Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Parents Need to be Authority Figures

Authority figure. We're told as parents, and sometimes even as teachers or bosses, that we need to be authority figures. File this under another term that gets used without much consideration to what it actually means. Having experience in all of these arenas, I find myself now stopping to consider what it actually means.

In today's society, it seems like "authority figure" has been defined as a person who holds power and control. A person who dominates those underneath them. In our roles as parents and teachers, I sense this is what people mean when they speak of being a child's authority figure.

A quick perusal of "authority" in the Oxford English Dictionary shows an etymology that supports this assumption. What you aren't a supernerd with two, incredibly useful degrees in English? The Oxford English Dictionary is a massive collection of the history of words, their changing uses, and examples from written works from the dawn of the English language. No, really, the dawn. I said it was massive.

The word "authority" is recorded as early as 1303, when it meant the ability to inspire belief. By the end of that century it was being used to mean the power to enforce obedience. But upon further delving into the word's history I found a record of it's use in 1230 to refer to a book or evidence that was used to settle a question of opinion or give conclusive testimony. All of these meanings come from the same ideas - power and influence. That is not to say, however, that authority = power, although it may be a component.

But there is another meaning of authority that is apparent in its many iterations - a person or form of expertise. An authority can also be a person who is an "expert in any question." This meaning is not so different than the others. An expert can use his knowledge to influence others. However, I believe, the true authority radiates knowledge and doesn't need to influence or control those around. By freeing others from an oppressive influence, they become more open to ideas, recognizing the inherent wisdom.

As parents we should strive to be experts not control freaks. I know all too often I have gotten caught up in the "he won't listens" and "don't know what to do with hims." We're taught that we should control our children's behavior. There should never be screaming at a restaurant or a mad dash across the grocery store - we should be in control. Oh, and it should look effortless.

The problem is that we have gotten so caught up in having control and perfectly behaved children that we're squashing the child right out of them. Children are expected to "mind, " and have perfect manners. They "should be seen and not heard." I'm as guilty as anyone. I find myself apologizing for the slightest childlike impulses of Connected Son when we're in public. Connected Dad gets caught up in Connected Son "listening." I listened to him trying to express concern to him the other night for fifteen minutes and counted the use of "I need you to listen" over ten times. He wasn't getting through, because he wasn't modeling listening to Connected Son. He was interrupting and talking over him. He wasn't being an authority or an expert. He was attempting to control Connected Son's attention, and we all know how fruitless that is with a 3 year-old!

Parents need to be authority figures by sharing our expertise with our kids. After all, we're experts in using the potty, being polite, going to bed, and picking up our messes - or we should be! When your children look to you as authority figures do you want them to see you as a dominating force or a sage guide? We can demonstrate authority in our little one's lives without controlling them.


mamapoekie said... [Reply to comment]

Great post... I'm sensing some tendencies toward unschooling ;) Sunday SUrfing it

Tacey said... [Reply to comment]

This is really encouraging, thank you! I've not yet had to deal with these issues as my daughter is just approaching a year old, but even so I've had a lot of comments from others telling me I need to 'show her who's boss' and it doesn't sit well with me. I hope I can model good behaviour in the way you describe - most of the time!

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