Power of Parenting 3: Authority vs Influence

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In this week’s installment of our series, The Power of Parenting, we examine our third vital philosophical consideration which radically alters the course of parenting. Today I’ll define both aspects of authority and influence so that we can overwrite our assumed definitions with a functional definition which has the power to reframe our actions once the best definition reaches our conscious awareness.

Essentially, parenting is all about bringing a wide angle lens into every moment with our children so that wisdom can inform these moments with our kids and raise their consciousness about themselves and the world. Successful parents must be able to see beyond the surface level behaviors or actions and sacrificially serve (self-empty) into our children, in love, so that they can reach them at their greatest and most pressing point of need. The basic needs of a parent providing for a child are obvious like safety, shelter, food, clothing, etc.. while the more nuanced needs of a child (social and self awareness, integration into the whole of life, self confidence, independence) are less obvious and often fall outside of some parents skill, intelligence, sensitivity, or will.

The biggest parental failures almost always surround confusion or misuse of authority and influence. This is usually the use of authority when influence is a better option, or the use of influence when authority is required. Authority and Influence are both forces which are able to re-direct another persons actions or behaviors, however, they differ greatly in how they are achieved, maintained and distributed.

Authority is usually based upon position, rank, or institutional power. Authority is a power which comes from the outside-in. For example, a new recruit into the military can be introduced to their commanding officer who immediately has authority. The officer can use his or her positional authority to tell the cadet exactly what to do. If the soldier later is discharged, he or she is no longer under the positional authority and has no requirement for obedience or compliance.

Influence, by contrast, is inside-out and is earned and based upon a succession of beneficial exchanges, or experiences which allow a deep sense of trust to form. Influence is not based upon institutional power and cannot be quickly produced like authority. If, in our example, the cadet grows to trust and value their commanding officer, then upon discharge, the soldier may still feel motivated to comply to the wishes of his or her officer. If they still obey them after discharge, it is based on influence, not authority, because it has been earned.

The best parenting advice I have ever been given is a simple strategy that I will share with you. I have unfortunately forgot the name of the person who first wrote about it, but if you know, please tell me so I can pass on the reference. The advice is as follows:

“When a child is born to us, we have 100% authority and 0% influence. By the time that child is grown and sent out into the world, our goal in parenting is to have 100% influence and 0% authority.

When we combine this nugget of wisdom with the past two weeks of philosophical nuance, a very amazing strategy for parenting emerges. Let me summarize: Kid’s are not random but purposeful, kids are not owned but stewarded, we must learn when and how to use authority and constantly be striving for influence. On these three pillars we can correctly apply biblical and wisdom principals (which I’ll introduce next week), and remain consciously aware of the greater work of parenting. This means we are less likely to get sucked into the drama of emotional high’s and low’s, and find the correct balance between the overly enmeshed parent and the dissociated parent.

A practical application of today’s lesson teaches us that if a child becomes an adult at age eighteen, then somewhere around age nine our parenting should comprise a mixture of 50% authority and 50% influence. By the teen years, influence has mostly, if not completely, displaced authority. The biggest struggles parents usually face are during the teenage years when a young person is trying to assert their autonomy and discover who they truly are. If the parent is trying to leverage authority and has not developed influence, the problems begin to cascade.

When a young person becomes a discipline problem, struggles in school, lashes out, rebels, engages in self-destructive or risky behavior, ignores good advice or disregards authority, most people blame the young person or “the teen years” in general. In all my years working with adolescents, I have never found a single case where that was actually true. Without exception, every “problem child” is actually a young person in a relationship where the parent doesn’t have the skill or will to develop influence and is employing authority or external force to change behavior. A teen can only rebel against authority if authority is the basis for relating. It is right for an emerging adult to question hierarchy if those leading are only seeking compliance, and not actually equipping them for success in the world. Teens know that a parent cannot lead them where they haven’t been themselves, so the notion of “Do as I say, not as I do” always backfires.

When we see problem behavior in younger children (toddlers to pre-teen), it is almost always due to a parent trying to use influence when authority is more appropriate. How often do we see a parent who is afraid to use authority and insist on correct behavior? I often see toddlers standing up in their chairs or running around restaurants, kids having tantrums in stores, hitting their parents, or fighting with siblings constantly, or being babysat by tech. Some parents are so afraid their children won’t like them that they abdicate authority in order to be nice. The result is a parent who lacks authority and eventually loses influence as well. How a parent manages bedtime, siblings, meal time, play time, and learning are all frameworks where authority, rules, and structure are required. Fail there and the child enters a world of structure believing none of the rules apply to them and sadly parents often reinforce this social pathology. It’s a rampant problem today. Misbehaving children have become normalized in our culture.

If you are just now hearing this for the first time and you realize that you have failed or are failing your children, then the best thing any of us can do is stop, be honest and return to the underlying driving principals by remembering that a parent’s job is not to get compliance from their kids. A parent’s job is to gain influence through service, self-emptying, sacrifice, earning the right to be heard from the inside out. A parent must know wisdom, so that the voice of wisdom can be implanted and heard by the child, even when the parent is no longer there. Even if you children are grown, if you begin today to develop influence, then you will have as much influence as is possible with your children for the remainder of your days together.

If you have young children or teens, you still have time to change things. I have helped many parents through difficult times and I’ll be happy to offer you help as well. The path of parenting with wisdom is often counter-intuitive. Opening one’s hand and letting go of power can be horrifying for parents. There are many things which take a parent’s time and attention away from their children, but nothing is more important. There are no other people in the world who can or will love your child as a parent is intended to. Parental authority is fleeting and is not intended to last so we must use it sparingly and with it’s impermanence in mind.

Through service, influence is unearthed and when it is, even in the worst case, parents will be creating a better tomorrow than what is present today. In some cases, this will not be a complete repair job for a lifetime of parenting failures, but it will be incremental progress toward true healing and lasting change.

For those who have time to make the mid-course correction and learn the skill to balance authority and influence, the result will be that you and your children will respect and enjoy each other in increasing conformity to the amount of wisdom and insight a parent brings to the relationship. This is when we discover what it means to truly love our kids and to be loved by them.

I truly believe that upon these kinds of relationships, the entire wold can change.

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