Questioning Authority: A Conversation

Should we tell our children what to do? Should we let them make their own decisions? Read our back and forth conversation about allowing children to question authority. 

By Maureen Fernandez, Content Director | Apr 06, 2016
Questioning Authority Header

Questioning Authority: A Conversation with Albert Sauermann, LCSW

My colleague Al is a wonderful therapist, and a truly interesting and kind human being. He wanted to share some thoughts with the blog about helping parents who were struggling with “disobedient” children. As we sat down to discuss the topic, some interesting themes emerged. Some of what Al believes on this topic is a little off-the-beaten-path. While it’s not exactly controversial, it’s also not the kind of advice you hear every day. So I challenged him on some of his points, in an effort to address what I feel, as a parent, seems hardest to implement.

Al: When I hear parents complain that their child isn’t doing as he’s told, my instinct is to think, “Why should he?” There are good answers to this question – legitimate reasons that children should do what their parents want them to do – but there are bad answers, too. So I think it’s important to examine the basis for authority.

Maureen: Okay, before you dive into this – can you give me some examples of the good reasons, in your mind? What constitutes a legitimate reason for a child to do what his parent asks of him?

Al: I’m not saying that a children shouldn’t do what their parent asks of them. I am saying that we as parents should help children appreciate the reasoning behind our decisions, and that we should be open to them questioning those decisions. That isn’t defiance – it is curiosity. And it is a quality that we should cultivate in our children, because it will enable them to better understand why things are as they are in the world. That doesn’t mean that we should lecture our children about why we are right. Rather, it means that we should examine with them the reasons behind things so that they can arrive at good decisions themselves.

Maureen: Okay, but what if they don’t arrive at good decisions? Are you saying that if children aren’t convinced of our point of view, then we should just let them do what they want?

Al: It depends what is at stake. There is much that children learn from making mistakes. Experience is a great teacher. However, sometimes the costs of mistakes outweigh the benefit of the lessons. If the risks are significant, and if we are unable to help them see this, then we have a responsibility to impose our decisions. But, yes, I am saying that sometimes we should let our children do what they want, though we disagree.

Maureen: Are there times when you think parents should impose their authority?

Al: If our children are going to be exposing themselves to a significant threat to their safety, then we should prevent that. Sometimes by discussing a situation with our children, we can find ways to reduce risk to an acceptable level, such as by getting to know the parents of a friend they wish to visit, or by providing alternative options for socializing that we consider safe, for example. But in the end, if we can’t figure out a safe way for our kids to do what they want, then it shouldn’t be allowed. Another category of behaviors that we should prohibit are violations of the rights of other people. Good rules are ones that seek to create a fair balance in the often-competing desires of different people. We should try to teach our children to value fairness, so that they will want to follow good rules. When children can’t do that, then we have to impose those rules.

Maureen: What if they don’t accept that?

Al: They should be allowed to protest, and we should affirm their right to their opinion and to their feelings, which in this case will probably be anger towards us. We can say something like “I understand that we disagree, and that you are really upset with me now for making this decision. I get that. I don’t like it when someone prevents me from doing what I want either.” Of course, that our children have the right to protest does not mean they have the right to do so in ways that ignore the rights of others. We have to teach them how to express disagreement respectfully. One of the best ways for us to do that is to model that for them by expressing our disagreement with them respectfully.

Maureen: So, apart from concerns about a child’s safety or the rights of others, we should not tell kids what to do?

Al: We should explain what we want and why. We should ask them what they think about our position and our reasons for it. We should ask them for their ideas, and we should welcome different opinions. When children participate in generating the decisions that affect them, they feel much more committed to cooperating. In the process, because they see that we value their views, it strengthens their self-esteem and it improves our relationship with them. On the other hand, what happens when children just do what they are told without telling us what they think? They get practice complying with orders that they may not understand. That seems dangerous to me.

Maureen: So let’s talk about a scenario and how it would play out. Let’s say you ask your son to unload the dishwasher and he doesn’t want to. Seems pretty simple and straightforward to me. You’re the parent and he’s the child – you set the rules and sometimes he has to follow them, even if he doesn’t want to. But it seems like you might have a different perspective on this. How does this scenario look in the framework you’re describing?

Al: Well, who decided that it’s your son’s job to unload the dishwasher? Did you talk to him when you made that decision? Why is it important that he unloads the dishwasher? Does he know your reasons? I would want to start by asking if he agreed with my premise that members of a family are a team, and therefore that it is only fair that each member should contribute to the team. Most kids agree with that. Then, I would want to consider what has to happen for the family to function, and what opportunities there are for each to contribute. Maybe the son has other good ideas about how he can contribute. In the end, of course, whether the proposals get approved or not is the parents’ decision.

Maureen: To be honest, Al, this sounds exhausting. I would be tired all of the time if I let my kids question everything!

Al: I understand the need to establish some guidelines for when and how those conversations happen. As I said before, children need to learn to balance their desires with those of other people, and parents are the first “other people” with whom kids interact, so it is a great opportunity to help them learn this lesson. It is perfectly legitimate for parents to decide that they don’t wish to be arguing at every turn. Like you, I wouldn’t want to debate the pros and cons of eating candy every time I’m in the checkout line and my kid wants another candy bar. So there’s also a place for lines like, “Your opinion is important to me. Now is not the time for us to talk about this, but I will be very interested to know your views when we can talk this evening.”

Maureen: There must be some times where you feel it’s not okay for a child to question things. I understand that as a parent we should include our kids in our decision making process instead of running our homes like dictatorships, but what about other authority figures? If a child has a run-in with the police, I would hope that he’d respect that position rather than trying to question the officer in the moment. Or in a child’s class, he probably can’t raise his hand and question everything the teacher is saying all day long. How do you teach kids about important authority figures while still encouraging this autonomy and free thinking that you’re describing?

Al: Just as there should be a time and place for family discussions, the same is true in the outside world. With a run-in with the police, the right time and place to question things might be in court. With a teacher, it might be after class, or after talking it through with a parent and deciding if the opinion still holds merit.

Maureen: I am also thinking about how raising children for adulthood might also mean teaching them to respect and honor authority, even if you don’t like it. It’s sort of the structure of the world we live in. I have to listen to my boss, and I have to follow the laws even if I didn’t vote for the person in charge. Do you think there’s some importance in teaching children to follow authority, even though it goes against your idea here, just because they’ll have to once they’re adults?

Al: I think that we should teach our children to respect legitimate authority. To my way of thinking, parental authority is legitimate when it promotes the well-being of children and teaches them to respect the rights of others, just as government is legitimate when it promotes the well-being of its citizenry and respects the rights of other nations. Employment seems different to me in that business doesn’t have an explicit mandate to promote the welfare of employees, though some businesses find that they benefit by encouraging employees to think creatively. Anyhow, in all of these situations, it may make sense to comply with rules because the cost for challenging them is too high, but I wouldn’t call that “respecting authority.” Unfortunately, there are people and institutions that are able to make and enforce rules that are not fair, maybe because they are rich or because they are physically strong. That is not legitimate authority, and we should teach our children how to recognize and respond to that. That awareness, and the self-esteem to speak up for their views, can protect them from abuse and exploitation, as children and as adults. If we raise children in families that give them practice with reasoning and expressing their opinions, and listening with curiosity to those of others, then they will be able use those skills to promote reflection and dialog in the larger world, and I think that is a good thing, for them and for us.

Maureen: This all sounds pretty idealistic. Do you really think this works in the real world?

Al: I think that the alternative to helping our kids learn to think well for themselves is that they will act without thinking, or that they will act out of fear of being punished. I agree with you that it does take a lot of time and energy for us to have these conversations with our children, but I think that it is worth it because by doing so we create trust in the parent-child relationship, and we prepare children to function independently as adults. By contrast, it also takes a lot of energy to try to force children to do what we want, and the results are less satisfying.

Maureen: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this topic, Al! You’ve certainly given me something to think about.

Al: Thanks for talking with me. I appreciate you questioning my opinion on this topic and giving me a chance to discuss it.