Authority in the Education of Children

Authority in the Education of Children

by Professor Oliveros F. Otero

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Authority as Service

In the process of educating each child, the authority of the parents is an indispensable service. (Service means, “acting for, in the interest of, others”)

To persevere in spite of everything implies that the parents recognize their authority to be a service to their children, to help them grow in freedom and responsibility.

Authority as service is also related to the parents’ responsibility as primary educators.
To think, to be informed to decide, to communicate clearly, to lead to accomplishment, are successive phases in the exercise of this authority.  To dispense with some or anyone of these stages may lead tot impulsiveness or inconsistency and, consequently, to sheer authoritarianism or an arbitrary exercise of authority demanding a more or less blind compliance; or to the attitude of “giving in to everything” and hence to a despairing abandonment or to indifference –“the non-exercise of authority.”  Neither authoritarianism nor indifference is educative because in each case authority is wrongly used.  Parents are vested with authority precisely in order that they may bring their “authorship” to completion.  Parenthood does not stop at procreation.

Parental authority is primarily an opportunity for service and only secondarily and derivatively for power.  Some experts on the subject are inclined to oppose power and authority.  Actually, what they are contrasting is the desire to serve and the desire to dominate.

Parents have, among other rights and duties, the power, (the right and the duty), to make decisions and to sanction negatively or positively.  That is, to mete out rewards or punishments.  Used as a service for the proper education of children, authority and power do not contradict each other. Power that is soberly and correctly exercised forms a necessary and legitimate part of authority.

What is thoroughly incompatible with authority is the desire for domination. Power in this case is used to impose one’s will on others, not to serve them.  One may continue to refer to such an exercise of power as “authority” but it is no longer in any true sense authoritative, because the objective has been changed.  Such a desire for domination may become pan of the parents’ authority due to their immaturity or sheer callous insensitivity.  This not uncommon hardheadedness is evident in parents who look upon their children as their property, who display them like possessions, or simply think of them as projections of themselves.

Before giving a command, parents should consider (it takes but a few seconds) the reason for it: is it for the good of the children or does it issue only from caprice or out of a personal whim?  They should also examine their motives: does the command spring from a rational and temperate sobriety or is it mainly for their own convenience?  Does not the expression “for the sake of peace” sometimes mean “for the sake of convenience”?

The wish to dominate and to be dominated are frequently found as psychological aspects of the same personality.  Because of misunderstandings in conjugal relations, one spouse sometimes winds up being dominated by the other, and he or she compensates by dominating the children in turn. It also happens on occasion that when a person is dominated by someone in, say, his place of work or in his social relations, he in turn tries to dominate his own family.

Sometimes we want to serve and at others we want to be served, depending upon the mood of the moment. We may imagine ourselves as protagonists in righteous and even heroic action or we may feel we are victims of the arbitrary injustice of others. We suffer an imbalance because we lack consistent and intense conviction in our motives.

Authority as prestige

Parents have authority by virtue of their being parents.  But their authority is maintained or can be lost or recovered through their manner of exercising it.  Their behavior will be the determining factor.
Authority, as has been said, should be employed for the benefit r of those subject to it.  It should be conditioned in its use by the desire to serve, and not by an intention to dominate.  This desire to be of service, with its presupposed positive attitudes, though necessary, is not sufficient.  To serve with authority, a certain amount of prestige is essential.  Authority is maintained or recovered by prestige.
How can one gain this prestige with one’s children? A positive attitude, serenity and naturalness are clearly beneficial qualities.  But there are obviously different personal styles for showing a positive attitude.  All of them should develop from optimism (knowing how to discover what is positive in each person and in each situation) and from confidence (because there are sufficient reasons for trusting).  Constant cantankerousness or ill-humor, on the other hand, is detrimental: it not only ages the person concerned, but detracts from his ability to influence for good and, makes him lose his good standing into the bargain.

Serenity rests on the same foundations -optimism and confidence.  These are the best pre-conditions for acting with consistently good sense and flexibility.  Nervousness or anxiety, on the contrary, only serves to worsen the situation.  Parents and educators in general must use their intellectual capacities and talents -their own, and those of others to a certain degree- and try always to maintain their equilibrium in difficult situations.

Naturalness rests upon consistency of conduct, which frequently requires knowing how to go against the tide.  The most influential parents are those who are understanding and flexible and at the same time capable of being firm in what is most important.  Glum looks, histrionics, censoriousness, lamentations, and wildly erratic judgments are all opposed to naturalness, and cannot help but damage parental prestige.

Also prestige is maintained by the way parents react towards their own work.  Are they contented with it?  Do they do it well and without complaining? Do they avoid moodiness when faced with professional setbacks or frustrations, whether big or trivial? Are they sufficiently interested in it to talk about their work?  In whatever case, each parent must understand the meaning and significance of work in general and of his or her own work in particular, and should be aware of how he or she looks upon the work of others.

The gamut of possibilities is very wide, ranging from the narrow vision of those who value work almost entirely for its economic remuneration, to those who without losing their professional attitude towards just compensation, discover in their job or profession daily opportunities for interior enrichment and service, for growth in personal freedom, and, on the supernatural level, for sanctity and apostolate.

Parents can lose their prestige in the exercise of their authority. -a lot more than they usually imagine- by every action that makes education and work (studies) appear relatively unimportant or even childish.  Parents should always show by their attitude, the value of education and its lasting character, especially to those children who want to be good professionals.  The law of unity (which has nothing at all to do with a law of uniformity) is the principal source of their prestige in this attitude to education.  There should be a unity in the work of the parents, embracing their developmental processes, their social relationships, their internal struggle to improve, and their well-ordered way of living.

Parents’ prestige with their children is maintained also by the -way they handle their relationships with friends.  They would do well to ask themselves questions like:


  • Do I try not to criticize others?
  • If I cannot give a word of praise, do I hold my tongue?
  • Do I defend the good intentions of my friends when they are evident to me?
  • Do I help them when they have technically or patently been in the wrong?
  • Am I a discreet, reliable, trustworthy person?
  • Am I a person in whom others can confide?
  • Does all this emerge from the way I converse with my friends or speak about them?If parents cannot give an affirmative answer to these questions and to others of a similar nature, they run the grave risk of losing their prestige with their own children.  If children hear their parents judging rashly or making unjust comments about others, they will almost certainly deduce that their parents will regard him in the same way when the occasion arises.  At the very least, their authority will be put seriously in doubt.The three areas indicated so far, in which efforts must be made to maintain one’s prestige are:


  • One’s own disposition in general, and towards the family in particular;
  • One’s attitude towards one’s work and one’s children
  • One’s manner of behaving in social situations, with friends, neighbors, relatives or associates.Prestige in the exercise of authority is sustained and enhanced through personal effort. In general, the prestige of the educator rests on his constant effort to keep on educating himself, never letting up in the daily struggle.Assuming that he or she has the prestige and the zeal for service, a father or a mother will still find plenty of problems besetting them.

    Conditioned Authority

    If authority were only a matter of personal qualities or only the result of one person’s single initiative, we could be sure of success. But authority involves a relationship in which at least three elements have to be considered:

  • The parents
  • The children
  • The environment

Therefore, despite great expenditure of personal effort, the results may not come up to what is expected.

The fact that authority is an element in a relationship does not diminish the value of prestige and the personal wish to be of service. On the contrary, without the constant striving and the constant desire for personal improvement, parents are bound to be already at a disadvantage. In other words, the authority of parents is an authority conditioned by their own limitation, by those of their children and by the “dehumanizing” influences of the environment they live in.  One parent may be lacking in certain qualities or capacities. For example, in perseverance or in generosity, and this, to some extent, must set bounds to his authority.  The other parent also brings in his or her own personal limitations, complementary or otherwise, and these are added to the other’s. In this way, authority is doubly conditioned.  Both parents can keep on struggling, with great or little success, in the areas in which they have gained or lost prestige.  In this case we have two authorities in virtual competition: that of the father and that of the mother.

It cannot be emphasized enough that each parent should begin to enhance the prestige of the other.  Each parent should make use of opportunities where they can make suggestion to help the children discover positive traits in their father or their mother as the case may be.  Even an incidental remark of approval, said in passing, can help foster love and establish a more solid base for the exercise of authority.

It is important for parents to come to an agreement as to how and for what purpose they educate.  Consequently, they have to harmonize paternal and maternal authorities, sometimes jointly, sometimes complementary, all in the service of better education for their children.

Parental authority is likewise conditioned by other people’s having authority over their children – such as for example, their teachers.  There are teachers who have more influence over their students than the parents have.  Theoretically, teachers (“in loco parentis”) are representatives of the parents, or better, are properly qualified cooperators, if cooperation exists, between the school and the family.  This cooperation serves to establish common educational objectives and should harmonize the authority of both.  It also serves to verify the bases of prestige and map out the extent of service in each area.

In large towns and cities, parental authority encounters special problems peculiar to an urban environment; these may be related to the law of the land and to local practices, complicated by frequent improvisation. The city, often afflicted with lack of planning, and with the results of a piecemeal development, will sometimes legislate with motives that differ from its original intentions with regard to community living; a system can be built up while losing sight of and without really taking into consideration the needs of its most valuable human resource -families.

Autonomy and authority require a framework of family intimacy or privacy.  Many factors influence the safeguarding and promotion of family intimacy, and of these, housing is not the least important -we could, in fact, consider it as the spatial projection of such an intimacy.  “To live with other people, in the same house is ipso facto to live in. other persons, in a real sense to share their life with them.  Considering the house from this point of view as a projection in space of this same intimacy, it follows that to care for its interior aspect -its decor, its cleanliness, order, etc. is by the same token, to care for the harmonious and welcoming character of familial closeness itself.  To look after the house in such a way that it radiates warmth and hospitality has very much the same significance as making an effort to bring about a harmonious and pleasant relationship with one’s fellow men.  Thus, the cordial or the somber, the orderly or the chaotic, the gentle or the discordant character of the inhabitants’ relationship is reflected in the warm or chilly, pleasing or forbidding layout of the furnishing and functional elements of the home. When somebody has personally decorated and arranged his house, he has realized, in a more or less perceptible manner, a living blueprint.” (I. Choza).

Parental authority is conditioned by the home itself. In other words, the exercise of parental authority is best carried out within an intimate home atmosphere in which parents and children meet one another with gladness: that is to say, within the family.

Before we continue our discussion of the conditions involved in the exercise of parental authority, it might be fitting to note that authority, even when thus or otherwise conditioned, does not cease to be authority.  Consequently, it has to be exercised, and to continue to be exercised once parents are aware that it is a positive and powerful influence in the education of their children.  Some of the conditioning of parental authority is due to the parents’ own shortcomings, to those of other parents and to adverse environmental influences and pressures.  Parents must cultivate the knowledge that will enable them to take a realistic view of all this, and be able to recognize the main difficulties, and establish their priorities. Parents should never give up or be discouraged.

We have seen how there are personal limitations, how there are others which have to do with the other people within the family and how there are pressures coming from the environment.  We can stress two of these: the manipulation of the media and an escalating eroticism, together with materialism.

Parental authority is authority hedged in by conditions, some of which are seriously detrimental to the education of children.  However, these conditions notwithstanding, parental authority will be effective if it is motivated by zeal for service, if parents strive to maintain and increase their prestige in the family by improving their character, their work, their social relations, and their spirituality; and it will be effective if parents remain alert and vigilant, and do not allow themselves to be influenced by negative environmental pressures from the society in which they live.

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