Scenes from a Recovering Authoritarian Parent
I never set out to be authoritarian. It just happened. Like Iron Man, I stepped into the suit of parenting when my first was born and everything was pre-programmed for me. It felt good, familiar. I was sure I was destined for success. But the suit was all wrong.
It was about 2010 and I had already known for a few years that I had a problem. Something about the way I was parenting was not working for me or my kids. I was bone weary, often frustrated, and lacking a sense of connection with my children, even though I spent every waking hour with them.
The reckoning came as I sat in a parenting seminar that summer. The speaker, a mother to five grown children, described her struggles with using control and anger to correct or communicate with her children. She talked about one day in particular, when she had just bent over to lecture the pants off her little boy and then stood up straight only to catch a glimpse of her face in the mirror. She took in her own angry eyes, pinched above the nose, teeth bared, not an ounce of love or respect in her face.
And she was devastated over it. It wasn’t an expression she ever wanted her kids to see. Yet she knew that they lived with it on a daily basis, emanating from the one person that was supposed to be the safest for them.
The Hot, Out of Control Seat
My chair grew increasingly uncomfortable during that talk as I recognized all of the familiar symptoms of authoritarian parenting in myself. I too was trying to parent in a domineering way. I too was overly focused on behavior modification more than reaching the heart of my children. And this led to constant frustration, which boiled over into anger. Anyone who tries to bend the will of a toddler will find themselves completely out of their league. The toddler in this scenario is Obadiah Stane, the massive guy in the better-equipped suit.
There is a simple reason for this. Human beings were made for freedoms, for choices. They know this from the time they are born. It doesn’t mean they can’t be taught to submit themselves to authority or that we aren’t supposed to give them healthy boundaries or move them away from danger. It means that we can’t control their behavior or their hearts. We’ve never been able to. That control is an illusion.
Sadly, I myself was out of control.
The more I wanted to see the behavior I hoped for in my kids, the behaviors that would show I was being a good mother, the more frustrated I became. And the only people around to bear the weight of my frustration was my children.
This is heartbreaking for me to consider even now. I didn’t abuse my children, but I didn’t treat them with the love and honor that their personhood required of me. And I was honestly doing my best, working incredibly hard. I just didn’t have the right understanding or tools to do it differently.
Personal change is often borne out of heartache. It’s the place in which we are willing to see the real truth about ourselves and turn it into a passion to be better.
There are four parenting styles commonly recognized by psychologists: authoritarian, permissive, uninvolved, and authoritative. These parenting styles are defined by the amount of responsiveness and warmth in the parent-child relationship, as well as the amount of control and strictness found in the relationship.
For example, the authoritarian parenting style entails high expectations, punishment, and emotional distance. It’s low warmth and high strictness. Authoritative parenting entails clear standards, responsiveness, and flexibility along with high expectations. It’s high warmth and high strictness.
Psychology research has shown correlations between authoritarian styles of parenting and anxiety, hostility, and depression in children. In contrast, authoritative parenting often leads to greater child competence, maturity, assertiveness, and self-control.
Authoritative parenting is also known to require the most time and energy from parents. (Yay!)
Here is a helpful online chart that illustrates the four styles and their attributes.
The Pangs of Changing Behavior
Changing the only way I knew how to parent my children, mid-stream, was daunting.
First, I had to forgive myself. I knew my behavior had been damaging, and I had to reject feelings of shame while accepting my own weaknesses as a parent. Easier said than done. But that’s a crucial step. I wasn’t going to improve anything by beating myself to a pulp.
However, forgiving myself was just the beginning. I could never have guessed how hard it would be to step out of that suit and take on a new set of habits, despite my best intentions and strongest desires.
In this scenario I was the child, desperately needing to modify my behavior and so obviously unable to turn on a dime and control it, the same way I had expected my children to.
I mention this part of the process because it’s tempting to become discouraged and give up anytime we try to change ingrained beliefs and patterns. It’s going to take time and great effort. We will likely do a lot of apologizing to our children along the way.
And that’s okay. It’s better than being a jerk and not acknowledging our mess ups. It’s always better to humbly show our hand, to show how we deal with the shame and pain that accompanies our own journey as humans.
Acquiring New Skills
Next, I had to learn new tools and I had to give them time to become ingrained behaviors, the way my old authoritarian suit had been. I was most drawn to Love and Logic as a parenting philosophy. It met my criteria for being both authoritative and practical. I continue to learn so much from their gentle approach to setting boundaries and connecting with my children.
A big part of the change involved learning how to set limits with my kids and then enforce them calmly and consistently. This isn’t easy, for anyone, and I am still working it out daily. I have often reverted back to frustration and angry tones when things haven’t gone the way I hoped.
Another part of the change involved setting appropriate expectations. When my focus was on behavior modification, the temptation was to expect my children to act like little adults. They weren’t little adults. They weren’t mature. So it was just acting. In that scenario kids often learn how to keep mom and dad happy and make the angry faces go away without really maturing or having a heart change.
I had to lower my expectations, not for their future outcomes, but for the moment. I had to get comfortable with their progress taking longer, just as mine was. We were no longer trying to shape the outside of the child but the inside.
During this transition it was tempting to swing all the way over to permissiveness, especially when I was wrestling with guilt over my authoritarian ways. It took time to find the right balance for my family, and we still tweak it as needed.
Making all of these adjustments alongside a partner, I had the added task of coordinating and adjusting along with him, and that is no simple task. It added an element of complexity that frustrated and discouraged us at times. We had to give each other grace while we slowly changed into better parents. But it was worth it to figure it out together and get on the same page, as much as possible.
Most of all, it required repetition, just like teaching a small child. I put sticky notes up all over basically telling myself to “calm down!” or to “be nice!”, things I never thought I would have to say to myself as a parent. These things should have been simpler considering how much I love my children. But I had to face the ugly truths about myself, that while I was a wonderful parent in some ways, I was often less than they needed me to be.
Ultimately, I had to train and discipline my own reactions so that I could teach my children how to do the same. And isn’t that what parenting is really all about — leading by example?
I hope that when my children look back on their childhood, they see not a perfect parent, but someone who was honest and willing to go to great lengths to grow up. I hope they receive enough of the good to become even better parents than I could be.