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What is Authoritarian Parenting?

by Hillary McFarland

Sometimes when trying to understand a difficult or complex idea, it helps to see a contrast.  I've stated before that I believe authoritarianism is evil and completely contradicts Jesus' ministry, His teachings, and His life. For a woman raised within an authoritarian environment, especially one of a religious nature, it's natural that she will have many issues to overcome before she walks in spiritual freedom and emotional wellness. This is where my heart is and what God has given me to do: to address the fruits of an authoritarian upbringing within the conservative Christian family and help women understand God's love and grace. This is important to Him because He became flesh to bring healing to the broken, liberty to the captive, sight to the blind. He came to bring the dead to life!
     However, I certainly don't suggest that authority within its proper context is bad. A friend of mine puts it simply: You have authority over what you are responsible for. Parents are responsible for their children's health, well-being, education, spiritual growth, and other needs. Christian parents know they are to love, nurture, and train their children in the Lord. There are many Scriptures that admonish believers to esteem all others better than themselves, to submit to one another, to do everything as unto the Lord Himself ~ and wise parents will seek to follow these exhortations even within parenting.
     But somehow authority often becomes “You must obey me!” rather than “How can I care for you? How can I serve you as unto the Lord?” While Paul preaches, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” he doesn't tell parents to make them obey. I find this very interesting. Additionally, many conservative parents treat their adult offspring as perpetual children by not appropriately relinquishing responsibility. This impedes maturity and growth; as authoritarianism slips its shackles into a family, a whole host of problems arise.
     In my book I place authoritarian parenting right alongside authoritative parenting in the following chart because it helps us to understand the differences, as subtle as they sometimes are. Let me repeat that while I am not a parent nor do I presume to be a parenting expert, it's important for all of us to understand familial authoritarianism because not only is it ungodly, it creates an environment that grows all kinds of rotten fruit. By knowing how to look for bad roots, we can begin to dig them out and pray for our heavenly Father to plant us, heal us, and grow in us His fruit.

Authoritative Parents / Parenting

Authoritarian Parents / Parenting
Responds to the child; sensitive to her needs; through example shows her the heart of God; “person over doctrine”
Reacts to the child; emphasis on requirements of the parent, lifestyle or conviction; “doctrine over person”
Communicates reasonable expectations, is humble and helps the child obey; more concerned with truth than “being right”; respects the child’s thoughts and her feelings; demonstrates unconditional love; quick to forgive
Is highly demanding and proud; more concerned with being “right” than truth; invalidates and disrespects the child’s thoughts and feelings; withholds love, approval,  and acceptance; quick to condemn and shame
Encourages responsible decision-making while still at home; appropriately loosens the reins throughout maturity; views mistakes as necessary for learning and opportunities to teach grace
Exerts extreme levels of control—physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional—over all aspects of life into adulthood; emotionally abandons or wounds the child; treats mistakes as proof of innate badness
Discipline is nurturing, with an ultimate goal of directing the child to the Lord and the influence of the Holy Spirit
Discipline is intimidating and power-motivated, reminding the child that the parent is “the boss”
Points to Christ; steps out of the way of the Holy Spirit; shows that faith trusts in God
Points to the father; stands in the way of the Holy Spirit; shows that faith trusts in “methods” (works)
Teaches healthy, age-appropriate physical and emotional boundaries; is “safe”
Highly enmeshed; physically, spiritually, emotionally and psychologically destructive; is “not safe”
Values the relationship with the child; encourages personhood, mercy and grace; communicates love
Emphasizes first-time obedience, performance, law; utilizes fear and shame
I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the LORD your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days...(Deut. 30:19-20)


  1. Very good Hillary. I hope to embrace personhood over obedience...As parents we want to so much for our children to have a relationship with Christ we can become blinded. Not blinded in the patariach way,which is simply to obey parents at ALL cost (while also excluding Holy Spirit), but blinded in wanting them to walk with HIm always, or just better than we did. I love your reminders about being sensitive to their little precious personhood so I don't wound or injure my two growing persons still young in years. I need to hear it and love to see through it other grown homeschooled folks. I was public school all the way when growing up. And with little or no restriction, my sister and I, were left to much of our own devices as teenagers.

    In fact homeschooling is not something most in my sphere even advocated, but it's something we as a family wanted to do and did in the face of opposition. So I'm always learning from others on the graces and pitfalls of it all by those who've went before us.

  2. Thank you, Tammy. Thank you for following the Lord first! May He guide and bless you.

  3. This is so right, I've found my parenting and the way I look at my kids and the way I treat them, has changed so much since abandoning the authoritarian parenting style and expectations. I've also been so much happier as a parent!

  4. Love the parallels you drew here, so true and yet not something parents always excel in. I used to say, "kids don't come with instruction tags" but if we follow the way of love over legalism, love does win.

  5. I would guess that some parents who see themselves as "authoritative" are seen by their children as "authoritarian" due to the simple fact that authority is being exercised, no matter how gently. It depends a lot on one's perspective.

  6. beanbrain, very true! Thankfully God knows the truth of the situation, and as we adults seek to address certain things from our upbringing, His Spirit is able to help us be discerning.

    Thank you jsevenup and youngmom!

  7. My one question or comment as you will is on the table you created. It seemed to deal a lot with the emotional relationship between a parent and child. While this is very important, I believe that a spiritual relationship deserves higher regard.
    Also, what is wrong with emphasizing first-time obedience. When a child is 1, 2, or 3, it lacks the discernment to know what is best. You teach a child to obey quickly to prevent harm to them. Not to receive some fiendish delight over absolute control.

  8. Quivering DaughtersNovember 11, 2010 at 8:32 AM

    Hi Anna,

    Thanks for your comment! I agree that a spiritual relationship is more important, but a spiritual relationship applies to God. (If I am misunderstanding your statement, please let me know.)

    Teaching children to obey is very important, as you have said. It's important to make a distinction between teaching to obey because the child has to, and teaching the child to obey because he or she wants to (from the heart). While teaching a child (who as you stated, lacks discernment at 1-3 years of age to know best) to obey quickly, authoritarianism often utilizes a fear-based modality to train. An overemphasis (imbalance) on first-time obedience neglects other important aspects of relationship.

  9. This is an incredibly insightful and beautiful post, and it answers a lot of questions that I have had. For a while I was indoctrinated to be very firm, always demand obedience and I was an authoritarian parent. It was all out of fear, that my children would desert the faith, etc. However, recently the Lord has been showing me that He parents me differently. He has been showing me that it is "His kindness that leads me to repentance." So, now I am reassessing and having to admit I made mistakes. My daughter is 4, and so by God's grace I still have time to build a relationship with her, and she is very loving and forgiving. I am grateful for God's grace in my life, and that He loves me. I need to extend his love and grace to my children as well.

    Thank you for a very well thought out post.


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