The language of parenting: Legitimacy of parental authority

The words we use to describe parenting evoke strong emotions·

The language we use to talk about parenting tends to evoke strong responses both because parenting and our children are so important to us and because parenting so deeply reflects our values.

Although probably the first systematic study of parenting style was published by Symonds in 1939, research on parenting took on new urgency after World War II.  How had so many people voluntarily participated in genocide?  How had ‘following orders’ come to overrule all other human values?  Where was the balance between raising a good, obedient child and one who could think for him or herself and act based on moral conviction?

In the years following the war, researchers identified three basic styles of ‘normal’ parenting: authoritarian, permissive (or indulgent), and democratic.  Authoritarian parents valued obedience for the sake of obedience.  Diana Baumrind, describing this style in the late 1960’s, described authoritarian parents as believing that their job was to socialize children to act ‘appropriately’.   In other words, they believed a good parent was a parent who (lovingly) bent the child to their will.  Objectively, authoritarian parents demanded compliance, but were relatively low in warmth.  They set rules, but didn’t explain them.  Permissive parents, on the other hand, viewed themselves primarily as resources to their children.  They saw their role as supporting the child and helping them to make good decisions.  They provided guidance, but not guidelines or rules.  Researchers characterized permissive parents as relatively high in warmth, but low in demandingness. 

Interestingly, Baumrind changed the language psychologists had used to describe parents who were both warm and demanding from ‘democratic’ to authoritative.  Authoritative parents set clear high standards for their children but were warm and supportive.  They explained rules, listened to their children’s arguments, and changed the rules when their kids made sense.  When children acted responsibly, they were given more responsibility and greater latitude to make choices.  In my favorite description of authoritative parenting, Baumrind describes it as helping the child to fit themselves to their environment so they can work and play well with others, while changing the environment to fit the needs and inclinations of the child.  It should be noted that Baumrind basically argued that all parents wanted to influence and (dare I say it) exercise control over their children.  They just approached it differently. 

Baumrind and others have found that authoritative parents tended to be the warmest and most responsive of all parents, were the most consistent about following through with the rules they set (although they set slightly fewer than authoritarian), and had kids who tended to do well in school, keep out of trouble, and be both happier and more autonomous than their peers.

I love the word ‘authoritative’, although its meaning has mostly been lost to my students and it is difficult to translate into Chilean Spanish, where I do much of my research.  My students think of the words ‘authoritative’ and ‘authoritarian’ as synonymous: harsh parents who unilaterally try to control their children through power assertion.  But that isn’t what ‘authoritative’ means.   Baumrind chose the word well.  Authoritative connotes legitimate authority based on knowledge and expertise.  ‘Authoritative’ parents feel comfortable about settings rules because they know more than their children, have more knowledge of the world, and have the obligation to protect and nurture their kids.  The children of authoritative parents tend to listen to their parents because they feel the parent is acting from their best interests and that they know what they’re talking about.  Authoritative parents get listened to, not because they are asserting power, but because their children have granted them authority and chosen to follow their guidance.

Which brings me to two key concepts: legitimacy of parental authority and obligation to obey.

Like the words ‘authoritaritarian’ and ‘authoritative’, the words ‘authority’ and ‘obey’ strongly connote unilateral power assertion.  But, like many words in psychology, what the words could mean in day-to-day parlance isn’t what they mean to psychologists.

Research on parental legitimacy and obligation to obey both grow out of really interesting work by Piaget on moral development.  Piaget was one of the great psychologists of the 20th century.  One of the many things that Piaget studied was how kids come to understand right and wrong.  For example, young children base judgments of morality on how much damage is done, but older children judge moral harm based on intention.  For a young child, accidentally breaking a tray of glasses is much worse than intentionally breaking one.  An older child views an accident as fundamentally different from causing intentional harm – it is not a moral issue.

Similarly, young children see parents as having the right (legitimate authority) to control all aspects of their lives.  Work by Turiel , Smetana, and others shows that kids say that parents can set rules over anything and that they are obliged to obey any rules parents set.  These views change very quickly as kids enter elementary school.  As they get older, children start to classify different issues as falling in different domains.  For example, personal issues are those that affect only the actor.  Moral issues are those that are right or wrong universally and based on an external system.  Prudential issues are those that have to do with health and safety.   Conventional issues are those that aren’t moral, but rather have to do with following agreed upon social rules.  Because of their social role as protector and caregiver, children tend to say that it is okay (i.e. legitimate) for parents to set rules about moral and conventional issues (hitting their siblings or swearing) and about  prudential issues like wearing bicycle helmets.  But kids are clear that parents have no right to set rules in the personal domain.  Who their friends are, what kind of music they listen to, or what kinds of games they play are all off limits.  Parents tend to agree: personal issues are off limits.  What becomes complicated – especially as children become adolescents – is which issues are personal and which are conventional, prudential, or moral.  Is cleaning your room a matter of personal discretion or a conventional (or, in extreme cases, prudential) issue?  Is wearing jeans to church in the personal or conventional domain?  Although who friends are and who adolescents date are prototypically personal issues, when does hanging out with kids who are clearly getting into trouble cross the line?  One of my students suggested that for her parents, that line got drawn when, at 15, she started dating a 21 year old heroin addict.  In retrospect, this seemed like a good decision to her.  It didn’t at the time.

Remarkably consistent cross-cultural research has found that, as children become adolescents and then adults, there is a normative expansion of which issues are judged to be in the personal domain.  Prudential issues, such as judgments about what types of movies or tv to watch and judgments about health tend to get encorporated into the personal domain first.  Drinking and substance use clearly move into that category.  Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, those are issues that youth typically say that their parents have the right (even the obligation) to set rules about, but that they are not obliged to obey.

Our own research suggests that although almost all kids show an age-related decline in the extent to which they believe parents have the right to set rules over different aspects of their lives, there are large differences between kids of the same age.  We found that children whose parents were low in warmth, low in monitoring, and who are already engaged in some problem behavior at 12 had similar beliefs to kids with warm, high monitoring parents at 17.   When we clustered kids based on their beliefs, we found that most adolescents did fall into the pattern Smetana had described: granting parents authority over prudential issues, somewhat over issues that combined the personal and prudential (hanging out with troublemaking kids), and not over personal issues like media choice, what they wear, or friends.  But there were other kids who – even in late adolescence – believed that their parents have the right to set rules about all aspects of their lives and that they needed to obey the rules that parents set.  And there are still other kids who believe parents don’t have the right to set any rules.  Interestingly, as we watch these children over time, most of them come to believe in the middle road: no to personal, yes to prudential.  As adolescents become more cognitively sophisticated, as well as more autonomous, the distinction between what parents may do as part of their role as parents (e.g., tell their adolescents not to drink) and their own obligation to obey (I think I can drink responsibly) becomes sharper.

Smetana has shown that authoritative mothers draw much sharper distinctions than permissive or authoritarian parents between those areas that they set rules about and those they don’t.  More authoritative mothers tend to let their children govern their own personal lives and stay out of issues in that domain.  Authoritarian mothers tend to define many issues others would define as conventional or personal as moral, and set rules about them.  Permissive mothers tend define many issues that others would define as conventional or prudential as personal and thus set fewer rules. 

Only setting rules about things that kids think are within parents’ legitimate area of authority helps to add to parents’ legitimacy and increase kids’ feelings that they should obey the rules that are set.  Legitimacy of parental authority and obligation to obey aren’t things that parents assert.  They describe kids’ beliefs about those areas where parents are making rules because it’s their job to and those areas where they should obey because it’s probably a reasonable idea.

More reading . . .

  • Baumrind, D. (1991). Effective parenting during the early adolescent transition. In P. A. Cowan & E. M. Hetherington (Eds.), Family transitions. Advances in family research series. (pp. 111-163). Hillsdale, NJ, USA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
  • Smetana, J. G., & Chuang, S. (2001). Middle-class African American parents’ conceptions of parenting in early adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 11(2), 177-198.
  • Nucci, L. P., Killen, M., & Smetana, J. G. (1996). Autonomy and the personal: Negotiation and social reciprocity in adult-child social exchanges. New Directions for Child Development, 73, 7-24.
  • Turiel, E. (1983). The development of social knowledge: Morality and convention. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Darling, N., Cumsille, P., & Peña-Alampay, L. (2005). Rules, legitimacy of parental authority, and obligation to obey in Chile, the Philippines, and the United States. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 108(Summer), 47-60.
  • Darling, N., Cumsille, P., & Martinez, M. L. (2008). Individual differences in adolescents’ beliefs about the legitimacy of parental authority and their own obligation to obey: A longitudinal investigation. Child Development, 79(4), 1103-1118.

· The language of parenting: Legitimacy of parental authority was first published by Nancy Darling for her blog, Thinking About Kids, for Psychology Today on Posted Jan 11, 2010: