Authoritarian Parenting and Adult Children

Authoritarian Parenting and Adult Children December 3, 2011

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.

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