Parenting With Authority

by | Mar 5, 2013 | Liturgical Living, Parenting, Parenting Advice, Saints | 10 comments

For me, writing a blog has been an interesting window into my own brain. It turns out I think very tangentially. Who knew? (Husbands are not invited to answer). 

Every post I start writing makes me think of three others I ought to do alongside, or before, or instead of, the one I’m working on.  <Hey, look, a squirrel!>

But the one that comes up most often is this one. Because it’s the most fundamental to the life we are able to live with our children. It is the crux of our parenting style. It means that taking our kids to Mass, and the grocery store, and Europe is, more often than not, pretty enjoyable (rather than the rolling disaster that people expect when we tell them our plans).

It allows me to homeschool, and take afternoon naps. It gets our chores done. It has created for us a very happy home.

From our trip to Rome.  I think Our Lady looks particularly authoritative here, don’t you?

Our first baby was born while the husband was in business school. We lived on campus in family housing, in a circle of little townhouses with a big shared backyard/park in the center. There were maybe 30 townhouses, each with a parent or parents and child or children living within.    

As I discussed here, when I had my son, I had little to no experience with babies or children. I have just one sister, and we grew up without cousins in town, or really even any friends with babies or little kids in their families. So everything I knew about raising children I knew from parenting books and sitcoms.

But here I was, with a sliding glass door that opened right into all these different parenting styles. There was the single mom of a son, who insisted that she wasn’t going to saddle him with gender-stereotyped parenting (he dumped the baby doll out of his stroller, folded it up, and immediately started whacking the nearest tree with his stroller-sword). There was the family from Germany with two little girls who were quickly denuded anytime there was water present. There was the little prince, a boy with a mother AND a grandmother to fawn over his every achievement and pretty much ignore his sister. There were Catholics and Protestants and Mormons and Muslims and atheists. There were big families and little families. And there was the saddest little girl I’ve ever met.  

Her mother was a very giving person, and clearly loved her daughter and meant well, but she refused to exert any authority over her at all. The daughter was 2 or 3 years old, and she was always given choices, never commands. 

Anytime her mother did tell her something, it was always followed by an “okay?” In order to avoid the little girl feeling slighted in favor of another child, the mother always bought two of whatever gift they brought to a birthday party. One was to give to the birthday girl, and one was for her daughter to keep at home. 

Jack at a princess party.  Sad girl not pictured.

This mother’s days were lived at the whims of a small child, and I have never seen anyone as unhappy as the two of them. All the girl had to do to get her way was to throw a fit, and, as she liked to get her way, she threw fits all the time.  Over ridiculous things like not being able to ride two tricycles at the same time, or other children being allowed on the swings.  

I was able to contrast that parenting style with the one used by an Army officer classmate of the husband’s. He and his wife had their fourth the same year my first was born. They ran their home with love and rules and their children were helpful and HAPPY.

The child who never got punished for anything would stand in the sandbox screaming about how unfair the world was because other children were allowed to own their own sand toys, but the first and second grade boys who were made to bring any candy they received home in their pockets so they could put it in their Saturday Treat Box would come by my house of their own accord to see if I would like them to take my baby for a walk so I could have a little rest.

I could not refute the evidence that was right there before my eyes. I know that there are many ways to parent successfully.  I don’t claim that my way is the only way. But I will tell you that it works for us. 

I like to focus on the idea of authority rather than discipline. Although, of course, discipline (and even punishment) is involved. I prefer to think of  “disciplined” as something YOU ARE rather than something that happens to you. My end goal is that my children’s discipline would come from within themselves, rather than from me. It is my hope that they do as I ask without the need for punishment. In order to make that happen I need to be able to inspire their obedience by my authority.  

Our authority as parents is given to us by God. It is a gift and an obligation. Whether by gestation or adoption, God gave
that child to US. On purpose.  

Children should be obedient to their parents not because we are bigger, or stronger, or smarter, but because that’s the way God made it. Even Jesus was “subject” to his mother and earthly father (Luke 2:51). Not because they had earned it but because, as his parents, they were in a position of authority over him. Our children have learned to subjugate their desires not because of any sort of preternatural goodness, but out of obedience. If we insist that they learn this lesson with small things now, they will be able to apply it to big things later. 

That’s my baby doing the bullying.  Poor Timmy.

I read this quote in the Catechism on the day I began writing this post:  

That man is rightly called a king who makes his own body an obedient subject and, by governing himself with suitable rigor, refuses to let his passions breed rebellion in his soul, for he exercises a kind of royal power over himself. And because he knows how to rule his own person as king, so too does he sit as its judge. He will not let himself be imprisoned by sin, or thrown headlong into wickedness.  

St. Ambrose, Psal. 118:14:30:PL 15:1476.  

Thanks St. Ambrose. That pretty much sums it up.   

When Gus was a toddler, all he wanted in the whole world was to touch the TV.  But, in this house, that’s not allowed.  I would tell him not to touch the TV, he would touch the TV, he would incur a punishment. Repeat. But eventually, he got
it. I will never forget the day I spied him through the doorway, standing in front of the TV, reaching his pudgy little hand forward, then pulling it back. 

Clearly, he was waging a tiny internal battle, between his shoulder angel and his shoulder devil. And finally, he stamped his foot and turned and walked away.

Success!  And if he was able to subjugate that desire, and overcome that tiny 1 1/2 year old temptation, won’t he be in a much better position to resist the bigger temptations of future years? 

Instead, I could have distracted him from his desire to touch the TV and redirected his attention to something that he was allowed to touch.  That would certainly have achieved my goal of not having him touch the TV at that moment.  But he would have lost that small opportunity to “rule his own person as a king.”   So that’s WHY I parent with authority.  If you’d like to know HOW I do it, check back on Thursday.


  1. Kate

    I'm so glad you're writing on this. I feel like I have a LOT to learn about disciplining toddlers (and beyond) effectively. It's just so effortful…I feel stupid for ever thinking anything with regard to parenting would be otherwise. I just ordered several of your parenting recommendations and I'm very excited about them (and I made sure to click through to Amazon from your blog to make sure you get the big $$$).

  2. Nanacamille

    Very well said by a daughter who was disciplined as a child…she got the message…hooray! I agree that it is consistency that is important so if you say "No" 20 times and then sigh and say "oh alright" you have wasted your time with all of the Nos. I remember the little unhappy girl who received every gift that she gave out and she couldn't accept another getting "her gift" so she usually went home crying. At about 3 yrs old at the grocery with me in the cereal aisle Kendra spotted a particular sugary cereal that she wanted. I said "No" not good for us at our house. I left the aisle with her still sitting on the floor crying loudly about wanting the cereal. I finished my shopping and picked her up in the cereal aisle without the offending box. When we got to the check out Kendra told the checker that she had wanted Super Sugary XYZ Pops but Mom said not goof for you so we are getting something else. Checker who had heard the wailing gave her a balloon for picking what Mom said in cereal. Never had the issue again and that checker became our favorite and she always gave her a free balloon.

  3. Susan H.

    Hello, I'm new here – stumbled on to your page via another Catholic blog. I must say that this is very refreshing. We parent in very similar ways, and yes, it works for us, and our children are happy, confident, generous people. Of course we are often chided for being to strict or uptight, but I think we're really just being consistent, and that means choosing to "parent" at inconvenient times, like at the park or at parties. I appreciate your section on parenting as a God-given responsibility. That very point, for us, is the one thing that helps our children understand why we love them enough to have and enforce rules, to set up boundaries and to even have expectations of virtuous behavior – because we love them, because God loves them, and HE has asked us to do this. New follower here! 🙂

  4. Rebekah R

    This is so excellent! My daughter is only 16 months old but I have been telling her "No, Mama says you may not do that" ever since she was tiny. Even when I knew she couldn't understand, and so of course there weren't any consequences for "disobedience," I talked to her anyway. And then eventually, when I saw that she DID understand, I already had that pattern of speaking with authority. That is how I was raised; after our initial phase of testing them, we never questioned if Mom and Dad meant what they said. We KNEW that they were in charge, and that even if we didn't like it, our place was to follow!

    Not that we were perfect non-complaining children, but still, it was so good to have that solid structure of authority in place.

  5. Tara

    I often say "okay?" As confirmation that a decision was heard. It may open for reasonable negotiation. Ex."in 5 minutes, we will be having dinner, okay?" More often then not, it gives the young ones time to realize and prepare. The oldest is now at the point where he can articulate a counter. "Dinner in five, okay?" May be answered "I'm almost done with this project. May I finish this first?" I try to be open to their desires in a reasonable way, though time and mood may pressured. I will always account for my response too. "Yes, you've been working hard." Or "no, I'm sorry but we don't have time for you to finish. Dinner in 5."


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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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