Figuring out authority

A beautiful blue and green Seattle day requires a long trip to the park. With a four-year-old, that translates into some time at the playground, and with Henry that means somewhere with a sidewalk suitable for speedy and spirited tricycle laps. There are always lessons to be learned at the playground. Not long ago, a big one — green, with hypocritical eyes — looked me square in the face. Here’s how I got there.

During a recent visit, my husband Larry and I were enjoying the sun on a bench and getting dizzy watching our son go round and round when we realized a meeting was starting on the grass behind us. We turned around and about eight little girls and their camera-toting mothers sat in a circle. It was the kind of meeting where you wear vests with badges. Ooh, entertainment, we thought as we adjusted our heads to the best eavesdropping angle.

Question AuthorityThe troop leader welcomed everyone to their final meeting and started discussing that meeting’s topic and an opportunity to earn their final badge. What are we earning our badges in today? asked the troop leader. Respect authority, they all said. The kind troop leader reviewed what they discussed the previous meeting, the authority figures in our lives who we should respect – parents, police officers, teachers, troop leaders, coaches, etc. Red flags began to go up in my head, but nothing was really that bad yet. I kept listening.

Why should we respect them? she asked the troop of girls who appeared to be about six years old. With the mothers hovering and the troop leader waiting, the girls began responding as they’d been taught the week before:

Because they protect us.

They take care of us.

Because they know best.

Because they make the rules.

It’s what we’re supposed to do.

The kind troop leader’s response: That’s great, ladies.

I hoped no one in their little blanket circle could see the goose bumps on my arms.

We continued to listen as the girls one by one presented the pictures they’d drawn of an authority figure in their life. Most of them were pretty typical: Mom, Dad, school principal. When talking about their parents, “love” was mentioned a lot, but there was just as much talk about making and following rules. One little girl quietly explained that she’d drawn a picture of President Obama because “he knows what’s best for us and has a lot of power.”

Yes, I know they do amazing things too.

I never participated in any troop-like activities when I was a girl, but I have a generally positive impression of any organization that empowers young women and men. For the girls, a couple of Google searches showed me all the great lessons and badges in addition to “respect authority” – all about community, compassion, self respect, honesty, individual responsibility, supporting other girls, doing good in the world and more. I don’t mean to diminish their work nor the positive influence they have had over countless girls and women.

Shouldn’t ignore the boys either. Despite their homosexuality-challenged policies and other issues, they continue to offer positive opportunities and adventures to those seeking this kind of guidance. (However, they have a similar law about “obedience” and even the right way to go about changing rules…as long as you never disobey them.)

With all of my genuine “they do a lot of great things” disclaimers said, this meeting had the misfortune that day to represent the perfect example of exactly the kind of authority programming we shouldn’t be teaching our children. In fact, we should be teaching them the opposite.

They’re powerful and they know it.

Corporations, governments, politicians, large religious organizations, educational systems, healthcare providers, banks and more. They market their own special brand of authority and quid pro quo. Most of them have a lot of power, and most of them aren’t afraid to use it to get what they need to thrive – your compliance.

If you adhere to my laws, I will protect you and your family.

If you buy my goods and services and don’t question how we do business too much, I will make your life more comfortable and improve the economy.

If you do what I say and take your medicine, I can make you feel better.

If you sit quietly and work hard, you will be successful.

If you pray the right way or believe what I believe, you will go to heaven. Or, better yet, you won’t burn in hell.

This is the messaging we allow to manipulate us, consciously or not. We have become accustomed to giving up a measure of (sometimes imperceptible) control to someone or an institution in exchange for whatever we believe they offer us or, in many cases, out of fear of what will happen if we don’t.

In our current world, questioning authority is critical.

Throughout history, questioning authority has always been necessary for any kind of meaningful change. America was founded on a group of citizens questioning those in power, after all. Our time is no different.

Currently Edward Snowden is somewhere running from the U.S. government after revealing that its anti-terror electronic surveillance techniques are much broader than any ordinary citizens previously knew. Whether you believe he’s a hero or a traitor or something in between, Snowden questioned his authority figures, breaking the rules of his government and his contractor employer, to reveal what he believes to be an unjust overreach. Without Mr. Snowden, would we have ever had anything other than lots of conspiracy theories and Person of Interest to provoke an exploration into this issue?

More importantly, when we don’t question it, there are consequences: Dependence. Willful ignorance. A resistance to change. A willingness to conform or even deny our own beliefs out of apathy or fear. An agreement – spoken or unspoken – to give up our own power to those who would have us believe they are our authorities because that’s what we’re expected to do.

And this belief and resulting behavior is what we often unconsciously, and usually motivated by great love, pass along to our children.

The mirror doesn’t lie.

As I listened to the troop leader, I ran through all my long-held beliefs and societal frustrations detailed above and began writing this blog in my head and heart. I wanted to be sure to make note of the organizational line she was leading from and all the ways it is different from my own intentions etc. etc. etc.

If I’m to look at the whole truth, I also have to point my eye squarely back on myself. It didn’t take long to spot a programmer no farther away than my own nose.

At four years old, Henry is all about his independence. Often it manifests as saying a strong ‘no’ just so he’s refusing to do what I want or at least refusing to do it my way or on my timeline. I’ve built up a strong tolerance for this, and often quietly cheer him on out of respect. I was similarly strong-willed as a young person, much to my parents’ dismay.

Reminder to self: Our son isn’t a horse that needs to be broken.

As a family we’ve developed strategies to give Henry back some choice or control in any given situation. Or at minimum an explanation he can understand as to why we’re asking him to flush the toilet. Our intention is to support his independent spirit and nurture a belief in his own power. That’s our intention.

But some days, I just need him to put his ever-loving shoes on so we can get to preschool or give up the bag of cookies he found in the back of the cupboard and now has a vice grip on or stop chucking rocks at the kitchen window or for god’s sake for the last time hold my hand while crossing the street.

In these situations, more often than I’m comfortable with I’ve offered some version of this response to my child when he questioned me as his authority figure:

Why do I have to listen to you?
Because I’m your mother.

Why should I comply with that rule?
Because I love you and I’m protecting you from danger.

Why shouldn’t I throw rocks at the window?
Because that’s the rule.

Why do I have to go to school today?
Because it’s what’s best for you.

That’s how it starts, right? Follow me because I have power over you. Why, Mommy? Because it’s easier for both of us, but really only for me.

Authority is given and can be taken away.

I want my child to believe that authority is earned through trust and given only by choice. That it should always be questioned. That authority can be taken away when it is abused or even if he decides he doesn’t want or need that authority figure any more. There’s always a careful balance to strike, but I want him to be empowered and strong in his convictions, enough so that he doesn’t hesitate to follow his own heart even when it doesn’t comply with anyone else’s rules.

I want Henry to respect me because I am true to myself and my beliefs and because I likewise offer him the respect he deserves, not because I have any measure of power over him. But first I have to admit that though I so easily talk about these convictions I don’t always walk them. I’m grateful to the group of sweet little girls, their loving mothers and their well-intentioned troop leader for reminding me so pointedly how important this lesson is, and that I’m still learning it.

2 thoughts on “Figuring out authority

  1. Wonderful, Becci. It’s so easy to simply say, “because I told you so!” It’s much harder to take the time to explain reasoning, or even more importantly, to decide not to give direction at all in some cases and allow children to fail, or even get hurt so long as they aren’t in any danger of irreversible harm.

    I saw a video that expounded upon the macro-effects you alluded to. The premise was that there is no problem with tyrannical evil leaders in human history — there is a problem of obedience. Our great tragedies required otherwise intelligent people to simply obey evil commands as they were conditioned to do.

    That’s why I would have cringed also. When we teach our children values and morality — obedience gives way to respect. One is proper behavior out of fear, the other is proper behavior out of enlightenment. One is not replicable as children evolve and encounter new situations, the other transcends specific events and travels with them into adulthood.

    You’re a great mom, Becci. You’re questioning things and teaching your child of four things I’m not sure I’m getting right even now with kids of 12 and 16.

    Keep it up.

    Like

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