Parent Authority Approach

Consider each of the seven authority approaches below (1-7). Look at your own parenting style and think about how often you use each of these approaches. Which one do you use the most? Rank it number one. The approach used next most often should be ranked as number two, with the approach used least often ranked as number seven. The result will be a ranking from most used to least used in terms of your approach to the exercise of authority with your children.

Once you have completed ranking the seven approaches in terms of how frequently you actually use them, go back and rank the seven in terms of what you think would be ideal in terms of the use of the seven approaches. Now compare the authority mix you actually use to what you think would be ideal.

1. Title Authority. Children are told that they should or should not do things because you - their parent - said so. Your title - parent - gives you the right to tell them what to do or what not to do.

2. Reward/Punishment Authority. If they submit to or go along with what you want or say, you will reward them in some positive way. If they do not, you will punish them.

3. Referent Authority. You present to them ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, and encourage them to conform to these standards. Sometimes this takes the form of encouraging certain behavior because this is 'what we do' in our family or is consistent with what our family believes.

4. The Voice of Experience. You base your demands, expectations, and suggestions on your personal experience with the same or similar situation. 'When I was young,...' is a typical intro to the voice of experience. Another similar approach starts with, 'When you have lived as long as I have, you will...' The idea is that your experience takes precedence over the perceptions and judgments of the young person.

5. Information Authority. Your authority is based on your having knowledge or information that the young person does not possess. This authority approach is also in operation when you encourage the young person to read the instructions, talk with someone who knows about that sort of thing, or go to the library to find more information. The same authority approach is being used when you encourage the young person to check with his teacher, talk to a professional to learn the facts, or to wait awhile until you or the young person can find out more about the situation.

6. Control of Resources and Opportunities. This approach is ordinarily being used when youngsters are given allowances, when privileges are given or withheld, when special arrangements are made for things like lessons or the opportunity to participate in special events, or when you are trying to influence the behavior of the young person by controlling resources or opportunities. This naturally includes things like driving privileges, using the family car, grounding the young person, sending young children to bed early, and so on.

7. Acceptance/Rejection Authority. This approach is used far more than many parents realize. Acceptance is being given anytime you give the young person a special hug, smile at her, say nice things either to the young person or to other people about the youngster, or in some way reflect your approval and affirmation. Also, acceptance authority is being used when you reflect a continuing caring and love for the young person even when she gets into trouble, does something of which you disapprove, or behaves outside of the boundaries of family norms and expectations. Conversely, you are rejecting the young person when you become angry with her, send her to her room, do not talk to her or give the youngster the 'cold shoulder,' or in other ways let the young person know that you are displeased, do not feel very good about her right now, or are unhappy with the young person. An important part of this authority approach is to devote the time and sensitivity required to know when in fact you are using it.


The activity presents seven approaches to authority which good parents blend and mix as they relate to and interact with their youngsters. Referent authority is almost always a part of the exercise of authority when using the authoritative approach to discipline. The authoritative approach also relies heavily on 'the voice of experience' and informational authority. Reward/punishment authority and control of resources and opportunities are generally the form in which negative discipline is seen when negative discipline is used as part of a learning experience for a child.

You will want to first work with parents in terms of recognizing and minimizing their use of acceptance/rejection authority. In fact, most parents would be well advised if they were to avoid the use of this type of authority as much as possible. Within the relationship with the parent, the child will naturally and spontaneously feel acceptance. When the parent becomes upset, frustrated, annoyed, or displeased with the child, the child will feel rejected and pushed away to some extent, whether this is what the parent intends or not. Since the negative effect of acceptance/rejection authority is going to be experienced by the child in any event, the parent should avoid its use anytime that is possible. You will need to pursue Therapeutic Instruction with the parent to increase awareness of and consciousness of those things which are experienced by children as rejection. These behaviors, attitudes, and approaches are, then, those which need minimizing.

At the next level, you and the parents should work together to reduce the extent to which parents use title authority. 'You will do that because I am your parent and because I said so.' One can easily see that this approach to authority is consistent with the parent's right to direct the child and with the parent's power to see to it that directions are followed. It is, nonetheless, not an adequate reason or sufficient explanation. In fact, if better reasons and explanations are not available, it may be that discipline or the use of authority are not reasonable or appropriate on that occasion. Interestingly, the child already knows who the parent is and knows about the parent's authority. Simply iterating the obvious to the child does not extend her knowledge or understanding.

The remaining five approaches to authority mix blend into two main themes. First, the use of reward/punishment authority and authority based on controlling resources and opportunities combine into what might be thought of as a negative discipline theme. These are approaches used by good parents primarily for the purpose of controlling their youngsters. The second theme combines referent authority with 'the voice of experience' and informational authority into a pattern of positive discipline or a pattern of influencing youngsters. The two themes interplay to limit and control the youngster on the one hand and to influence and direct the young person on the other hand.

From a developmental perspective, the first theme is very visible and present in good parenting relationships with younger children, although nearly absent in the parent/child interaction with adolescents. Alternatively, the second theme - positive discipline - is the major authority theme with older children and adolescents and is seen as an approximately equal theme with negative discipline in relationships with younger children.

As can be seen, the authority mix depends a lot on the individual child but also depends more generally on the developmental age of the youngster. Parents are beginning to get into trouble if the mix is not gradually shifting in favor of positive discipline over time. This is especially true if negative discipline is a major theme with older children and adolescents. In fact, negative discipline begins to become completely inappropriate for older adolescents. They are simply at a stage in their lives where the exercise of parental power and control are inappropriate and generally ineffective.

By Gary A. Crow, Ph.D. March 24, 2017