Thursday, May 16, 2024

Estrangement and Authoritarian Parenting


It seems like estrangement has been in the news and the op-ed columns a lot since the pandemic - specifically, the estrangement of adult children from their parents. It seems at least plausible that this has increased a significant amount in the last generation. 


However, the news coverage always seems to focus on a perceived cultural shift among the young people. At its most generous, it is some variation on “Younger generations are less likely to tolerate abusive behavior from their parents.” At its worst, it is some variation on “Young people just don’t value family like they used to” or “young people are so entitled and ungrateful these days.”


This is puzzling to me. Social changes don’t just come out of nowhere - they are reactions to what has happened before. 


Failing to ask what changed in parents before this supposed estrangement epidemic would seem to be crucial to understand the reactions of adult children. 


It would be like blaming lower home ownership rates for Millennials on a change in beliefs rather than looking at housing costs, wages, and student debt. 


Oh wait. That’s exactly what older people do, isn’t it?


Or like looking for an explanation for the protests of the 1960s without mentioning the Vietnam war. 


Oh yeah, that’s what older people do for that too - it was all that hippie culture and philosophy (damn Kerouac!) - it couldn’t possibly be that we started a morally indefensible war that was unwinnable and sent your men to die for that cause, could it? 


Actually, this has a history going back hundreds of years. Note how many tried to blame the French Revolution on Voltaire’s writings, rather than the obscene inequality leading to the starvation of the poor. 


Anyway, it is deeply puzzling to me that I have yet to see the mainstream media ask the basic question:


What happened in the 1970s through 1990s that might explain this?


As someone who both grew up during those years and who is estranged from his parents, I have a pretty good idea what the hell happened.


Starting in the 1970s, there was a widespread cultural phenomenon that swept religious circles: Religious Authoritarian Parenting.


If you grew up in Evangelical circles - or even within a few degrees of them - you undoubtedly have heard some of these names:


James Dobson (and Focus on the Family)

Bill Gothard 

John MacArthur

Gary Ezzo

Ted Tripp

Michael and Debi Pearl


There are more, of course, but those are the big ones. 


They taught a form of parenting (that they told parents was “God’s Way”) that had the goal of creating children who were instantly obedient, without talking back, without questioning. It was Authoritarianism on the family scale. 


This wasn’t done just with corporal punishment (although of course there was that) - there was also a heavy use of manipulative psychological tools: the teaching that God speaks to children through their parents, that the authority structure was God’s will for the family and society, that disobedience (including talking back) opened a child’s soul to Satan, that children were inherently sinful (aka evil) and were in a constant battle for power with their parents, and so on. 


I may write a post or three on the specifics of some of this, later, we’ll see. The goal of all of this, unsurprisingly, was to pave the way for authoritarian right wing government - which is why all these people endorsed Trump and are now openly in favor of white Christian nationalism. (They were before too - but didn’t advertise that to the outside world before Trump.) The goal of obedience was closely tied to the goal of acceptance of one’s role in a patriarchal, white supremacist society. 


This is, I believe, the elephant in the room when it comes to a discussion of estrangement. 


Decades of problematic and harmful teachings about parent-child relationships have naturally led to toxic results. 


My intention here is to give an introduction to what I hope to write more about later. The single biggest reason for my estrangement from my parents is conflict directly stemming from authoritarian parenting. By viewing the parent-child relationship as a battle for power - one that the parents must win - authoritarian parenting sets the stage for lifelong conflict, and prevents the transition of the relationship to one of emotionally healthy equal adults. It also makes a parent’s identity lie in their success in raising their children to be political and cultural clones of their parents - to take their place in that idealized patriarchal and white supremacist society. 


When children explain their estrangement in terms of violation of boundaries, this is what they mean. Authoritarian parents are unable (or unwilling) to surrender that power they were able to exercise over their children, and thus feel entitled to obedience (without talking back!) from adult children. And, of course, their children’s spouses and children, who are expected to obey as well. 


So, when you see intergenerational conflict, the least productive way to look at it is to go searching for some outside influence that “corrupted” the kids - whether Voltaire or music by black people or the existence of LGBTQ people. 


Instead, look at what was going on with the parents that the kids are reacting to. 


The 1960s protests were in reaction to Vietnam, just like the Civil Rights Movement was a reaction to Jim Crow. The French Revolution was a reaction to economic injustice and the greed of the wealthy and powerful. These reactions were entirely predictable, and easy to understand. 


Likewise, it was entirely predictable that a generation of children who were subjected to authoritarian control, and treated as a means of preventing social change that made parents uncomfortable, might resent the continued attempts at control and decide to reduce or end contact. 


I am hoping to write more about this, but I think this is a good start: the rise in parent-child estrangement is directly correlated and caused by the Religious Authoritarian Movement of the decades prior. 



Good reading from StrongWilled:


Casualties of the Culture


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