Authority-Based Parenting

Authority-Based Parenting Vs. Power-Based Parenting



It’s no secret to any of us parents that kids are all so very different from one to the other. And personality characteristics vary from child to child, even within the same family. One might be more willing to take risks, while another tends to be cautious and less adventurous. One may be moody, while the other is known for being consistently care free. How our kids interact socially, the amount of ambition and drive they have, the ways they learn, the degree to which they are dependent or independent, are but a few of the characteristic differences in our kids, and these distinctions are what make each one of them the unique individual they are.
How our kids respond to discipline can also be quite different from one to the other. What works with one to bring about a desired change in attitude or behaviors might not work as well with another. And what may work well for us in our family and with our kids, might not work as well when tried by another parent in another family. All of these and other response differences in our kids is what makes knowing how to discipline successfully yet another challenging task we take on when we make the decision to become parents.

Our two daughters were quite different from each other in many ways. Ashley, our oldest, seemed to be born in neutral. She wasn’t lazy, but she certainly was content much of the time simply being still and quiet. Allyson, on the other hand, was born not only in gear and ready to go, but turbo charged as well! They were both quite different from each other when it came to discipline too. What it would take from us, and how they would respond was quite different most of the time, and it was because of these differences that as parents we had to respond in different ways to each of them much of the time.

We were never spankers as a general rule. Usually we felt that there was a better way than having to take up the rod. When our kids were very young-two to three year’s old-we would occasionally resort to a light swat to the backside (it really did usually hurt us more than it did them) to let them know we meant business, and that we wanted some sort of behavior change. It was our way of giving a warning and getting their attention in order to avoid some further, more extreme measures.

I can count on one hand the number of times during her entire childhood that we had to warn Ashley in this manner. Most of the time, a certain “look” from one of us conveyed to her all the warning that was needed to get her attention. I can also count on one hand the number of times we had to warn Allyson in this physical manner-that is, on any given day! She was not particularly defiant or out of control. It was just that she needed to test more than Ashley in order to find out what was expected and where the guidelines were-the guidelines in which she could then freely and safely live her life.

So kids are different in many ways. And how they will respond to our discipline will vary from one to another as well. It is for this reason that it is necessary for us to individually design, at least to some degree, how we discipline our kids.

And these unique differences are what make our task of disciplining them so difficult at times. It is for this reason too, that there is no book that I know of that gives us a recipe on how specifically to discipline, and what to do in each and every situation we will encounter. Unfortunately, the fine art of disciplining kids is not an exact science.

Is there really a difference between discipline and punishment?
In our every day conversation, most of us use the words “punishment” and “discipline” interchangeably. We naturally assume that both words describe the same behavior. The purpose of what follows is to suggest that there are significant distinctions that we must make between the two if our goal is to be successful parents.

While making the distinction between discipline and punishment in every day conversation with others may seem unnecessary, the differences between the two are actually what often separate the successful parent from the one that is unsuccessful in their efforts to raise great and healthy kids.

So it is important for all of us to have a practical and working understanding of the differences between discipline-based parenting and punishment-based parenting. It is perhaps even more important that we understand how the results of using one rather than the other may affect our kids in very different and unfortunate ways.

Is there really a difference between authority and power?
There is usually another confusion that occurs when we talk about “parental power” and “parental authority”. When we hear “authoritative parenting”, we usually think of it as negative and connect it with the idea of power. When we refer to someone as being an authoritative parent, we usually picture an over powering, controlling parent who has dictatorial attitudes, and is overly strict with their kids.

My objection to the negative connotation that usually accompanies this concept of “authority” is that we parents are indeed an authority in the lives of our kids. We must be in order for them to develop into healthy adults. What we must not be is over powering. So authority and power must not be used in the same breath and as if they were the same.

So in an attempt to recapture the positive and necessary qualities of parental authority, I will be using authority as a positive and much needed parental characteristic, and distinguishing it from parental power, which I believe interferes with our efforts to raise great kids. If you are skeptical of such distinctions, I invite and encourage you to read on before concluding that any differences are merely a matter of semantics.

I must confess to just a little “mischievous glee” that comes over me when, at the beginning of parenting workshops I teach, I declare that, “in American homes today, there is far too much punishment and parental power taking place”. Most parents in attendance respond with a glare, a shake of their head, or a quiet whisper to the person next to them. Or, some will quickly raise their hand, eager to express their disagreement with my declaration. Seldom do I get a sign or indication from any of the workshop participants that they agree with my notion that too many parents overuse punishment and power with their kids these days.

What I most often hear back is a corporate disagreement that just the opposite is true; that what parents today must use is not less punishment and power, but rather more of both! Perhaps more punishment, so the reasoning goes, would finally bring about a change in the attitudes of irresponsibility and rebellion that is so common in kids today. And perhaps more power from parents would go a long way in “designing” kids who are more self-controlled and well behaved.

I am always quick to point out and explain (in order to avoid a mass exodus), that, while we parents must not rely on punishment and power to extract changes from our kids and their unacceptable attitudes and behaviors, we must instead be willing to learn the fine art and use of healthy and creative discipline and authority instead. While there may be too much punishment going on in today’s family, there is certainly not enough discipline taking place. Likewise, while too often there is an over abundance of parental power, we must be a healthy, well-balanced authority in the lives of our kids instead.

In Part II you will read about some of the characteristic differences, as well as some important outcome differences that I believe set discipline-based parenting apart from punishment-based parenting. You will also find descriptive differences as well as outcome differences that I believe distinguish authority-based parenting from power-based parenting.

While the differences may seem minor, the impact on the lives of our kids when we use punishment rather than discipline, and power rather than authority, can create havoc in their lives and in our relationship with them.

Stated in general terms, if we practice discipline-based parenting and authority-based parenting, we will not only succeed at bringing about desired behavior changes in our kids when it is necessary, but we will at the same time be more likely to raise great kids who like and value themselves. In short, the use of both discipline and authority will help us shape the will of our kids, while leaving their spirit to grow and prosper.

If we choose punishment-based parenting and power-based parenting as our model, we may find that we still get immediate behavior changes that are needed from time to time in our kids.  Both are also more likely however, to tear down their self-esteem and leave them feeling insecure, angry, and at best, only temporarily motivated to behave, and for the wrong reasons. Their immediate behaviors may improve, but it is less likely that their attitudes and long-term behaviors will. The use of both punishment and power in raising kids tends to tear down their spirit and create a rebellious will.

Remember that being a successful parent is more about attitude than it is approach
What sets discipline-based parenting apart from punishment-based parenting, and authority-based parenting apart from power-based parenting, is not just our behavioral response and actions, but our motivations and attitudes that come along with our corrective responses. A spanking, for example does not necessarily fall under the category of discipline or punishment.  Nor does the act of spanking automatically fall into the camp of either authority or power. And being grounded may fall under the category of either as well, depending on what else we parents do and say along with our act of grounding the guilty party. Being sent to their room for a period of time can also not be automatically described as one or the other.

If behavior and attitude changes in our kids were our only goal and concern, then making a distinction between discipline and punishment would not be needed. Likewise, considering the differences between authority and power would also be unnecessary. Even though power and punishment will often bring about immediate changes and compliance in kids, our concern must be about what harm might also be brought as a result of using parental power and punishment rather than discipline and authority.

Since initially, both the use of discipline or punishment, and authority or power are likely to get the changes we want in our kids, and since punishing and using power is usually easier and far less time consuming for us weary parents, then why argue the merits of discipline over punishment, and authority over power? Such a discussion and consideration of the differences is necessary because there is more to this parenting thing than just shaping our kids into a behaving person. Shaping their spirit is every bit as important as shaping their will.

It is likely that some might still believe there is little or no difference between our use of discipline and punishment, and between our exerting authority and power in our efforts to be successful parents. To those skeptics who are still reading in spite of their doubts, I ask that you withhold your conclusion until you have read further.


Seven Characteristic Differences Between Authority-Based Parenting And Power-Based Parenting:

  1. Authority-Based Parenting Maintains Its Influence When The Authority Figure Is No Longer Present; Power-Based Parenting Is Effective Only As Long As The Power Figure Is Present.
  2. Authority-Based Parenting Fosters And Encourages Independence; Power-Based Parenting Fosters And Encourages Dependence.
  3. Authority-Based Parenting Establishes Parameters And Guidelines That Are Fluid And Flexible; Power-Based Parenting Establishes Parameters And Guidelines That Are Rigid And Inflexible.
  4. Authority-Based Parenting Gradually Gives Up Control And Teaches Self-Control; Power-Based Parenting Fears Losing Control.
  5. Authority-Based Parenting Comes From A Position Of Strength And Establishes Leadership With Democracy; Power-Based Parenting Comes From A Position Of Weakness And Establishes Autocratic Rule.
  6. Authority-Based Parenting Earns Respect By Giving It; Power-Based Parenting Demands Respect But Does Not Give It.
  7. Authority-Based Parenting Encourages And Nurtures The Spirit But Discourages Willful Defiance; Power-Based Parenting Stifles The Spirit And Encourages Willful Defiance.

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