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The Effects of Authoritarianism in Parenting and Work

Who rules your life?

Key points

  • Authoritarianism assumes control over the capacities of those dominated.
  • Authoritarianism can be, and often is, abusive.
  • The effects of authoritarianism are profound.
Andrea Mathews
Source: Andrea Mathews

What is authoritarianism? Authoritarianism assumes that there is an authority greater than the sum of all of my capacities. It means that I am not allowed to manage my own behavior (and in some cases, my thoughts and feelings), but that the authority can and must manage me. It insists that those who are ruled by the authority should be afraid of punishment implemented by the authority. It means that they must not get off the straight and narrow, as defined by the authority, and that if they do, they will absolutely be punished. It assumes that any aberrant behavior is not only punishable but labeled as “rebellious” or downright “criminal.” Authoritarianism means that regardless of how corrupt the authority is, those ruled by the authority must still stay on the straight and narrow. Authoritarianism rules absolutely.

Authoritarianism can rule an entire society—as we see in dictatorships all around the world. But it can also rule marriages, parenting, classrooms, and workplaces. In the past, authoritarianism ruled all marriages, much of the parenting processes, all of the classrooms, and most of the workplaces. But more people understand the dangers, limitations, and abuses created by authoritarianism now, so perhaps one day it will be voted out of our governments, and deliberately and consciously removed from marriages, parenting processes, classrooms, and workplaces.

When authoritarianism rules a committed relationship, abuse is often the result. Anytime one person dominates another and insists that the other person follow the rules of the dominating person, there is generally some kind of abuse taking place—be it physical, emotional, mental, financial, or sexual. What such authoritarianism assumes is that the other person is small, less valued, unimportant, or doesn’t even matter at all. The long-term effect of that is that the dominated party will begin to feel and believe that they are small, less valued, unimportant, as if they do not matter at all.

The same effect can be seen in children who are parented in an authoritarian style. The parent is the boss, and the children are to do what the boss says—period. It doesn’t matter what needs of the children go unaddressed, what questions they have about life, what mirroring they might need in order to find themselves, what emotional needs they might have, or even, sometimes, what physical problems or needs they might have. The boss is the authority—the end. The authoritarian parent often feels that they are right in ruling this way, as this style of parenting has been passed down to them for generations. But for the adult child what this means is that they may not have the emotional capacity to run their own lives effectively.

The job of a parent is to raise a child so that the child may learn to choose a healthy, effective adult life, trusting their own intuition and discernment. While this adult may have anxiety and even be sorrowful at times, they generally know who they are; are, at least by some measure, emotionally mature; and have good, healthy coping skills.

Those capacities have been reduced or even eliminated when the child has been ruled so much that they are not allowed to trust these capacities. The dominated child may be very afraid of punishment. In the extreme, this child may live by a rigid, anxious code that walks a line so tightly that they are always questioning their choices. Which way is the “right” way? Alternately, the dominated child may wish to break free and “rebel” against the authority, eventually becoming immune to all of the punishments they receive.

The same results of authoritarianism exist in classrooms and workplaces, where people are reduced to things that have been made to perform. The performance is all that matters. Forget about authenticity, creativity, or emotional/mental balance—just perform. Perform only along the lines demanded by the authority. The effect of this is that the children and the employees begin to feel like things. They are reduced and begin to see themselves as only performers in a life that demands much more than performance.

Of course, this does not mean that parents, teachers, and employers do not have any capacity to direct, discipline (i.e., teach) and redirect to facilitate creativity and potential in those that they serve. Nor does it mean that partners in a committed relationship do not have any say about how the relationship works on a daily basis. Indeed, partners need to be assertive and honest in order to create a healthy relationship.

Rather, authoritarianism is a tool used by those who wish only to enhance their own power over others. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the capacities of those they dominate. But because those dominated think it does, they see themselves as reduced to small, incapacitated things who know how to perform, but do not know who they are.

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