Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Essays

You’re Not the Boss of Me

Parental Authority and Liberal Society

Rita Koganzon

Mode Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

In a recent essay, the philosopher Agnes Callard aptly characterizes a modern turn toward what she calls “acceptance parenting,” a presumption on the part of parents that their job is not to impose their own standards for a good life on their children, but instead to nurture the future adult latent in their undifferentiated child into the best possible version of itself that it can be, whatever it happens to be.11xAgnes Callard, “Acceptance Parenting,” The Point, October 2, 2020, Astronomer or artist, believer or atheist, gay or straight, trans or cis—all these emergent aspects of the self must be identified, cultivated, protected against critics, and set on a path toward their fullest expression so that the child may become an adult fully in sync with himself. Parenting becomes a scramble to suss out and affirm the complete adult within the child, taking care never to undermine or repress its development, even if that development runs counter to every parental hope. In this paradigm, Callard writes, “the parent is demoted from wise authority figure to tentative spokesperson for the child’s future self.”22xIbid.

Callard’s account of acceptance parenting resonates with popular practice, with the devoted—and mostly hopeless—search for signs of precocity, with the buffet of classes and activities and experiences children must be offered in order to discover their “passions.” But where does acceptance parenting come from? It is, by all appearances, fundamentally at odds with the basic relationship between parent and child, which is one of extreme disparity in experience, knowledge, and independence. Children don’t know anything and can hardly do anything for themselves. How did we arrive at a situation in which they—or at least the specter of their future selves—wield sufficient authority over their parents to make at least certain of their assertions and demands obligatory and unassailable for parents?

The answer, put simply, is from our liberal democratic regime. The highest values of liberal democracy are liberty and equality, and while these are formally only the guiding principles of our politics, they easily and logically bleed into private and social life as well. There is an intuitive logic behind treating fellow citizens as equals invested with rights at the supermarket and the office if we treat them this way at the ballot box. Indeed, as early as the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by the egalitarian mores of Americans in social and economic life and saw them as arising primarily from politics.

But there is also a difficulty with insisting on “congruence” between the public and the private. Private life is full of, even dependent on, formal and informal hierarchies.33xI borrow this term to describe the mirroring of institutions of political and private/social life from Nancy Rosenblum, “Democratic Families: The Logic of ‘Congruence’ and Political Identity,” Hofstra Law Review 32 (2003): 145–70. We may be inclined to treat both those we hire and those who hire us respectfully, to see ourselves in both our bosses and our employees (the latter a title notably different from the aristocratic “servants”), but it remains a fact that these are unequal relationships. Can they be democratized? Should they? Overburdened as it is by indignities and absurdities, the workplace is an obvious target of the logic of congruence, and many scholars and writers have argued for remaking it in the egalitarian, individualist image of the regime.44xSee, e.g., Elizabeth Anderson, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It) (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017). But more voluntary and closed institutions like the church and even private friendships have come in for the congruence treatment as well.55xChiara Cordelli, “Democratizing Organized Religion,” Journal of Politics 79 (2017): 576–90; Cordelli, “Distributive Justice and the Problem of Friendship,” Political Studies 63 (2015): 679–95.

The Liberal State and the Liberal Family

At the extreme end of the logic of congruence lies the family, especially the relationship between parents and children—a relationship to which one party does not consent, which it cannot choose or exchange, which is highly asymmetrical, and which is characterized for many years by almost total dependence. A thoroughly illiberal relationship, on its face. The difficulty of aligning this relationship with liberal politics is substantial, but that has not prevented many people from trying. Even Tocqueville remarked on the striking egalitarianism of the American family, in which

the father exercises hardly any power other than that which one is pleased to accord to tenderness and the experience of an old man; his orders would perhaps be neglected, but his counsels are ordinarily full of power. If he is not surrounded with official respect, his sons at least approach him with confidence. There is no recognized formula for addressing words to him; but they speak to him constantly and willingly consult him daily. The master and magistrate have disappeared; the father remains.66xAlexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), vol. 2, bk. 3, ch. 8, 561. First published 1835–39.

But the father remained, as did his authoritative counsels. What has become of him today?

In the late twentieth century, radical social critics like John Holt proposed that society dispense with childhood as a subordinate status and grant full rights and equal status to children as early as they might wish to take them up. A more moderate and larger group of liberal political theorists following John Rawls have tried to address this tension between the political values of the regime and the unpromisingly hierarchical situation of the family by defending a narrow sphere of legitimate parental authority that would account for the visceral dependence of children on parents but would open the door as early and as far as possible to their independence and equality.

Liberal theorists admitted parental authority to the degree that it contributed to cultivating “autonomy” in children—defined broadly as the ability to choose and revise one’s way of life from among a wide range of options while respecting the rights and equality of others. Such autonomy is achieved through practice in choice making under conditions that mimic the equality of political life but are, as one such theorist has put it, “protected” from its consequences. Practically speaking, this was intellectually analogous to the “child-centered” parenting encouraged by popularized developmental psychology in the same period. By demanding for the child an “open future,” this approach subordinated the authority of parents to the child’s emerging autonomous choices. You may be a devout Muslim, for example, and you can tell your child about the rational benefits of Islam, but you cannot impose your faith on him, since this would stifle his autonomous selection of a religion (or no religion) from the panoply of reasonable options.

Here then are the origins of Callard’s “acceptance parenting.” The job of the parent is at least to preserve, if not expand, the conditions under which the child can choose a life (or many lives) from among the widest array of options. To be sure, acceptance parents are not required to accept absolutely anything—liberal theory does not permit children to autonomously choose to join ISIS, for example, and it’s notably ambiguous on whether they can choose even less virulent forms of nonliberalism, creating an interesting conundrum of its own about tolerating the intolerant. But all other assertions of individual identity are to be accepted and encouraged, whether they accord with parental values or not.

The overarching aim of Rawlsian theorists has been to limit parental authority as much as the circumstances of childhood permit. They regret the exercise of authority over children, even while admitting its practical necessity, because they cannot reconcile childhood subordination with adult freedom. The best way to deal with subordination is to minimize it as much and as quickly as possible. Consequently, the basic logic of liberal educational theory has become that of congruence between the public and private realms, between the structure of the state and its families and schools. Since the liberal democratic state turns on equality and individual liberty, children are best prepared for citizenship in it by experiencing egalitarian social relations and rehearsing rights in the prepolitical spheres they inhabit. This understanding of the political function of child rearing requires the democratization of the family and the school.

Liberal Incongruence

There is an appealing and logical simplicity to the democratized family, and as a result, it is typically deviations from it that require justification. Practice is obviously an important way to learn. So if we want children to grow up understanding their democratic rights and duties, they should practice them from the start. By contrast, if they practice obedience and submission in childhood, they will naturally grow into slavish adults. It is incongruence that is confusing, requiring us to demand a form of personal authority in one sphere of the regime—the family and the school—that liberalism is designed to undermine in all others. The dependence and neediness of children demand that parents and pedagogues behave toward them in a hierarchical, coercive way that is not only impermissible in relation to fellow citizens but is also one that children’s entire education sets them against. Ambivalence toward authority makes a great deal of contemporary liberal sense.

But is a childhood of rehearsing equality and liberty in the protected spaces of the family and school really the means to liberal liberty and equality in adulthood? Is congruence good for liberalism? Before Rawls and even Tocqueville, some liberals said no. The question of the family and education arises immediately at the birth of liberalism, with philosophers such as John Locke (Some Thoughts concerning Education, 1693) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Émile, 1762) devoting entire works to it. And what is immediately striking from the perspective of congruence is that both unambiguously rejected it.

According to Locke and, later, Rousseau, by no means should the family and the education of children be modeled on the freedom and equality of adults. Indeed, it is precisely for the sake of preserving freedom and equality for adults that, as Locke wrote, “children, when little, should look upon their parents as their lords, their absolute governors; and, as such, stand in awe of them.”77xJohn Locke, Some Thoughts concerning Education and on the Conduct of the Understanding, eds. Nathan Tarcov and Ruth Grant (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1996), 39. First published 1693. Rousseau’s Émile, on the cusp of adolescence, the moment when the contemporary liberal would expect him to stretch his autonomy muscles, instead begs his tutor to control him: “O my friend, my protector, my master! Take back the authority you want to give up at the very moment that it is most important for me that you retain it.”88xJean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, trans. Allan Bloom (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1979), 325. First published 1762. Why don’t Locke and Rousseau embrace the much more logical position of congruence?

Congruence had a significant though now-forgotten life before Rawls and contemporary liberalism, when it flourished as an animating principle of early modern absolutism. Alongside the development of the theory of sovereignty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came a newfound interest in modeling paternal power on the absolute power of the political sovereign, to produce a civic education not unlike what contemporary liberals seek, albeit with a different outcome. Fathers who wielded absolute power over their children—even the right of life and death, which the sixteenth-century constitutional theorist Jean Bodin proposed to restore to them—would give their children an education in what it meant to submit to an absolute master, and thereby prepare them to take up their duties as subjects of a sovereign monarch in adulthood. We might say that the patron saints of the logic of congruence were sovereign absolutists like Bodin, Robert Filmer, and Thomas Hobbes.

Early modern liberalism was conceived in opposition to this absolutism, and so the question of how to organize the family was immediately salient. But while early liberals certainly circumscribed paternal power so that it would be diffused (to become “parental power,” giving mothers equal authority), strictly time-limited (expiring at the legal age of majority), and protective of the lives and even the property of children, they did not argue that the family should be the liberal polity writ small. For all their opposition to absolutist public authorities, Locke and Rousseau never proposed to liberate children from their parents. They opposed modeling the family on the state—even a democratic, egalitarian state—because they viewed the “authoritarian” family as a necessary educational buttress for children against the new forms of social tyranny that liberal, commercial states would inevitably develop.

The Problem of Opinion

Undermining traditional authorities and leveling hierarchies would not straightforwardly result in freedom and equality for all, but it would instead elevate other forces to the commanding heights—in particular, the authority of fashion, opinion, and the majority. These forces might—unlike the old authorities—leave our bodies and property alone, but they would subtly and forcefully shape our understandings, subjecting us to a new kind of tyranny of public opinion that could be as powerful as it was invisible.

Even Hobbes understood the power of dissenting opinion to undermine even an absolute sovereign, but he argued that the threat could be subdued by careful management of public opinion. Since “the power of the mighty hath no foundation but in the opinion and belief of the people,” as he wrote in Behemoth,99xThomas Hobbes, Behemoth, or the Long Parliament, ed. Ferdinand Tönnies (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 16. First published 1688. the Hobbesian sovereign was tasked with enforcing a homogeneity of opinion by undermining the independence of mediating associations (including the family) from which subversive opinions might emerge, discrediting demagogues, and directing the very language of morality that conditioned the private opinions of subjects.

But Locke and Rousseau were doubtful that so powerful and amorphous a force as public opinion could be harnessed and directed by any sovereign. Neither positive nor even divine law controls us more effectively than what Locke called the “law of fashion,” by which “the greatest part” of men “govern themselves chiefly, if not solely…and so they do that, which keeps them in Reputation with their Company, little regard the Laws of God, or the Magistrate.”1010xJohn Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter Nidditch (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1975), bk. 2, ch. 28. sect. 12, 356–57. First published 1689. So weak was the power of sovereigns against it, according to Rousseau, that “opinion, queen of the world, is not subject to the power of kings; they are themselves her first slaves.”1111xJean-Jacques Rousseau, “Letter to M. d’Alembert on the Theatre,” in Politics and the Arts, trans. Allan Bloom (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1960), 74. First published 1758. Absolute monarchies are incapable of governing opinion, but liberal democracies do not even try. They instead liberate individuals from required subservience to traditional sources of belief (and delusion)—government, church, guild, family—leaving them with the free-floating prejudices of their locality, or as Tocqueville would observe in mid-nineteenth-century America, those of the majority, to guide them. What these prejudices lacked in reasonableness, they compensated for in irresistibleness—our options in the face of overwhelming public opinion are submission or ostracism.

Under such conditions, how was intellectual freedom and independence—the raison d’être of liberalism—to be preserved? The only solution early liberals saw was to inoculate individuals against the seductions of fashion through education. But to be effective, such education had to be anything but democratic and liberal. It had to shield children from the pressures of fashion, not thrust them into the fire. To this end, Locke and Rousseau turned back to the family, transformed from a powerful miniature sovereignty to a weaker society of sentiment and affection, to serve as a bulwark against the centripetal pull of public opinion. They defended the private authority of the family to protect children from opinion’s influence while they were most vulnerable to it, and to build up their self-control so that they could one day protect themselves and be more fully free. This authority is substantially more expansive than what contemporary liberals have allowed, but it is nonetheless limited in duration and thus still compatible with liberalism’s principles of adult liberty and equality. What it is not is congruent with them. By abandoning the logic of congruence and permitting the adult authority they have overcautiously withheld, modern liberals can strengthen liberal education and thereby anchor their entire political project on firmer ground.

Refusal Parenting

Among the desires of children, the strongest and most educative is the desire for “esteem.” “Esteem and disgrace are, of all others, the most powerful incentives to the mind…which I look on as the great secret of education,” Locke wrote.1212xLocke, Some Thoughts concerning Education, 56. Esteem is the basis for imitation, and thus the key to influencing conduct. But esteem must come from someone, and whoever becomes the arbiter of esteem and disgrace for a child becomes a powerful authority over him. The danger is that nearly anyone can exercise such authority over a child. So Locke warns repeatedly of “the great danger from…servants, and other ill-ordered children.”1313xIbid., 19. Their authority is either irresponsible or malicious: Servants are indifferent to the way children turn out, while children exploit each other’s desire to be liked, creating arbitrary and even morally pernicious social hierarchies to subordinate and compel conformity.

So both Locke and Rousseau reject traditional schooling, and charge parents to supervise their children’s entire education at home, with instruction provided by parentally selected tutors, ideally on an estate in the country far from the influence of cities, hothouses of vain and corrupt fashion, unsalutary for both parents and children. In the relative isolation of the family home, parents stand between their children and their peers to preempt the social tyranny that develops where adult authority is attenuated, and they stand between their children and the broader world to delay and diminish the even more powerful pull its fashions will have on them. To achieve this, authority must be exclusive to parents and extended at their discretion only to the few others they deem acceptable influences, so that the moral influence that authority exerts is consistent, and perhaps even more importantly, so that it is purposeful, and understands itself as such.

Education in the liberal tradition is the gradual development of self-control, what earlier liberals called “self-mastery.” But until children can control themselves, they are easily controlled by others. So the bulk of Locke’s education, and the latter half of Émile’s (and all of Sophie’s in Émile), is taken up with the development of this sort of self-control, modeled and imposed by parents. The aim of this education is never so narrow as to turn out mere copies of parents, molded in all their particulars by parental preferences, but it requires the opposite of “acceptance parenting”—an almost constant “crossing” of the child’s desires to demonstrate to him how to cross his own, to build up his willpower so that he can later resist the importunities of fashion himself. Early liberals also believed in a kind of “open future,” but they saw that an open future could be preserved only by a closed childhood, that the most important thing to learn if you want to be able to freely choose as an adult is how to avoid having all your choices foreclosed by a slavish love of social approval kindled in childhood.

Such expansive parental authority may certainly be abused and misused, but it can also be well used. The pedagogical authority of the peer group or the broader culture differs in that, in its irrationality, it can hardly be well used. Locke and Rousseau did not fear the narrow or unduly parochial influence of the family on the child because, just beyond it, they saw the much more powerful influence of public opinion waiting. Even the isolated, rural families they imagined were part of a larger society whose influence would penetrate the home—through parents’ youthful experiences, books and visitors, and especially through the eventuality of the children’s growing up and leaving. Today, this same influence filters through to all but the most isolated children through a ubiquitous popular culture and the Internet. Without any counterweights, this influence would soon insinuate itself into children via their natural moral weakness and desperate desire for other people’s approval. Against the influence that social pressures and our own raw and untrained desires exert against free thought, Locke saw the eccentricities of particular families as a quite minor evil.

Today, we often assume the opposite, that indoctrination is much more likely to come from the home, where parochial worldviews prevail, than from a school, the city, or the entire nation, which, after all, offers a multiplicity of ideas and opinions. Indeed, we often see it as the job of schools and the media to compensate for the narrowness of parental upbringing or even to undo its damage in order to ensure that children grow up sufficiently open-minded. But perhaps we have the situation backward. Maybe it is an early close-mindedness, a habitual skepticism and suspicion of the offerings of popular culture, that instills the mental discipline to sort through these offerings independently later on.

The Liberal State and the Illiberal Family

If a cultivated wariness is indeed the answer, then education in liberal democracies requires adults to use their personal authority over children to protect them from the competing and corrupting sources of authority, and guide them toward self-mastery and intellectual independence, enabling them eventually to face the omnipresent social pressure of society on their own and decide for themselves whether and when to follow the crowd. What liberals saw originally in dealing with this difficulty, but has since been largely forgotten, is that the practices of child rearing and education must run counter to those of civic life. In other words, the family cannot simply be a mirror of the regime—a position that was originally held by absolutist thinkers before it was revived by contemporary liberals. In fact, the inverse is true: The liberty of the adult citizen depends on the subordination of the prepolitical child.

This was always a difficult conclusion to sustain, dependent on a willingness to grasp and defend the apparent contradiction that consent is the basis of right, but to be capable of consent, one must first be governed by a nonconsensual authority. That is, to be free as an adult, one must be radically unfree as a child. It is not especially surprising that this incongruent position would eventually be eroded in favor of a simpler and more instinctively logical congruence between the private and the public, the family and the state.

But early liberals understood what contemporary theorists do not seem to see: that congruence itself is the problem, not the shape of the regime the family is asked to model itself on. The family and the state cannot mirror one another because, in a liberal state, they don’t exist for the same ends. The family does prepare the child for citizenship, but not by having him rehearse civic principles from a young age. Rather, it does so by inoculating him against the worst tendencies of liberalism—the tendencies to be ruled by fashion, custom, and the opinions of the majority. The family can do this precisely because it does not resemble the state, because it is hierarchical and unaccepting.

Whether this assuages the anxiety of modern parents any more than acceptance parenting remains an open question, however. Daunting as it may be to be required to accept and facilitate our children’s questionable desires and interests, we are perhaps no more intuitively expert at exercising personal authority effectively to direct them in a regime that does nothing but discredit and deride such authority as delusional pomposity at best, or—more darkly—as tyrannical impulse. Twentieth-century critics like Hannah Arendt and Christopher Lasch noted that it was American parents who voluntarily abdicated their authority, not their children who seized it from them. The arguments advanced in the name of child liberation and empowerment come from a postwar crisis of confidence, from adults who no longer believe themselves capable of raising and educating children. Believing that they and their “values” have made such a mess of things that they can only taint the next generation by transmitting these values, they would prefer to leave children free to refound a better world.

But if Locke and Rousseau are right, children left to their own devices in civil society are less capable than anyone of repairing the political world or ushering in a better one. Unable to deny or reflect on their desires, they quickly become enslaved to them or to anyone who excites new desires in them and promises their satisfaction. Liberal liberty does not come about spontaneously. Counterintuitively, children’s flexibility and capacity for novelty are not suppressed by an “authoritarian” education, but, rather, by the lack of one.


This essay is adapted from Liberal States, Authoritarian Families by Rita Koganzon, 2021, reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press;