The Invention of Authoritarian Parenting

How the Fourth Commandment Puts Children at a Disadvantage

“Laugh not at such marriages! What child hath not had reason to weep over its parents?”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra[1]

Newborn babies love their parents unconditionally, but they don’t always naturally receive back the love they give. Under normal conditions, that wouldn’t be much of a problem if society fulfilled its corrective function to call parents who maltreat their children to order. Reality, however, proves otherwise.

For example, many great religions emphasize one-sided authority of parents over their child. They cemented this inequality in divine laws such as the Catholic Fourth Commandment, honor thy father and thy mother, also known among other religions. It’s time to counterbalance this form of religious traditionalism that demands uncritical loyalty of the child to its parents.

The Emergence of Authority

What came first, chicken or egg? A variation to this riddle goes: who became property of another human being first, parent or child? With ‘property’, I mean the obedience and loyalty of one human being to another. Perhaps the child? After all, a child is born into the hands of its parent.

Yet this answer isn’t correct. We can hardly imagine it, but our hunting and gathering forefathers all came into the world as autonomous individuals who voluntarily co-operated with one another on the basis of information exchange, negotiation and mutual appreciation. Only since the invention of agriculture have people submitted themselves with unconditional obedience to absolute rules, enforced by the threat of physical violence.[2] The adult parent thus first became the property of another adult, only subsequently his child.

In complex agricultural and later industrial societies, people have to co-operate with each other on a very large scale, whereby they conform to “the rules” out of necessity. Thanks to collective obedience to these rules—compulsory education, taxation, the five-day work week, and so on—the human population could strongly grow up to the many billions of individuals the Earth counts today.

Despite all its flaws, the system works, but that’s only half the truth. Simultaneously, an upper class established itself that could exploit the productivity of people lower in the hierarchy. The centralization of labor that provides modern cities with sanitation for all families robs the common man of his own productivity through taxes and other indulgences.

Modern-day citizens pay a lot more than necessary to keep the system functioning. After all, man can manage himself perfectly fine without the king’s golden carriage (or the President’s Air Force One), or even without a king.

The Greatest Deception in History

Historian Yuval Harari calls the transition of co-operating hunters to obedient laborers “the greatest deception in history”.[3] This transition, the domestication of man, signals the beginning of the first authoritarian relationship between people.

What happened to children of people degraded to servants? A parent who himself lives at the bottom of societal hierarchy receives with the birth of his child the only possibility to exert power over another human being. The anger over his own fate finds a way out when this parent, with the force of a great conqueror, passes his own misery on to his child. Now, the slavish parents can crown themselves rulers of their child’s world.

Out of shame of their own societal obedience, and in order to partly restore their offended self-esteem, they will make their child believe that loyalty, obedience and conformity are life’s highest achievable goals.

This humiliated child won’t learn anything anymore about freedom and autonomy. His parents oppress him at home, while outside he will grow up in the world of his parents’ oppressors, whom he will later serve himself. The upper class happens to think that’s perfectly fine: serfs willingly raise their children to become new serfs.

Because of that, many of the great religions that people founded since the agricultural revolution emphasize the will-less obedience to a supreme being and his worldly representatives, who promise their followers eternal life in heaven in exchange for their sacrifice on Earth. “We enslave you, because we want the best for you,” declared the founder of the Persian empire.[4] Parents would tell their children, “We discipline you, but we do it for your own good.”

To maintain the child’s obedience to the parents, parents use discipline, hitting, the threat of violence or other means to instill fear.

Religious Child Maltreatment

In her book Breaking Their Will, journalist Janet Heimlich brings together a unique collection of knowledge on religious child maltreatment. Heimlich understands that most religious folks don’t abuse their children, and that religion can be a force of good, offering people spiritual support in many areas of life, but precisely in the case that maltreatment does occur among religious families, she concludes that authoritarian parenting approved by religion plays the most important role in that maltreatment. In other words: the abuse is preached from above.

Authoritarian parenting isn’t reserved to religious parents. ‘Modern’, non-religious parents also adhere to a version of it, namely the progressive idea that “children make us happy”. What parents who say that really mean is that they think children ought to make them happy.

With all its talents and skills, this modern child tries to satisfy its parents’ needs, perhaps by achieving above average in school, or even by becoming a child star. Television naturally overloads viewers with talent shows for children and youngsters who really should be playing outside. With all its abilities, the child hopes to win its parents’ love and appreciation, while its parents hope to climb the social ladder through living their child’s life.

Janet Heimlich discovered that many parents like “the idea of controlling children”. To religious parents, it’s “no surprise that they […] demand that children honor and obey their parents ‘in all things’.”[5] She compares the condition of children suffering religious maltreatment with those of serfs: “Rather than honoring children as important members of society, theology has largely given children short shrift.”[6]

The fact that parents regard children as their possession was something philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche also noticed. He writes in Beyond Good and Evil:

“[No] mother doubts at the bottom of her heart that the child she has borne is thereby her property, no father hesitates about his right to HIS OWN ideas and notions of worth. Indeed, in former times fathers deemed it right to use their discretion concerning the life or death of the newly born (as among the ancient Germans). And like the father, so also do the teacher, the class, the priest, and the prince still see in every new individual an unobjectionable opportunity for a new possession.”[7]

One-Sided Adoration

Psychoanalyst Alice Miller knew that parents want to be “loved and adored by their children”, but the problem lies in the one-sidedness of that adoration.[8] ”[The] ‘love’ of a once abused child to his parents isn’t love. It’s a bond burdened with expectations, illusions and rejections that takes a heavy toll on all participants.”[9] Children can’t free themselves from that false love, because parents count on the right to be adored, “even when they had behaved destructively towards their small children.”[10]

Would children have been allowed to determine the Fourth Commandment, it wouldn’t have been called honor thy father and thy mother, but love all thy children! The obedience to their parents won’t immediately victimize children, but only later, “when we realize as adults that our love was exploited and abused.”[11]

Once the talent child has grown up, reality confronts it with the unfairness of its past exploitation. However, if it wants to react with anger and demand emotional repairs from its parents, the Fourth Commandment once more reminds him of his obedience, and blocks recognition of the abuse. The only outlet is to exploit one’s own children, in order that we take on the role of our untouchable parents. Then the repetition of the past trauma is complete.

Through loyalty to the parents, many experience a life-long emotional debt they have to repay their parents with honor and respect for everything they’ve done. Sincerely loved children, on the other hand, feel free to pursue their own lives. They feel supported in everything they do, because they were loved for who they were, not for what they earned for their parents.

To free ourselves from the obedience to once maltreating parents, we must learn to see parents as they really were, with all their shortcomings, curiosities and also their bad sides, but no longer as the untouchable diplomats that ruled our childhoods.

Abolishing the Fourth Commandment

Alice Miller suggests to break the cycle of abuse by abolishing the Fourth Commandment and all its modern interpretations:

“I think it’s time to take the pain of childhood and its consequences seriously and free us from this commandment. That doesn’t mean that we should pay back our old parents’ cruel deeds with cruelty, but it means that we should see them as they were, how they treated us as small children, to free ourselves and our children of this template. We must divorce the internalized parents who continue their work of destruction in us, so that we can accept our lives and learn to respect ourselves.”[12]

[1]Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gute Und Böse: Vorspiel Einer Philosophie Der Zukunft (Project Gutenberg, 2005), chap. Von Kind und Ehe,

[2]Murray A. Straus and Mallie J. Paschall, “Corporal Punishment by Mothers and Development of Children’s Cognitive Ability: A Longitudinal Study of Two Nationally Representative Age Cohorts,” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma 18 (2009): 179.

[3]Yuval N. Harari, Eine Kurze Geschichte Der Menschheit, trans. Jürgen Neubauer (München: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2013), 179.

[4]Ibid., 239.

[5]Janet Heimlich, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment (Prometheus Books, 2011), chap. 6: An Obsession with Child Obedience.

[6]Ibid., chap. 1: What Is Religious Child Maltreatment.

[7]Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gute Und Böse: Vorspiel Einer Philosophie Der Zukunft, 5: Zur Naturgeschichte der Moral, §194.

[8]Alice Miller, Die Revolte Des Körpers (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2005), 31.

[9]Ibid., 186.

[10]Ibid., 114.

[11]Alice Miller, “Gewalt Tötet Die Liebe: Schläge, Das Vierte Gebot Und Die Unterdrückung Authentischer Gefühle,” ONA, June 2005.

[12]Miller, Die Revolte Des Körpers, 19.

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