Parenting without (much) authority

I’ve never liked arbitrary authority, and so I came to parenting determined that ‘because I said so’ wasn’t going to be part of my repertoire. Also, I had a theory that the more arbitrary authority there is in childhood, the less able parent and child are to adapt to the teenage years, or to relate to each other well beyond that point. I wanted to raise an autonomous human capable of thinking for themselves, and that doesn’t go with being their authority figure either.

I remember the point at which I finally realised that my parents didn’t know everything. It came as a shock, rocking my little world to its core. My trust in their authority had been founded in no small part on a belief in their infinite knowledge and insight. So as a parent I made sure my child was aware of my limits from early on. As a small chap interested in dinosaurs, he knew that he could pass me in dinosaur knowledge if he put in the time, and that it was fine to do so. As I’m not interested in power-over I’ve never felt any need to try and keep him smaller than me.

We’ve always negotiated. I’ve always explained my position and reasoning so that he could see why I thought a course of action was preferable. I’ve aimed to persuade rather than force. We have an understanding that if I do issue an order, it is to be followed without question or hesitation because I’ll only do that in an emergency. We can talk about it afterwards. Driving me round the bend does count as an emergency!

Alongside this, he’s always had the option that if he could make a case for something, I’d take him seriously. We talk about the implications, the responsibilities, the possible consequences. Now he’s a teen, we carry that on to talk about relationship dynamics, consent culture, the implications of drugs and porn and all the other things out there he might run into and need to deal with. I think we have a pattern that means he’s always going to feel able to ask for my advice, but never obliged to act on it.

This all makes my life easier. I have room to say ‘yeah, I cocked that up,’ and to be honest about getting things wrong, making bad calls – because I have no authority to undermine. As yet, there’s been no sign of teenage rebellion – occasional non-cooperation, but that’s fine. He doesn’t have to fight off my authority in order to establish himself as a person in his own right because he’s always been respected as a person in his own right.

For me, authoritarian models within the family are an aspect of patriarchal society that we can do without. Children who are taught to obey are taught that power is what gets things done. You can’t have consent culture and obedience. You can’t have equality if you raise people inside models based on hierarchy, power-over and authority. There is a power balance necessary and inherent in raising a child, but so long as the child has the right to express opinions, and be taken seriously, that power balance can gently fall away over the years, allowing them to stand in their own power in the context of the family.

(And yes, I did ask him if it was ok to write about this.)

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About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

9 responses to “Parenting without (much) authority

  • Rick Finney

    Hear, hear! This is exactly the right approach, I think. Other challenges do come up just outside the parameters of what you’ve discussed here, and require tactical adjustments, but I do believe that what you’ve laid out here is absolutely the core of wise parenting. Your son is undoubtedly a fortunate young man to have been raised this way.

  • In The Autumn Of My Life

    Very similar to my parenting technique, Nimue, particularly with my two youngest. The only drawback is they become such good debaters that you really do have to be at your best and on point all the time to hold your corner *smiles* Still, better that than a child who simmers resentfully unheard.

  • robinpoet8

    absolutely! arbitary authority and power-over is a real terror, especially as I remember at school where education came with a set of rules somebody else had decided you should follow, setting you work somebody else decided you should do, and so the conditioning began where my own voice and my own autonomy were side lined out of the class, and I learned to internalise the kind of fear that’s learned behind the desk…which goes ‘Do this work, if you don’t do it you’ll be punished in some mild way, which will get worse if you do not do this work for me’ all the time I was just doing all that work at school because I was afraid that the overlords would come down in roth. So I did the work and I still don’t understand what I was meant to be learning, apart from the fact it did more damage than good.

    • Nimue Brown

      I think there’s a whole approach to learning that is simply about learning to work and obey without question, rather than learning to learn… that you came out of that with such an appetite for knowledge and insight says a lot about you as a person 🙂

  • Widdershins

    I wholeheartedly agree with you. I grew up in a ‘do as you’re told’ household … which was OK until you broke the rules, then the wrath of the gods descended.

  • Claire

    Hear, hear, indeed! Although our daughter is finding it strange, now she’s at uni, that others haven’t been raised as she has… She often texts re. her flatmates:’Why do they think shouting loudest is the way to be heard? Why can’t they just discuss things?’… Ah, if only…
    Great post, thank you!

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