In Praise of Authoritarian Parenting

“Let’s say that you are a small child and one Sunday afternoon you have to do the boring duty of visiting your old senile grandmother. If you have a good old–fashioned authoritarian father, what will he tell you? ‘I don’t care how you feel, just go there and behave properly. Do your duty.’ A modern permissive totalitarian father will tell you something else: ‘You know how much your grandmother would love to see you. But do go and visit her only if you really want to.’ Now every idiot knows the catch. Beneath the appearance of this free choice there is an even more oppressive order. You seem to have a choice, but there is no choice, because the order is not only you must visit your grandmother, you must even enjoy it. If you don’t believe me, just try to say ‘I have a choice, I will not do it.’ I promise your father will say ‘What did your grandmother ever do to you? Don’t you know how much she loves you? How could you do this to her?’”
—Slavoj Žižek, “The Superego and the Act” (August 1999)

phil-dunphyŽižek argues that the old-fashioned authoritarian father is, strange as it may sound, far less demanding than the progressive parent of the North American suburbs. Why? Because at least the old-fashioned authoritarian father allows you to maintain your inner freedom. He doesn’t insist that you like going to your grandmother’s house. Nor does he even insist that you act like you like going to your grandmother’s house. He merely insists that you show up, play cards with her, listen to her stories, eat some biscuits, and refrain from saying anything stupid.

By contrast, showing up is never enough for the permissive totalitarian father. He’s not satisfied with control over where you put your body. He wants to control how you feel and what you think too. The permissive totalitarian parent doesn’t just want you to do the right thing, she wants you to want to do the right thing. As such, your job, as a kid, is to convince her that you actually feel like going to your grandmother’s house, that there’s really nothing you’d rather do on this sunny Sunday afternoon.

Though it pains me to admit it, most of what passes for “progressive parenting” these days consists of emotional manipulation of precisely this kind: modern permissive totalitarianism. For instance, we often force kids to apologize when they aren’t ready to apologize, and then cynically chastise them for their lackluster acting job: “Say it again with feeling, son!” Are we not teaching our kids, albeit inadvertently, how to fake it? How to hide their true feelings? How to lie to themselves and others about what they really want? And how is this a big improvement over authoritarian parenting? What’s more, how is all of this good for democracy? Doesn’t “the open society” depend upon citizens with precisely the sort of inner freedom that modern permissive totalitarian parenting destroys?

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

p.s. I’m having second thoughts about this—it’s such a tough call—because these two things are equally true but hard to reconcile: (1) we know we don’t want to raise bullshit artists; & (2) we know that much of the socialization process involves playing parts that start off as acting but end up real. What’s more, we know that some kids need to be told what the appropriate emotional response to certain situations is (because it’s not entirely as obvious to them as it is to other kids). After all, just as there are slow intellectual learners (who learn how to read later than most of their peers), it stands to reason that there are slow emotional learners (who learn how behave like civilized human beings later than most of their peers). Modern permissive totalitarian parenting might be just what these kids need.

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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