Authoritarian Parenting and Adult Children

This is part of a series in which I am re-posting a number of posts I’ve written in the past on issues involving parenting and Michael and Debi Pearl. I think these posts may be of interest to new readers, and if you’re a reader who has been around with me since the beginning, they may be worth a re-read. This post was originally published here.   

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 I can never quite seem to do that. I approach every interaction with them with some degree of fear and trepidation, knowing that it shouldn’t be this way and faking the confidence and assurance I find so difficult to muster. I wonder, now, if this has something to do with authoritarian parenting.

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? While my parents wanted me to obey them out of love or an acceptance that what they said was right, their commands were backed up with the threat of punishment, or even simply stern disapproval, which could be just as bad. 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 takeaway 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. And isn’t the goal of parenting to raise successful, mature, and independent adults?

Stop Stressing Out and Give Your Kid a Snuggle
Busting the Mommy Myth
The Radical Notion that Children Can Have Anxiety Too
What Kind of Atheist Parent Are You?
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.

  • E.A. Blair

    Fortunately, I didn’t grow up in such an authoritarian household, although my father had some leanings in that direction. His mother was “old country” (and from what I’ve heard, I’m glad she died well before I was born), and my father was the only one of six children to survive to adulthood to leave home and marry. His brother was enrolled in a Catholic seminary (part of being “old country” was giving one son to the church), and for his four sisters, none of their suitors were good enough for them (her). I grew up with no close cousins (although having four childless doting aunts came in handy come birthday or Christmas time).

    Some of that old country ethic, however, filtered down to my father’s generation. My aunts never approved of anyone I dated and were downright bitchy to them, and my father always hinted, none too subtly, that I’d probably be better off if I moved back home.

    The real problem, though, was my sister. She’s six years older, and she never seemed to get over being displaced from only child status. She made my childhood a living hell, and every bit of it could have been torn from the pages of Pearl and Dobson. The worst part is both that she inherited the bitch gene in spades and never acknowledged the fact that I became an adult in my own right. To the last, she always treated me in same way that Pearlist parents treat their children. As a result, I have had no contact with her for eleven years*, and intend to have none further. In fact, one of my remaining familial concerns is that she is still technically my next of kin and would have authority over my remains and posessions should I predecease her. In that case, I anticipate my body will end up in a landfill and my belongings sold for cash or simply thrown out.

    As far as I know, my sister remains a religious person** (our family was Catholic) and, if my father is anything to go by, her rteligiosity will get more and more rabid as she gets older, making me all the more grateful that I have nothing to do with her.

    *I sent her a card which I designed and printed myself for her birthday in 2011. On the front, it read, “I can’t believe you are turning sixty!”. On the inside, it read, “I was hoping you’d be dead by now!”.

    **I occasionally get together with a group of Neopagans, not because of personal belief, but simply because I enjoy ritual, the only good thing I remember about a Catholic upbringing.

    • Eamon Knight

      In fact, one of my remaining familial concerns is that she is still technically my next of kin and would have authority over my remains and posessions should I predecease her.

      I take it you have no spouse or children? Because I believe they would have precedence. Anyways, a will should override your sister’s status, and you can designate the lawyer as executor.

    • Sheila Crosby

      I’m exceptionally lucky in that my mother started treating me as an adult when I was 18, for which I am very, very grateful. I didn’t realise how lucky I was until my boss’s mother treated me as an adult and my boss as a teenager (although she was 8 years older than me). Then I started noticing how very few parents treat their adult children as adults. My father started treating me as an adult when I was 28, after I helped out during a family crisis, which is still good going. My brother still thinks I’m 14 (and I’m 50).

      But my parents were never authoritarian. Well, Dad had his moments, but they still thought they were raising adults, not slaves.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    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 not a parent, not even a “benevolent sovereign”. This is a brutal dictator with no clue how children really develop.

    He’s evil.

  • Meggie

    Libby Anne, I think you have said some of your siblings have stayed within your parents beliefs and others have left. Do you have adult siblings who still follow your parents beliefs but are married and if yes, how do your parents relate to these “children”?

    Are parent-child relationships ever equal? Mum (mid 60s) & I (mid 30s) are close, ideal mother-daughter relationship really but still not exactly equals. Mum and her mother (late 90s) also have a fantastic relationship (my Mum is my grandmothers carer) but still not exactly equals. It is never the same relationship you have with a partner, a sibling, a cousin or a friend.

    At least, this is the way it is in all the healthy parent-adult child relationships I have seen. Other people may have different experiences.

  • Noadi

    A phrase I’ve heard and that I think is great and made sure to pass along to my brother and his wife (because I don’t want children) is “You aren’t raising a child, you are raising an adult”. Authoritarian parenting doesn’t get that idea, it doesn’t take the long view of giving a child what they need to be a good adult.

  • BecomingJulie

    Just for a laugh and carry on sometime, try calling up the RSPCA and saying you’ve seen this passage in a dog training manual:

    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.

    It would be very instructive to see what their response was.

  • Giliell, not to be confused with The Borg

    Hi Libby Anne
    I’ve been thinking a lot about you and your childhood experiences lately, since I’m struggeling to unpack my childhood-knapsack at the moment.
    The funny thing is, my upbringing was a different from yours as it can be possible for two women of more or less the same age in the western world.
    I was raised by atheist liberals.
    I was always expected to have an education, a career, decide about my own sexuality.
    Yet I have come to a point in life where I didn’t know anymore who I am because I internalized nevertheless that I am not as important as other people.
    Although I was occasionally spanked as a child, this “training” was never done as “crudely” and therefore so much harder for me to figure out.
    My mum worked by making me truely believe that I was wrong.
    No matter what the conflict was about, it was my fault. If I didn’t see for myself that I was just too stubborn/hypersensitive/coldhearted, my mother would give me the silent treatment until I came around.
    This went on into my adulthood where my non-approved hobbies were simply “bad” or something “I would grow out of once I became reasonable”. It became much worse when I had my own children because I am obviously unable to make even trivial decisions for them.
    It was always done in a loving manner because she cares.

    So, why am I telling my personal woes here?
    Because I think that my story shows a very important thing:
    The most important factor probably isn’t so much the ideology, but that you respect your children as independent agents and people from the moment the cord is cut.
    For my mother, I was always there to fullfill her expectations. Mine were secondary.
    My parents got some positions with regards to the world right, but not the question what children are and that, as a parent, you should wish for them to be happy and be happy for and with them, no matter if their choices are your choices.

    • Eamon Knight

      Parents always run the danger of inflicting their neuroses and needs on their children, if they are not self-conscious and determined to avoid it. Probably most of us carry a bit of baggage, even from the healthiest families. The evil of strict Patriarchalism is that it justifies, even mandates, that kind of domination, even from parents who might not be naturally inclined to it. As Steven Wienberg puts it: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.”

      • Giliell, not to be confused with The Borg

        Well, do you think my mother is a bad person?
        Because she clearly did bad things yet she is not religious.
        She is completely convinced that she is only concerned about me and my children because I am absolutely not able to do so myself, because I need her to function.
        Reading lots of the stories about ex-quiverfull women I cannot relate to the experiences, but to a lot of the feelings.
        I never needed a husband who expected me to submit to him, I did it without even noticing. He would make a suggestion and I would agree because I didn’t want to spoil his fun and he would be left with the impression that I really wanted it.
        I was truely living JOY, only without Jesus.
        Yes, with the Patriarchal movements, those things are not a bug but a feature, but it doesn’t mean that without explicit Patriarchal teachings, even with explicitly liberal teachings you aren’t automatically getting independent people.
        The focus must be on what is necessary to raise independent adults, not just on what has to be avoided.

      • Eamon Knight

        You’re right, the Weinberg quote doesn’t strictly apply here. It’s more like: Good people can still do harmful things, but only religion will make the systematically justify it, in large, mutually-reinforcing, numbers. I can think of examples of poor parenting among my extended family as well — and none of them were particularly religious. But Christian Patriarchy is an entire *movement*, with a body of literature, that actively encourages a style that is elsewhere considered unhealthy.

  • Bianca

    Even at 31, my father still tries to run roughshod over my husband’s “authority”. My husband and I are equals and in general have a truly healthy, egalitarian, and loving marriage despite my highly abusive, authoritarian upbringing. But if there’s a problem, or if my father has a demand, he still demands total obedience. Submitting to his demands takes priority over my husband, and there is most certainly hell to pay for me and my mother (who bears the brunt of his anger) if we don’t obey him. My husband in general will have none of it, and will gladly put his foot down to try to protect me. He’ll even pretend to play the “obey your husband” card in front of them so that they have to back down and shut up. But when all else fails, all they have to do is wait until he’s gone, then they put the screws to me until I break of my own free will and drop everything to comply, whether that be through guilt trips, threats, or phone bombing. In this way they continue to undermine my marriage, because even though there are times when I can successfully say no, it only takes one or two “yes” situations for them to not only assume control, but to put me in a position where I am forced to either be punished by my parents or disregard my husband’s role in our new family and hide it from him. Because you know. Family secrecy and all that. In this way I feel that I never really grew up, and until I can find the strength to consistently say no, I will never really be an adult, nor will I ever truly have an adult marriage and family of my own. I’m just a child playing house.

    • Snipe

      Dear Bianca, I know what you’re going through. I grew up in a household where my parents were the authority and my sisters and I were to obey without question. I was in a somewhat similar situation before I was married, and I saw a counselor who helped me to understand that personal boundaries are appropriate, healthy, and necessary. It sure helped me to understand when my parents were being obtrusive, and I was able to take steps to protect myself and my relationships. Something like that may be helpful for you. In any case, I wish you the very best.