The Trickle Down Effect of Authoritarian Parenting

The Trickle Down Effect of Authoritarian Parenting March 28, 2024

       I have been a therapist, pastor, and social worker for 22 years. I have observed a lot of people from the other side of the chair. Parenting and theologies of God are most frequent conversations that I have these days.  

     In a series of essays that I will put out over the course of the next year, it is my aim to show how we as an aging church have isolated our youth both in the way we parent and the way we preach.  

     We are doing it wrong.  

     If you look around at many of our mainline denominational congregations, what do you see? Grey. Lots of grey. In 15 years, it is a good chance that 50% of what and who you see will not be there. If your congregation were to lose 50% of its membership tomorrow, would you survive as a congregation? Chances are not. Then comes the battles of how to bring the kids back, get young people back in the church, what to do with the church building, what programs we can create, the list goes on.  

       What if I told you none of it matters? I talk to about 100 clients a month, out of those, 90% of those people are what we would call Gen Z and Young Millennials (current teenagers’ up to age 30ish). You know what I have learned from these young people? Two things, the church is irrelevant (I learned this from my own kids and reaffirmed by my clients) and from a therapist perspective, our parenting models are broken. 


Parenting Models 

I am a girl dad. Four beautiful gifts from God. All of them have been in my arms, close to my embrace from the minute they were born, literally, I delivered each one of them, one in the hospital and the other three at home. It is my running hypothesis that many of our young people today are in the state they are in not only from bad parenting parenting models, but instead the trickledown effect of Victorian parenting itself.  

Parenting is tricky. If it is your first child, you really have no idea what you are doing and by the last child, you have a better idea, but again, no real idea. Parenting is a muscle that takes many repetitions and practice to become a natural movement.  

When teaching parenting, I often tell parents that it is our job to create meaning for our kids. I further go on to say that when we do not create meaning say for our two-year-old, they create meaning for us, usually though, this can be bad. But that is their job.  

There are four agreed upon parenting styles and then four attachment styles that correspond to these types of parenting.  

Parenting Styles 

An authoritarian parent seeks to maintain a high level of control over their children. Authoritarian parents set strict rules and expect high and sometimes unrealistic expectations from their children. Emotional availability can be limited. Children of highly authoritarian parents may struggle socially and may be likely to become authoritarian parents themselves. 

Neglectful parents (also known as uninvolved or disengaged) may take on a limted parenting role. Emotional engament is often observed as limited or restricted. This parent may not spend as much time with their child and myay not engage in conversation, play, or other activities, and may not bother to set many house rules. Many of my child clients come from this model and some of these children resist rules outside of the home and struggle with self-control. 

Indulgent (or permissive) parents may be attentive and warm but may not set many rules for their children. This is the style I call the “friend parent”. These are the parents who smoke weed with their kids, drink with their kids or the parents who do not give their kids chores because “they just need to worry about being kids” The research suggests that the children of permissive parents may show higher levels of creativity but may also feel entitled, and be more interested in taking rather than giving in their own relationships. Often, these are the adults that I see in their 30’s struggling in their marriages.  

Authoritative parents follow what is widely understood as the preferred approach. This parenting style is collaborative and democratic. Flexibity is a keystone of this style. These parents set clear boundaries while balancing this encouraging independence within these limits. Discipline tends to be more supportive than punitive, and as children get older, their independence increases. Children of authoritative parents may have more highly developed self-control and self-reliance. 

As a young parent, I started out with an authoritarian style as this was the model I grew up with and it was the predominant model of the Christian churches I preached in. “Children are seen and not heard,” “spare the rod, spoil the child.” I am horrified now in my late 40’s at the fear and pain I caused in my children in this behavior. As I moved away from my work as a pastor and grew in maturity, my parenting style grew into the authoritative style I employ and teach daily.  

Attachment Styles – there are four agreed upon attachment styles: 

Secure attachment: Babies became upset when their parent left and were comforted by their return. In adults, this attachment style can be seen in a person who can form lasting and healthy relationships with others.  

Anxious attachment: Babies would become very upset when their parent left and would be difficult to comfort upon their return. In adults, this attachment style can be seen as the person who is constantly afraid of someone leaving them. This adult will also seek constant reassurance that their loved one will not leave them. I often see codependency here.  

Avoidant attachment: Babies would barely react — or not react at all — when their parent left or returned. In adults, these people are emotionally guarded and are unlikely to seek out emotional comfort. It is not that they do not want it, they often do, however they do not have the language to ask for it and then react when their partner “cannot read their minds” and offers it.  

Disorganized attachment: Babies had more erratic or incoherent reactions to their parent leaving or returning, such as hitting their heads on the ground or “freezing up.” In adults, this is where I see the most personality disorders. These people will often seek close relationships, but often push them away when attention is shown or for sometimes what appears to be minor infractions.  

Parenting as a Spiritual Practice 

I will try to add a bit more to this section in subsequent essays. Parenting is a spiritual practice. In societies all over the world, children are often seen as gifts and are cherished in a variety of ways. I am particularly reminded here of the Amish who see children as a valuable asset to the family.  

As a practice, we must see our children as they are, innocent and curious. Their intention is not to be little demon spawns, which at times, seems intentional. As a spiritual practice, parenting is contemplative.  

Browse Our Archives