Parenting in Resistance to Authoritarianism


The other day, Anna asked without prompt, “How long is Donald Trump going to be our President?  He isn’t being nice.”  

Barring any impeachment or extraordinary circumstance, most likely 4 years.  And that is when it hit me, Anna is only 3 ½ and her sister Ella, 3 months.  Four years will be more than half of Anna’s life, and all of Ella’s life, during which they will be exposed to authoritarian-style governance.  

I understand our kids are young.   And the nuance and context of this moment in history may not be fully understood, but toddlers are insightful and impressionable.  How they understand the world, explicitly and implicitly, is shaped at this stage of personal development more than ever.  This is significant, as authoritarian-style of governing will be the dominant frame of their young lives (please note – this is different than the authoritative approach of parenting, which is more about healthy boundaries, discipline and loving encouragement. For more on that check this link).   

Some may disagree about the President being authoritarian in approach, but I point to his campaign speeches on law and order, his use of coercion, manipulation of media, and his initial executive orders and gag-rules as a sign of authoritarian actions.  And I believe we must be mindful of this as we parent.  

The impact of authoritarian parenting at home on kids is low self-esteem, shame, depression, anxiety, and other unhealthy outcomes.  And the broader social implications of authoritarian governance for Americans was detailed this past summer in an article Vox published on the rise of American Authoritarianism, the most concerning implication being around people’s’ willingness to “other” anyone who is not like them.  

Overall, the piece was fascinating, terrifying, and deeply insightful. As a parent, I was struck by a discussion about parents’ behavioral preferences. Do they favor obedience vs self-reliance, curiosity vs good-mannered, or considerate vs well-behaved? Parents who prefer obedience, well-behaved, and good mannered traits tend to place higher value on authoritarian rule, often unconsciously. This gave me pause – where on this spectrum are we raising Anna and Ella? Are we being mindful about the long-term impacts?

The article goes on to detail societal impacts of authoritarianism including a tendency to close ourselves off to anything that threatens our values or perceived way of life. This is what we are witnessing right now: executive orders to build the border wall and the ban on refugees from Muslim nations and proposed retrenchment on social programs that benefit people living in poverty.  The narrative that the country is under attack, jobs stolen, and our “way of life” threatened has activated fear and the tendency to support authoritarianism.   It is fear that drives the authoritarian approach and we must do everything we can to not succumb to fear.

Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, January 28. 2017 [Christopher Kerr]

So how do we move forward as parents and Catholics through the lense of Ignatian values?  Honestly, I don’t know and I don’t have answers.  But here are five questions that I think we can ask ourselves to start figuring this out:

1. How am I building resistance to fear through love?  

I don’t mean the oft-used tropes of love conquers hate.  But in our everyday parenting what do we do when our child doesn’t listen to us or frustrates us?  How do we respond?  In anger, manipulation and coercion, or in a loving response and dialogue?  

One step further, how do we respond to our children when they challenge us, question us, or disagree?  It takes the act of love to choose to cultivate and welcome these challenges instead of shutting them down, leading to a fear of questioning.

How do we translate this into society?  Do we bring our kids to protests and have conversations about current events, or do we ignore what is happening?

2. How am I actively working to NOT normalize authoritarianism and fear?   

If we normalize this, we give power and legitimacy authoritarian approaches and we become complicit in policies that are legislating out of hate, not out of love.   

It would be easy to normalize this as a family who is white and relatively privileged.  We may not lose anything immediately through authoritarianism.  But our neighbors will, some of Anna’s classmates and friends will, and those most vulnerable, undocumented immigrants, children of color, the poor and Muslim communities in this time surely will continue to be marginalized and oppressed.  We cannot let ourselves go quiet.

I read that one way to ensure we don’t normalize is to write things down to remember – how are we tracking these moments with our children, do we discuss what is happening and why or are we ignoring it?

3. How do I actively work against “othering”?  

Racial implicit bias shapes our children starting soon after birth, so we have a lot of work to do to work against its formation.  It will be harder more now as immigrants, Muslims, Black, and LGBTQ brothers and sisters are targeted as the scapegoats of fear.  How do we combat this and encourage anti-racist behavior in our children?  We can start by examining the books we read, the toys they play with, and the stories and history do we share.  For us as adults, who is in our circle of friends that our children see us interacting with daily – are we being inclusive?

4. How am I activating faith in our daily reflection? 

One of St. Ignatius’ greatest gifts to us is the Examen.  We have started to do a variation of the Examen at the dinner table as a family (and hope to make it more of a ritual moving forward).  But some questions we ask each other include:

  • Where did we see God today?
  • What are we thankful for today?
  • Did we do something nice for someone?
  • Did we do something that was not nice that we could do better?
  • What will we do tomorrow?

5. How am I creating with my child?  

We are busy, tired, have bills to pay and are often stressed about balancing it all.  The need to work and be busy can be defeating and time-consuming.  We need to find moments to celebrate creation with our kids.  It can be as simple as coloring or taking a walk, or as complex as building something entirely new.  How are we encouraging creativity, pushing boundaries and exploration?  This can be a simple yet direct response to an authoritarian framework that often demands conformity and order.  We need to cultivate in ourselves and our children a celebration of creativity and newness.

We have a long way to go and as parents; Kate and I are still trying to figure it out.  In the words of Ella Baker: “give light and people will find the way.” Let us be light for each other as we seek to find our way as Just Parents.

4 replies
  1. Deena
    Deena says:

    We don’t have any Thanksgiving traditions yet. We hosted Thanksgiving the last couple of years for my family, but this year we are taking a break. I think we will watch the parades, and I think the kiddos will enjoy th!iiVargtnia from Lady V dZine recently posted..

  2. Eileen Emerson-Boles
    Eileen Emerson-Boles says:

    Anthony: so happy to see you as an author on this blog! I worked with Michele at CRS. Best wishes to you and your family. Eileen Emerson-Boles


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