and old habits died very hard. We would consult our parents and make decisions (trivial or important) based on what they told us. Eventually we progressed to where we would make our own decisions and fret about how to tell our parents what we had decided. It took four years to get to the point that we made decisions and didn’t bother to tell them at all!

There is something very wrong with privileging obedience to parental authority over developing independence and autonomy. There is something very wrong with seeing obedience as more important than maturity. The result is an infantilizing of even adolescent children and a parent-child relationship built on authority-obedience and reward-punishment.

And it’s not just me who struggles. My parents have trouble navigating their relationship with me, and for the exact same reason. After so many years of being able to expect immediate obedience from me, after so many years of their word being my law, they don’t know what our relationship is supposed to look like now either. When I first started asking questions, their response was to treat me just like I was still a child, and the reason for this is simple: my parents believed that parental authority (or more specifically, the authority of the father) over a daughter does not end whens he turns 18, but rather with marriage. So for them, the relationship built on authority and obedience was still in force, and I had to fight tooth and nail to get out. I’ve married since, so they no longer expect me to obey as they did before, but they’re still trying to figure out what our relationship is supposed to be like, because for them just as for me, old thought patterns and habits die hard.

The take away here is simple. Parents should not emphasize parental authority and absolute obedience over developing autonomy and growing maturity. Parents should not create an elaborate punishment maze for their children or create a situation where children are afraid to disagree or assert their own wills for fear of punishment. Creating this sort of parent-child relationship is problematic not only when the children are children, but also when they grow up.

What Kind of Atheist Parent Are You?
Red Town, Blue Town
Why I Take My Kids to the UU Church
Why We Should Teach Children to Say "No"
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Anonymous

    This focus on obedience above everything else can be really insidious, not to mention dangerous – if a person has only been taught obedience then what happens when the commanding authority is not benevolent or infallible. Isn't it better to teach a child how to assess the merits or otherwise of certain behaviours in order to choose those behaviours if and because it is merited. Just to share an analogy outside of religion. I was taken aback once when a fundamental relative (not Quiverfull in name but certainly in principle) was chatting to my son about his football/soccer team. She asked him what the most important thing was that his coach wanted from him. When he didn't quite know how to answer, she responded that it was "obedience". This hit such a discordant note with me – though it took me a while to work through why, having also been brought up on these fundamental principles. Obedience is not the key thing in sports coaching (or any other part of life). I would describe the key behaviour being sought as "active listening". Yes, sure, respect the coach and listen to what he is asking you to do – he is an expert, that is why he is the coach. But the most important thing is to hear and understand what he is explaining and think about why and how this will improve your game, build the team, win the game etc. Then implement and practice, and add own input, suggestions, creativity. Same principles in the real world – we need to hear, think about, and understand why certain actions are preferable, rather than just acting on blind obedience to a code or a commanding authority.

  • Anonymous

    A sad fact is that there are a number of parents who still pride themselves on that their grown children will be inherently obedient. For them, this kind of parenting might sound like a good idea.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    The fear and the need to never dissapoint my mother makes every visit back there an absolute hell. I have to walk on eggshells all the time there and nullify most of the aspects of my personality to be meek. I'm sure that my mother would say this isn't what she wants but it's the only way in which I can survive… It also has made me into a liar which I don't like but I'm afraid and conflicted. On the other hand I time will make things better for sure.Anywya, thanks for this articles, it's good to know I'm not alone and denouncing it elps people realize this is wrong and needs to change ^__^

  • MrPopularSentiment

    This is why I take people seriously when they say that without God, there'd be nothing to stop them from being bad people. Authoritarian parenting stunts moral development.

  • MrRoivas

    In psychology, avoiding behaviors because fear of punishment and defining things as "bad" because they are punished is the stage most three year olds are at. Its no surprise that a mentality that's the norm at age 3 doesn't really work in adults. And yet that's held up as an ideal.

  • Nathaniel

    Cripes, that previous one was me. Different account by mistake.

  • S_Morlowe

    This is actually one of the major reasons I'm no longer Catholic: if I do something good, it's not because I want to be rewarded/want to avoid punishment. It's a truly unhealthy way to function.

  • Meggie

    "We would consult our parents and make decisions (trivial or important) based on what they told us."I have just realised that this is what irritates me about Josh & Anna Duggar. We hear 'leave and cleave' from JB&M; and Josh claims to be so independant but this is exactly what they do – all decisions are referred to the parents for their opinions. (Possibly this is Tv editing but I don't think so.) It is like watching children play at marriage and family.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for your posts. I feel as if I am navigating my own problems as I follow you through. Of course, I am seeing a therapist, but your posts give me something to think about, and to talk to him about, and reach conclusion. I know that you are healing yourself, but you are also healing me. Thank you.

  • Mommy McD

    These are the stages of morality as described by Lawrence Kohlberg (via wikipedia:'s_stages_of_moral_development)Stage 1 is consequence based obedience. It's a start certainly, but it isn't enough for fully functioning adults.Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)1. Obedience and punishment orientation(How can I avoid punishment?)2. Self-interest orientation(What's in it for me?)(Paying for a benefit)Level 2 (Conventional)3. Interpersonal accord and conformity(Social norms)(The good boy/good girl attitude)4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation(Law and order morality)Level 3 (Post-Conventional)5. Social contract orientation6. Universal ethical principles

  • Libby Anne

    Mommy McD – Very interesting! I would say that I'm now at some combination of level 5 and 6 – there is no explanation given of them there, but both of those ideas resonate with me. I think by the time I was in high school, I probably did operate at a 3 or 4 – conforming to my parents' views and beliefs was huge, and being the "perfect" daughter doing all the right things mattered. I'll have to look into this concept more…it sounds fascinating!

  • Wendy

    MrPopularSentiment: Wow. Good insight.My husband and I have reflected on the idea that devout religious belief often seems to accompany a failure to progress through the stages of moral development. (That is, getting stuck at stage 2.) I hadn't associated this with patriarchal parenting. Hmmmm.Finally, my fear of my mother is unceasing, like a stupid conditioned response I can't prevent. Fortunately for me, she isn't part of my life anymore. But my fear, and inability to forge an adult relationship with her, arises from abuse, not religion.

  • Anonymous

    *nodnodnod* My parents weren't necessarily strict authoritarians, and my mother worked more through emotional manipulation than physical punishment, but the effect was similar. I'm 33 now, and I still have a hard time negotiating an adult relationship with my parents. As mom used to say, "I'm your mother, not your friend." That doesn't magically switch over when the child turns 18 or moves away from home. I still catch myself seeking their approval and trying to avoid hurting them by not bringing up certain subjects. I'm not sure how to change this. I am so envious of my friends who have close relationships with their parents.

  • Rosa

    "And it's not just me who struggles. My parents have trouble navigating their relationship with me, and for the exact same reason. After so many years of being able to expect immediate obedience from me, after so many years of their word being my law, they don't know what our relationship is supposed to look like now either. When I first started asking questions, their response was to treat me just like I was still a child, "This is what teenagerhood is for; going through these adjustments and conflicts. If you don't get to do it when the stakes are relatively small, you have to do it as adults.I moved back in with my mom in my 20s for financial reasons, and it was pretty rocky – but we came out of it with a good adult to adult relationship because she'd given up on authoritarianism. My dad I'm still in the fear/dread/don't share information/lie to keep the peace mode with, and I don't expect that to change because there's no room for mutual respect. So now it's punishing him, by him rarely seeing his grandkids and being distant from both children. He thinks WE are punishing him, but it's that conditioned anxious response that drives the distance. And I'm just not interested in putting in the work to make it better, knowing he's not reaching out in good faith.

  • Anonymous

    "My dad I'm still in the fear/dread/don't share information/lie to keep the peace mode with, and I don't expect that to change because there's no room for mutual respect."Oh god, this sounds exactly like me. I hate putting on a front to my life, and I'm so tired of lying. But I'm not really interested in rocking the boat and being the source of scandal and on everyone's prayers list. We just visit my parents less because there is little to talk about.

  • Christine

    I used to be terrified of my dad, but I loved and respected him at the same time.When I became an adult and started to do my own thing I still lived with him. I think that he thought he could govern me because I was still dependent on him to live.. and to some extent he was right. He thought me ungrateful, and I thought him overbearing at a time in my life when I should have been exploring my independence.It came to the point where I would do whatever I wanted no matter what he said, and sometimes tell him, or sometimes outright lie. I had to have a place to live and little lies about where I was going and with who were not a big deal when I knew I wasn't doing anything illegal… but I felt guilty.By not letting me make my own choices he foreced me to be dependent on him… and then wondered why I couldn't be independent.Now, after living away from him with my boyfriend, for about a year, I still sometimes feel the pangs of guilt for doing things (mostly spending money) that I want to do. I don't have to check in with him anymore, but up until a few months ago I was still getting permission… he didn't think I needed to anymore, but my pattern was set. I've worked very hard to realize mentally that I am my own person and my "right" and "wrong" decisions are governed by me, but I sometimes feel the need to call and ask permission (which I do not do, but I am thinking about it)My dad loves us. He wants what is best for us. But by being the authoritarian parent (my way is the only way) he made us afraid of him and caused more fights than I can count.To his credit he is changing and becoming more mellow… which is evidence that anyone can change.

  • Anonymous

    I had it interesting, mom was a born again expected immediate obedience yet still act independently, meaning know what she wanted us to do and do it before she told us. I half jokingly say her parenting style was akin to a dictatorship, not completely her fault. Had an emotionally abusive step dad for a number of yrs and that changed all of us her included. I didn't have too much trouble breaking away tho (thankfully I was allowed to be a teen), after all independent action was expected. I had to stop talking to her for a year once I moved out, got tired of being treated like I couldn't do anything right. That was years ago, we're on much better terms now and working on building a relationship on mutual respect.There is a much more difficult and far reaching side effect to the obey me parenting in my book you touch on the concept a little when mentioning adult children continuing to turn to parents for approval on decisions, but it goes so much deeper than ingrained obedience or fear it's trusting ones self. I didn't realize how little I trusted my own judgement until I was in a serious relationship and noticed I was seeking my confident partners approval/permission. Part of growing up is learning right from wrong and building confidence in your determining the right course of action. Unlike determining right from wrong, the relationship with yourself (the confidence and self trust) has to be built by you it can't be done for you. By requiring obedience and removing a child's ability to make choices it inhibits an essential part of development.Fear of my mom and her punishments dissipated relatively easy for me compared to the fear of making a mistake and the consequences life would dish out. I was well informed on how harsh life could be and had already been knocked around a bit by it. Thankfully I seem to have overcome that hurtle and stopped twisting myself into a stressed out pretzel.

  • Anonymous

    You are describing a reality that I believed was outdated even when I grew up 40 years ago. Those methods are even disregarded in the training of animals today. It is most saddening to learn that some parents still practice this.