Dads, Give Up Your Authoritarian Impulse

Dads, Give Up Your Authoritarian Impulse

A lot of Americans my age – folks born in the late 70s and early 80s – grew up in households ruled by fatherly authoritarian decree.

Tough dads ruling the home with an iron fist certainly weren't exclusive to this time frame. Fathers who came of age in the early Reagan years had learned from their parents (mostly dads) that dissent and feelings and other messy things had no place in an orderly household. These things should be crushed underfoot, they were taught. So we were taught too.

I've spent the past year learning to let go of what I would call an authoritarian impulse in American fathers. It's an impulse fostered by men in our lives and TV shows and movies and books that offered a singular message to young men: You should control, even dominate, your children. If you fail in this endeavor, you have failed as a dad and, more generally, as a man. There is but one fathering formula to apply to your kids: The one your parents used.

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For a long time – far too long – I simply copied and pasted the template I had learned as a child. It's not that my dad was particularly harsh or mean, and he certainly was not abusive. He did not shout me down or even threaten to hit me. But his messaging was clear from the start: I make the rules, there will be no deviation from those rules, and if you want approval from me and your mom, you will follow those rules without question. If I ever pushed back, even a little bit, my dad's grinding molars and narrowing eyes would tell me what I needed to know about our household order.

My dad had learned this from his hard-ass policeman father. By the 1980s, it had "worked" for my dad as far as the outside world was concerned. He was raising a nice little family, making good money, living in various suburban homes with all the trappings of upper middle class life in the US. Forget for a moment that he was emotionally stunted by his upbringing. Forget that resentment has simmered in his heart for a half century.

I tried like hell to use this authoritarian approach on my kids because, like it had with my dad, it worked for me. Desperate for love and approval, I abided by any and every rule put into place. I questioned nothing. I was the quintessential Good Kid. Everyone loved me. Every parent wanted their kids to be like me – obedient, submissive, polite. A Good Kid.

I grew up believing there was really something to this iron-fisted approach to parenting. After all, it had worked beautifully for me. I had grown up, done all the right things, had a nice little family, made good money, and lived in various suburban homes with all the trappings of middle class life in the US. Just like my dad. And his dad. So why not apply this parenting style to my children? It was a proven winner.

It wasn't until the past year that I let go of the idea of myself as an authoritarian ruler over my progeny. It had created an ugly relationship with my son, rife with conflict and hurt feelings and tearful apologies from both sides. I had seen my daughter – far less bullheaded than her brother – bow to the terror of authoritarian parenting. I saw her do what I did as a kid: Do anything to gain and maintain approval. This realization crushed me, and thankfully, opened my eyes to a generational cycle that had to end.

On this Father's Day, I'd encourage every dad (and mom) out there to learn to let go of your authoritarian impulse. I needed help saying goodbye to mine; without my wife's encouragement and advice, I probably would be stuck in authoritarian mode today. Such a parenting style teaches kids all the wrong messages, and even when it "works," it definitely does not work. Rejecting the authoritarian blueprint for parenting is extraordinarily difficult. You will struggle, like I have, to view yourself not as the unquestioned ruler of your kids, but as a steward of young people who will inherit a world destroyed by their grandparents.

Authoritarianism is easy. It's the lazy way out. Do not wait: Become conscious of your impulse to dominate today. See it for what it is and say no more. I promise you won't regret it.

Follow Denny Carter on Twitter at @CDCarter13.