Reality, Not Authority

 Posted by on 28 September 2009 at 4:00 am  Education, Parenting
Sep 282009

In response to my story from my third podcast about a father teaching his child to evade by demanding obedience from her, Rational Jenn posted some fascinating comments on how parents often substitute their authority for that of reality. Here’s a bit from her post:

Please don’t misunderstand me–this is not to say that I don’t exercise my parental authority. I do have it–you sort of get it automatically when the kids are very small. As they are utterly dependent upon the adults in their lives, they of course learn to rely on them for the things they need, including guidance, and they do view parents as authority figures.

But what I try to do is to never ever make my authority the sole basis for discipline. I explain my reasons–sometimes those explanations need to be provided to the child after the fact (there’s that rushing out into the street example again). I try to show or tell them something about the reality of the situation and guide them through what needs to happen. And if they can’t or won’t do what they need to (like not biting a sibling), then I will exercise my authority and help them stop.

Parenting by Authority does encourage kids to evade. They can learn to squash their feelings, to pretend events didn’t happen, and to learn how to game the system. They learn that what Dad decides is more important than what actually occurred. And they lose the ability and the chance to use their minds independently.

She then discusses some the consequences of Parenting by Authority, but for that, you’ll have to read the post. (Later, Jenn posted a fascinating story on catching her son trying to evade.)

Then the discussion continued: Amy Mossoff posted on the dangers of authority-based education. In her view, “Montessori is the only widely available educational system that does not Educate by Authority.” Here’s an example:

The Montessori method recognizes that external reward systems such as grades are not necessary, and even harmful. Children naturally want to learn. Anyone who has observed small children can see this. The reward for good work is in the work itself, and in the accomplishment. Montessori materials are self-correcting – the children know whether they have done the work correctly without relying on a teacher’s stamp of approval. The blocks of diminishing size must be stacked up from biggest to smallest or the tower will not stand. The cylinders of diminishing size must be placed in the proper holes, or they will not all fit in the puzzle.

I love that!

I’m delighted that my podcast sparked this bit of discussion. Here’s my follow-up question: In dealing with other adults at work or elsewhere, do you always deal with them by reason to the greatest extent possible? Or do you sometimes lapse into mere authoritarian demands? It’s easy to say “I deal with people by reason, of course!” That’s the answer we want to give. However, I suspect that the intrinsicism pervasive in our culture has affected most of us to some degree or other.

Personally, I’m going to make a conscious effort to interact with other people scrupulously in “mind of reason mode” rather than “muscles of authority mode.” It’s not an error that I make often, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve slipped into it from time to time with people open to rational persuasion — particularly when tired, frustrated, or hurried. Clearly, that’s a mistake. So if I do that, I hope that someone will point that out to me — preferably without gloating!

  • abbeysbooks

    There is a distinction here that is not being made, substituting authority for reality. There is a mountain of difference between authority and authoritarianism. The “authoritarian” parent will not grasp what you are saying in this post. Other learning will have to take place before there will be a behavioral difference in that parent’s behavior towards her/his child. This includes teachers as The Authoritarian Personality gravitates towards a career in education (Adorno). This is probably the greatest negative in public school education.

    I refer you to Robert Altemeyer’s marvelous 20 year study on Authoritarians:,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.r_qf.,cf.osb&cad=b 

    In this search go to the entrance on Altemeyer’s book in PDF form. You can also buy a hard copy on Amazon.

    Although an American he is a professor in Canada. ALL HIS RESEARCH WAS DONE OUT OF HIS OWN POCKET! NO GRANTS OR GOVT MONEY!

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