You’re too young to worry about boyfriend problems.
-Mother’s response to fourteen year-old daughter
in “Ask Beth” (Boston Globe).
Music, television, movies, and interviews reveal that, stereotypically, most adolescents are in conflict with adults and are basically “anti-authority.” Besides media, the exposure of liars and frauds in government and in other authoritative positions, the emerging self identity and consequential testing of traditional beliefs by adolescents, and the horror stories of abuse by parents and teachers have all fueled this negative view of adults and authority by adolescents.
The authority is one we perceive to be powerful or of superior status, and to whom submission and obedience are commanded. Bonds of authority are built on images of strength and weakness. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “power to influence or command thought, opinion or behavior; a person in command; a convincing force; an expert.”
Statistics show that kids are not “anti-authority,” but that they want and need authority in their lives. In the Coleman and Coleman study (1984) on adolescent attitudes to authority
69% said the ideal mother would be supportive.
67% said the ideal father would be supportive.
79% said the ideal teacher would be supportive.
In the Murray and Thompson study (1985) on the adolescent viewpoint on the representation of authority
89% said parents still love you when they punish you.
70% said parents were usually very fair with their children.
80% said teachers want to help you progress.
74% said police officers are pretty helpful.
If these data are correct, then why is a crisis growing between adolescents and authority? Why do movies and songs address adult power and control over adolescents? Why do groups of kids intimidate teachers and parents? The problem lies not with authority per se, but with how authority is used. Two perversions of authority are paternalism and authoritarianism. Paternalism cares for others but never allows others to be mature or express independence. It demeans its subjects, because they are reliant the all-powerful, all-knowing parent or teacher. If paternalism is authority with false love, authoritarianism is authority without love. The authoritarian rules and intimidates without concern for its subjects. It is also tyrannical, always having the right answer and expecting the subjects to do well. Failure is a crime. In both of these abuses of authority, the subjects are in bondage to authority.
Adolescence must be understood as a time of testing-including the testing of authority structures.
The type of authority used with kids is dynamic, changing with their age and development.
Youth need and want authority-especially supportive authority. They do not want abusive paternalistic or authoritarian control.
How adults respond to their own authorities will be reflected in their kids’ attitudes.