Sociologist Christopher Lasch once wrote, “Socialization makes the individual want to do what he has to do; the family is the agency to which society entrusts this complex and delicate task.”
Complex and delicate indeed. But then again, it is no more complex than the reality of parental authority, the archetype of human authority. Authority names a power to give direction to another person precisely because of a responsibility to care for that person. Authority is an agency of love. Love wants true flourishing for a person, and authority directs to that flourishing.
Part of the richness of human happiness or flourishing is that, in a sense, it is not optional. In Lasch’s words, it is something a person “has to do.” Not to live a certain way is for us humans to fail, or to fall short of what we not only could but should be. In that sense, at least, we have to do it. Such is the drama of human existence—the drama within which authority has an essential part to play.
The truth is that we need authority not only to inform us but also in some sense to move us toward our flourishing, our truly-being-ourselves. I have suggested in this space that while authority is shared between parents, it is the dominant note in how a father relates to his children. I will expand this and offer a few examples.
A human father is a generator not only of the human form but also and especially of human flourishing. Human flourishing consists in good character and the fruits that follow from it, such as friendship and wisdom. (Theological considerations will enrich but not negate this point.) At the heart then of human formation is the formation of the heart—in the sense of a person’s desires and loves. Here we think again of Lasch and the crucial importance of making an individual want to do what he has to do.
We can take this as a lens through which to consider a father’s exercise of authority, asking how he might move his children toward wanting to do what is right. In short, I suggest that a father seeks to convey this to his children: Certain ways of acting are simply good and righteous, and because I love you, I will make certain demands of you. Let us focus and briefly reflect on his interactions with a son, first as a four-year-old, then an 11-year-old, and finally a 15-year-old.
A four-year-old, despite having an inchoate moral awareness, tends to be driven by what appeals, in predictable fashion, to his passions of desire. We probably have all seen a four-year-old whose passions are seldom curbed by anything other than the material limits of his surroundings, or the psychological limits of the people around him. Such a child is a menace in various ways to peers and elders. But more, he is unhappy, seldom tasting the real joys of which he should be capable.
We might imagine here the role of a father (abstracting for the sake of focus from the essential and tandem role of mother) who, first of all, literally speaks into the situation words of insight that give guidance. “Johnny, sharing is important; we honor our guests by serving them first; we always take care of little babies; just this much dessert is good for our celebration; we all do our part in cleaning up for a lovely home…” The vast majority of four-year-olds can begin to comprehend these things, and such teaching is a solid basis for making demands on them. I do not suggest that every demand presupposes an explanation of why. I do suggest that even at this age we can convey that demands and prohibitions are grounded in what is truly good. In this way, a child associates dos and don’ts with a way of life his parents want for him—because it’s good for him.
It is clear, then, that consistency and follow-through in certain directives are of the essence of authority—precisely because of the importance of the various goods in question. The place of punishment in the exercise of this authority calls for careful consideration, but here I will make one assertion. I think many conscientious parents make the mistake I did, and act as though punishment is the only or even the main means of making our directives effective. One can be consistent in conveying various truths and demanding corresponding actions prior to any issue of punishment. Punishment can be effective and certainly has its place. Yet sometimes, taking a child aside and discussing what happened—and when appropriate expressing sympathy with what moved the child to act—is a fitting and sufficient response.
All this, including the administering of punishment when appropriate, is enacted to convey that because we love you, we demand certain things.
Consider the 11-year-old boy who, understandably enough, wants to play violent video games like so many of his peers. The first step of his father’s exercise of authority is that he is close enough to the boy’s life that neither the activity itself nor the desire to do it would go unnoticed. This already says much about the intimate presence and knowledge paternal authority requires. So the boy asks permission. What happens? Dad realizes that this, like so many other similar things, calls for finesse and serious engagement. There is no doubt in his mind that his son should not play such games. His deliberation is about how to convey directly, yet without condescension or condemnation of the boy’s desire, why he will not allow him to do it.
The interaction might not be pleasant. The boy might declare how repressive, backwards, and out-of-step his father is, or even proclaim his hatred or his intention to find a way around such oppression. But in reality the father has acted from his authority, which means from his insight, love, and responsibility. Experience shows that the boy can and probably will perceive this, if not now then later. In any case, he is preserved for now from a pernicious influence. And, to the extent his father acts from authority rather than fear, anger, pride, or embarrassment (or any such dispositions that undermine the exercise of authority), the boy has received a palpable expression not only of love but also the truth that because we love you, we demand certain things.
Then, there is the 15-year-old boy who, understandably enough, wants to be exclusive with a girl, like so many of his peers. To the extent Dad has stayed close and engaged through the years, enacting his love through the exercise of authority, he is in fact well positioned to be invited into this situation. Yet invited or not, Dad knows that he needs to get involved. At this juncture, expressing disbelief, unnuanced condemnation, or off-hand dismissal can be as bad or worse than the more common opposite problem: radio silence from Dad’s corner.
As children reach this key age, even conscientious fathers too often fade back—perhaps with the notion of giving space or freedom, perhaps from discouragement or exhaustion. There will indeed be a time to fade back. But this teenage boy needs his father as much or more than ever, especially today, when it comes to the realm of the romantic, this is where a father’s authority should shine.
A man might wonder how he can speak into this situation in a fruitful way. There is certainly no easy, ready-made answer. In any case, Dad can stand in a truth the teen does not want to hear. This is not the time for an exclusive relationship. Just how he expresses and follows up this demand calls for a prudence rooted in the details of the situation.
Here, as in the earlier life situations too, the astounding reality of authority is tested and proven. There is no guarantee that even the proper exercise of authority will work—in the sense of immediately or even ultimately bringing about the desired fruit. The limits of authority, as surely as the limits of love, correspond to the mystery of human freedom. Even wonderful dads—one might think of the prodigal’s father—can have wayward sons.
But this much is clear: a father’s honest and persevering effort in the exercise of his authority is probably the most telling, concrete expression of his love. And it is an incomparable and lasting gift to his children. ~ ~ ~
*This piece of mine was posted today at Institute for Family Studies blog*
SHORT VIDEO for PARENTS on a key aspect of AUTHORITY : Tips for Making Rules as a Parent
Husband, father, and professor of Philosophy. LifeCraft springs from one conviction: there is an ancient wisdom about how to live the good life in our homes, with our families; and it is worth our time to hearken to it. Let’s rediscover it together. Learn more.