Blame It On the Parents

Orcinus, April 25, 2009


Some of the commenters below seemed confused or surprised by my asserting that conservative or liberal parenting styles could affect people’s ideas about the prerogatives of authority, and of how they think about ideas like liberty, justice, and accountability.

A few thought the whole idea absurd. (It would be interesting to hear their alternative theories on how they think the dramatic worldview shift between conservatives and liberals comes about.)

Others pointed out, quite rightly, that the two parenting styles I described are hardly exclusive or hard-and-fast. Most parents go to the authoritarian side on some issues (and generally, it’s those issues where they feel least in control themselves); and tend to be more liberal on others (generally, those where they feel more confidence in their ability to control the situation). George Lakoff made the same observation about how people mix-and-match the strict-father versus nurturant-parent models in their political thinking. It holds just as true here.

But it’s also true that the conservative worldview is far more obsessed generally with the issue of control — when in doubt, clamp down hard and fast — and conservative parents would therefore lean to a more authoritarian parenting style. The liberal worldview tends to trust people and the world in general — when in doubt, stand back and see what happens — and this leads to a more open-ended sense of how to manage children.

Either way, though, the basic fact is this: Parenting is the first — and far and away the most defining — experience most of us have with power relationships. What we learn from that relationship teaches us a great deal about what we can expect from power for the rest of our lives. We may choose to revisit those assumptions as adults; but it’s not easy, and requires significant re-trenchment of how you view yourself and the rest of the world.

I speak from first-hand experience. I grew up under a mostly-authoritarian parenting model, and can testify that its express goal is to break down the child’s will, and turn him into a closely-conforming, unquestioning, and obedient follower of all forms of institutional authority. (This isn’t speculation. Right-wing parenting books spell it out clearly; and my father reminded us explicitly and often that he’d taken on this sacred duty on our behalf.) Inherent in the authoritarian parenting style are several core lessons about power that, once internalized, will have reverberating effects for the rest of the child’s life.

First, as a kid in this kind of household, you learn that your thoughts and feelings are untrustworthy — and furthermore, that people in authority are not the least bit interested in your internal life, only in your external behavior. Stop crying. Don’t give me any excuses. I don’t want to hear any more from you. Just do what I tell you — now. Or else. The message is that you can trust the rules, tradition, The Good Book, the boss, the preacher, or Daddy to tell you what’s right; but you should never ever trust your own instincts or thought processes. This pretty effectively inhibits the development of your own internal authority.

Second, you learn that you’re not entitled to have any physical or emotional boundaries. The authorities have an unlimited right to intrude on your thoughts, feelings, personal space, and even your body perimeter at any time, for any reason. You are not your own; you entire being is at the mercy of those set by God to rule over you. You must trust that whatever they do, they do for your own good — even if the reasons aren’t clear to you right now, and in fact may never be explained to you. They know best. Just go with that.

Third, you learn that the Authority is the Authority no matter what. It doesn’t matter if Dad is abusive or Mom is manipulative or Grandpa gets drunk and molests you. Lakoff observed that conservative families define “family” as a dramatic set piece requiring people to take on and fulfill an ensemble of traditional roles; and they hold those roles absolutely sacred. The office of “Grandfather” is inherently demanding of respect, even when the person holding that office is a drunken pervert. You are out of line to question the behavior of your betters, even when their behavior is beyond questionable. He is in authority over you, and it’s not your place to object to how he chooses to deploy that authority. So hush now. I don’t want to hear another word against your Grandpa.

On some fronts, kids resist these lessons for a while; but they eventually give up and accept them as reality, and go on to live their lives well within the proscribed bounds. On others, they will harden into rebels who are impervious to reason, and will resist all attempts to tell them what to do. This is equally dangerous: since they don’t have much practice making decisions or choosing their own behavior, these flights of resistance often end in stunning acts of self-destruction. (This pattern is the source of ten thousand jokes about Catholic high school girls being unleashed into college life.) On yet other fronts, they learn that they do have boundaries — but only to the extent that they’re personally willing to fight and able to defend them. The far-right affection for pugnacious rhetoric and a strong defense comes straight out of this — as does acceptance of the idea that the weak will always be at the mercy of the strong, and that this is the right order of things.

Liberal parenting teaches almost exactly the opposite lessons. Kids are taught, by example and by their interactions with their parents, to value their own thoughts and feelings, and to trust those perceptions in their own decision-making. This allows a strong sense of internal authority to develop.

One of the major tasks of that authority is to set and defend personal boundaries. Liberal kids are raised with a precocious confidence in their own boundaries. They’re told that they have inherent rights — to their thoughts, their feelings, their convictions, their personal privacy, and their own bodies — that nobody, not even their parents, is permitted to violate. Sometimes, parents have to anyway — the kid needs a tetanus shot, whether she wants one or not — but never without an objectively good reason, even if the kid might not understand that reason until much later.

They’re also raised to believe that those in charge have a duty to help individuals defend their personal boundaries. You can see this difference reflected in adult attitudes toward crime and punishment. Conservatives want guns, because they’re taught (literally at their daddies’ knees) that authority can and will violate their boundaries at a whim. Liberals want cops and courts because their parents taught them, by their own example, that authority has an obligation to help the weak defend their rights against the stronger. Furthermore, an authority can only violate someone’s boundaries if it has a very strong overriding reason to do so; and then only within the limits of very strict rules. If it violates those rules, it forfeits its legitimacy, and should not be obeyed.

Liberal parents do expect to be obeyed; but their model draws a big distinction between “authoritarian” and “authoritative.” Government power derives from the consent of the governed; so true authority — even parental authority — must on some level be earned by the parent’s own trustworthy conduct. Our kids are taught to respect the office only if the individual holding that office is worthy of respect. If Grandpa gets drunk and abuses you, you have a responsibility to speak up — and a right to expect the adults to defend you. Mom is worthy of respect not just because she’s Mom, but because she’s the one who can be counted on to take you seriously, and then take steps to protect you. That’s Good Authority in action.

Being raised in one model and learning to parent in the other has been one of the bigger growth experiences of my life. Overall, I’ve found the liberal model far more effective — both in creating a happy day-to-day home life, and also in the kind of people it ultimately turned out. My authority derives, almost completely, from the fact that my children and I have a very long history of mutual respect. It only grows stronger with age — a very useful thing now that I’m parenting two teenagers who both tower over me.

It’s a much more powerful kind of authority than my father held over me at a similar age. The showdown fistfight between father and teenaged son is a cliche in authoritarian parenting. It’s a reflection of the fact that parental authority based on external control necessarily begins to wane as kids approach adulthood. There’s no other way for this to play out. When the belt and the tantrum no longer work, the parents begin to lose power. In many authoritarian families, this season of separation is a very ugly time, because these parents never expected they’d have to let go. They’re caught completely off-guard by the shifting power dynamic, and fight their kids’ bids for independence tooth and nail before they’re finally, grudgingly, forced to accept defeat. The battle often leaves lifelong scars on both sides. (My father cut off my college funds when I was 19, and we didn’t speak again for over two years. Stories like this are extremely typical in conservative families.)

But in the liberal model, the transition proceeds far more gently. I can’t whup my kids, and they know it. But they do know that for 16 and 18 years, respectively, Mom has always wanted only the best for them — and that 95% of the time, she’s has been mostly right about how to achieve that. It’s a record that, at this late date, is hard to refute; so they’re usually willing to at least hear me out. Furthermore, I’ve almost never been a hardass without having a damned good reason to be. Even when everything in them wants to rebel, they have to admit that even when I’m tough, I’m usually fair.

Heading toward adulthood, my kids hear their own internal authorities loud and clear, in what sounds like their own voices — but the words falling out of their mouths, unconscious and unbidden, are very often mine. (Hearing them return to me this way is a delicious experience.) Over they years, they’ve also developed some acumen at anticipating my likely objections and figuring out when and how to disagree constructively. I don’t always like their conclusions, but I admire their ability to predict and address my concerns. They choose their own authorities. They are their own authorities. The kids are all right.

I could no more have had those conversations with my dad at that age than I could have rollerskated on Neptune. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s, and we finally reconciled on an equal footing as adults, that that kind of relationship became possible.

Americans like to think of parenting as an intensely private, individualized activity that doesn’t have much connection to the larger worlds of work, politics, culture, or society in general. The truth is that parenting is the work of the world, inasmuch as it shapes the essential attitudes and beliefs that all of us bring to every aspect of our adult lives. Our homes are the gardens in which the future of the world is grown. Of course it matters what we plant there.

I’m not arguing that parenting philosophy is the only thing that makes us conservative or liberal. There’s ample evidence that there’s a genetic component that makes some children more fearful (and hence conservative); and others more trusting or bigger risk-takers (and thus more liberal). And I’m Exhibit A for the argument that we can also choose as adults to change our beliefs and attitudes, overriding the effects of both nature and nurture to at least some degree.

So none of this is absolutely determinative. But Hannah Arendt, Alice Miller, David Hackett Fischer, and George Lakoff have all argued persuasively that what our parents teach us about power has a resounding effect on how we relate to power as adults. If we want to create a progressive world, we have to start by teaching the kids that they have the right to listen to their own voices, recognize and defend their own boundaries, and choose which authorities they will invest with their respect and submission. Democracy, like everything else, starts at home.

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