Parental Authority

One of the most difficult concepts for our society to come to grips with has been that of authority, especially parental authority. The authority of the policeman is fairly simple to deal with: if we see a badge or a flashing light most people listen and respond appropriately. But the authority of experts and especially the authority of parents and teachers has been questioned for a number of years now in what is an increasingly egalitarian and permissive society in which a leveling-down process has given birth to a sense of entitlement on the part of a vast majority of the spoiled young people in this country. No one has wrestled more successfully with the concept of authority than Christopher Lasch, whom I have referred to in previous blogs and who has brought his grasp of basic Freudian principles to bear on the subject and helped clarify what is decidedly a very misunderstood concept. “Authority” is not a nasty word, as some would have us believe.

We need to start by distinguishing between spurious authority and legitimate authority, rooting out, for example, the bogus authority of “experts” such as Merriam Van Waters, author of Parents On Probation, who as early as the 1920s started the rumor that in an increasing number of cases parental authority was “warped” and children should be raised by the “helping professions” rather than parents.  One must question the credentials of these supposed “authorities” in child rearing. Such bogus authority is simply power in another guise, leading to the rejection of the legitimacy of the parental role in the family in the name of  the state’s “social responsibility” for the children. I hope to explore this theme more fully in a subsequent blog.

The recognition of the legitimate authority of acknowledged experts with bona fide credentials is something we all benefit from and our society desperately needs. This is the case with regard to the authority of those who have a thorough understanding of their field of expertise, as recognized by their peers, and it is most assuredly the case with regard to the legitimate authority of parents and teachers. While we have solid grounds for rejecting the supposed authority of many in the “helping professions,” not only must we recognize the authority of the physician and the auto mechanic, we must also recognize the authority of the scientist who tells us that the globe is warming and that human existence as we know it is facing radical change while the planet itself is in jeopardy. And we must allow for the legitimacy of the authority of the parents over their own children and the teachers to teach the young.

But ours is an egalitarian age in which we have begun with a misunderstanding of the notion of moral equality in which all are entitled to fair treatment under the law and expanded the notion to the absurd conclusion that there are no differences between men and women, or between the gifted and the obtuse, or between a spurious opinion and a reasoned opinion. This is the “leveling-down” process I mentioned above. In insisting, wrongly as it happens, that there are no differences that make any difference between opinions or people  we have tossed out the notion that there are some who know more than others, that some things are true while others are false, and that some people are capable of remarkable deeds while others simply are not. While we are all equal before the law and from a moral perspective differences are less important than similarities, some people are simply more able than others to do specific things: some differences do make a difference. And there are those whose legitimate authority we should all admit, though we seem reluctant to do so.

Now, whether or not one agrees that the general abandonment of the notion of legitimate authority is a serious problem, one must agree that the attack on the legitimate authority of the parents most assuredly is. As Lasch has noted, quoting  anthropologist Jules Henry,

“. . .the collapse of parental authority reflects the collapse of ‘ancient impulse controls,’ and the shift ‘from a society in which the Super Ego values (the values of self-restraint) were ascendant, to one in which more and more recognition was being given to the values of self-indulgence.’ The reversal of the normal relations between the generations [in which the children have come to rule the home], the decline of parental discipline, the ‘socialization’ of many parental functions, and the ‘self-centered, impulse-dominated, detached, confused’ actions of American parents give rise to characteristics that ‘can have seriously pathological outcomes, when present in extreme form,’ but which in milder form equip the young to live in a permissive society organized around the pleasures of consumption. . . In this way [parents] undermine the child’s initiative and make it impossible for him to develop self-restraint or self-discipline. . . The parent’s abdication of authority intensifies rather than softens the child’s fear of punishment, while identifying thoughts of punishment more firmly than ever with the exercise of arbitrary, overwhelming violence.”

In a word, by denying the legitimate role of the parents as authorities in the raising of their own children, and/or the abdication of that role by parents who are too self-absorbed and preoccupied with making a living (as we say), we have brought about a permissive society in which the child has become the center of the family; “discipline” has become a pejorative term; “reform” has replaced punishment; an increasingly coercive state has intruded itself into the private arena of the family which should ideally be off-limits; and the young are convinced they are entitled to what they perceive as “the good life,” and are increasingly inclined to resort to violence in order to make sure that this comes about. We have no one to blame but ourselves.


Alexis de Tocqueville visited this country in 1831 and stayed for only nine months. At the end of that time he wrote his Democracy in America which has become a classic. Even today we marvel at the man’s astute and penetrating observations of the customs and behavior of the Americans he watched so carefully. One of the things he was struck by was our love of “equality.” As de Tocqueville says, “I think democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy.”

What this means, I take it, is that we don’t want anyone else to be thought any better than we are ourselves. If anyone dares to presume to be superior to us in any way, we are quick to bring them back down to earth. The notion of moral equality, which is a powerful idea and central to our entire judicial system, has expanded to involve a general leveling down, a sameness of persons that refuses to admit that anyone can be regarded as in any sense whatever superior to any one else. This, of course, is absurd. It is called “egalitarianism,” and it has swept this country and Europe as well. Ortega y Gasset talks about it at some length in his Revolt of the Masses.

One of the notions that has been dismissed in our insistence that no one is any better than anyone else is the notion of expertise. I have touched on this notion in previous blogs, but it deserves a more thorough discussion. An expert is one who is supposed to know something the rest of us don’t know. When, in the spirit of egalitarianism, we insist that everyone has a right to his or her opinion, that my opinion is just as deserving of serious attention as yours — no matter who you are — we may have taken things a step too far. I recall some years ago one of my students balking at something Socrates said in a dialogue we were reading. I wanted him to expand on his notion that Socrates was somehow wrong in what he said, but the student couldn’t get past the notion that “it was just Socrates’ opinion.” The student also had his opinion which he was certain was just as weighty as that of a man who had thought about the matter for more than sixty years. Yet he could give no reasons. He thought none were necessary!

I mentioned in a previous blog the expertise of the physician, which we seldom question — though as our age becomes more and more litigious this profession may be brought down to our level as well. But at this time it remains a cut above the rest of us. Also, the automobile mechanic, though here again, skepticism has led us to question the trustworthiness of our local mechanic, whether or not he is being completely honest with us. But, for the most part, we acknowledge expertise in a few  areas. Very few. I would argue that we must allow it in a great many more.

When Scot Hamilton tells me that the triple toe loop I just witnessed was not up to par, I should listen. He knows whereof he speaks. He sees more than I do (or can, even in slow motion). Troy Aikman tells me something every Sunday during football season I didn’t know, pointing out things going on the field I never saw until he pointed to them. After only nine months, de Tocqueville became an expert on the American political system and the customs of the people of this country. The list goes on. There are people who have much greater experience, more extensive knowledge, and heightened sensitivity and deeper insight that enlarges their world. One of the reasons de Tocqueville’s book is regarded as a classic is because he saw so much so clearly. He made some mistakes, to be sure, but he was right more often than not. To refuse to listen to these people on the grounds that they are “no better” than I am (which is confusing and almost certainly irrelevant) is to close off part of my world and shrink it down to a fraction of what it might be.

Our love of equality, our determination to bring the lofty down to our level, is understandable and certainly warranted in courts of law or moral discourse. But it is misplaced in the real world where there are people more intelligent, more experienced, more sensitive, than ourselves. We really should listen to what they have to say. We might learn something.