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Think. Discuss. Act. Authority

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The Representation Of Authority

C. Murray & F. Thompson (1985). The representation of authority: An adolescent viewpoint. Journal of Adolescence, 8, 219-229.


From the Coleman and Coleman (1984) study it appears that adolescents are not anti-authority. Yet, popular opinion purports they are.


This study seeks to determine adolescent attitudes toward parents, teachers, and police. Although much has been written on the demise of authority in the last two decades, and the values of adolescents have changed, it is believed that young people are not opposed to authority.


In Manchester, England 2046 adolescents, out of 2061, responded to a questionnaire developed from semi-structured discussions with young people. The study measured attitudes to parents, teachers, and police.


Adolescents have favorable attitudes toward “authority” as operationally defined. (See Webster’s Dictionary):

Parent 68%
Teacher 62%
Police 67%

Noteworthy statistics about parents, according to the teenage participants:

  • 60% Have the right to punish their children.
  • 87% Are responsible for teaching you right from wrong.
  • 85% Make rules because it is for your own good.
  • 89% Still love you when they punish you.
  • 55% Know when to tell you off because they understand you.
  • 84% Stand by you if you are in trouble.
  • 67% Think they always know best.
  • 55% Always think they are right.
  • 70% Are usually fair with their children.

Noteworthy statistics about teachers:

  • 84% Help you learn a lot of things.
  • 80% Want to help you progress.
  • 73% Teachers give you a lot of good advice.
  • 67% Usually have favorites in a class.
  • 67% Are boring.
  • 37% Care a lot about pupils.

Noteworthy statistics for police:

  • 83% Are necessary to keep law and order.
  • 72% Do a good job of protecting us.
  • 70% Are good when you get talking with them.
  • 55% Take their authority for granted.
  • 31% Are the best in the world.

Differentiated by gender, girls are more favorably disposed than boys to authority exercised by teachers and police.

Differentiated by age, there are increasing unfavorable attitudes toward adult authority across the board as adolescents get older.


  1. Youth want moral leadership by parents with limits for acceptable behavior. Punishment is permissible when backed by love and support.
  2. Youth see teachers as facilitators of learning who also give good advice. Of concern is that students do not believe that teachers care about them. Youth want to be stimulated by teachers, not bored. The criticism that today’s youth are bored is partially the fault of adults who have not stimulated their interest in learning and growth.
  3. Police are seen as tough, but compassionate when needed. The police officer who has contact with kids and gets to know them probably is the better deterrent than the police officer “looming in the shadows,” waiting to catch criminals.
  4. Those who work with kids can help parents and others determine between authority and the exercise of authority. If adolescents think favorably of authority, but are not always excited about how it is exercised, adults need to consider how they exercise their authority.
  5. Youth workers need to consider their approachability to youth. How should youth workers represent authority?

Richard White
© 2018 CYS

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