How to Get Authentic Authority?

Have you, like me, sometimes wondered if authentic authority is even possible? This idea’s been at the pinnacle of my #parentinggoals since before my first child was born, and a recurring struggle.

We may all picture authentic authority differently. For me, it’s the memory of my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Mitchell, who could say in a quiet voice, “Hands on heads, children,” from any corner of the room and have us instantly comply with a calm, magnetic impulse. It’s the French mothers I read about in Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe, with their matter-of-fact description of how one’s child simply must behave decently because anything else… “c’est impossible.” It’s the rare mom my own age: not once do I see her kids resist her assertions to pack up, go home, stop playing, wipe their face, or any of the million battle-hills my kids want to die on during the same playdate. It’s my own mom: sweet, loving and kind, with a rare sharpness that rose only when I really crossed a line, but with such clarity that I sure AF never wanted to commit that transgression ever again.

When I think of authentic authority outside parenting, such people have similar qualities. They can establish buy-in without coercion. They are a guide who is sought, trusted, and followed. They radiate power to, rather than power over.

I’ve tried many ways to cultivate this authentic authority as a parent. I’ve read the “It’s Me Who Decides” chapter in Bebe so many times (without successful emulation), that I’m starting to wonder if the author missed key research explaining why the French way “c’est impossible” here in Canada. I’ve followed the work of Lori Petro, and have a stack of her Conscious Communication Cards at home which, when I actually pay attention to them and apply their wisdom, temporarily create the illusion that I’ve made it. I’ve thought about authentic authority, talked about it, journalled about it, you name it.

I’ve also tried many ways of obtaining authority that fall everywhere on the spectrum from Zen Mama Master to Evil Lava Monster (Moana, anyone?). I’ve taken a child aside for a calm talk in another room. I’ve negotiated. I’ve explained. I’ve frowned disapprovingly. I’ve used questions when I can give choice and statements when I can’t. I’ve snapped my fingers angrily. I’ve counted to three… to five… to ten. I’ve yelled. I’ve walked away in a huff. I’ve walked away and modeled counting-to-ten-myself-and-taking-deep-breaths-because-I-don’t-want-to-yell. I’ve made ‘the big eyes.’ I’ve empathized. I’ve hugged. I’ve talked a lot. I’ve said nothing. I’ve tagged out. I’ve tagged in. I’ve wondered if maybe this authentic authority thing is bullshit, or if it’s something you’ve gotta be born with and I just wasn’t.

Recently, a friend and I were chatting about the moments where you feel grumpy in parenting, where you get frustrated with how much there is to do, where you feel bitter about your lack of sleep, or snippy with your co-parent about every little thing that arises. She told me that her partner is really good at calling her out on it, and not in a mean way, but he just says, “Oh no, we don’t get to act like toddlers. We’re 35, and there’s an actual toddler in the room.”

I thought this was hilarious and awesome. And it’s popped into my head fairly frequently since our chat. What I’ve noticed since then is that my parental authority seems to weaken, or become a wand I’m trying to wield over my kids, when I’m, frankly, sort of acting like a child myself. My connection with them and my parental authority cred go more awry the more tired I am, or the more stressed I am. They really go to shit when my head gets stuck somewhere it shouldn’t be – if I’m letting my perfectionism have a bit of a renaissance, or if I begin to lean toward a glass-is-half-empty sort of view. I think this makes perfect sense. When we’re tired, stressed, or in a rut, we’re more likely to sleep poorly, eat poorly, grumble, whine, snap, stomp our feet or whatever our particular tells are.

I was thinking about this the other day when suddenly a simple thought came to me, which I promptly wrote down and stuck on my fridge:

“If I want my kids to accept me as the bigger person, I actually have to be a bigger person.”

I’m using both meanings of bigger here: if I want my children to accept that I’m a bigger person in terms of authority, rule-making, and guidance, I actually have to act like a bigger person – a more mature, wise, calm, reasonable, empathetic, and resilient person.

I don’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to be the Zen Mama Master who never yells, curses, grumbles, or has outbursts. I do have to remember that my kids are watching me, and that how they see me respond to moments (or sometimes really long ruts) of disappointment, stress, frustration, or dejection directly informs how credible they consider my authority. And not just the authority to set limits or schedules, but more importantly, the authority to help them through similar situations of their own.

We spend so much time in our culture talking about authenticity, but usually I see this framed as being true to who you already are, rather than being authentically engaged in a practice toward who you aspire to be. Maybe that’s the problem with my view of authentic authority – I was trying to find it buried somewhere within myself, when maybe it’s a practice. Maybe it’s not something I can treasure-hunt and then wear like a talisman. Maybe, instead, it’s a zone I can enter only through practice, like an athlete – and if that’s the case, I’ll always have to keep practicing. The good news about that is, I can finally let myself off the hook in the hunt, and instead focus on just being that bigger person, one day at a time.

Know someone who might also need to let herself off the hook in the hunt? Share this with her ❤

*Featured image property of Disney, obviously.*


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