Navigating Authority vs. Freedom in Parenting


by Phil Bacalia - Executive Pastor

Here's a scenario: You find your teenager has been secretly looking at websites they shouldn't be. You confront them and they deny it. Then you show them the undeniable proof on the computer's browser history and they finally admit to it. As a result, you restrict their use of the family computer and their cell phone for a month. Or how about this one: It's a half hour past midnight and your high school student is still not home. You've made it very clear that they need to be home by midnight. The garage door opens and the car finally rolls into the driveway a little before 1 a.m. In response, you take away the car keys for a week.

In both instances, most teenagers won't respond with, "Thank you for loving me so well! I am so thankful when you take away my freedoms!" Instead, they'll probably accuse you of ruining their lives.

Trust: The Basis of Authority and Freedom

As our children get older, their freedoms should increase and our authority in their lives should decrease. In order for that to happen in a healthy way, trust must be built. Trust is the basis on which authority and freedom rise and fall in our relationship with our children.

Authority and freedom are inseparably linked. In a perfect world where trust is never broken, parental authority in a child's life would decrease and their freedoms would increase from infancy into adulthood. However, we don't live in a perfect world. Our children will break our trust and the lines of authority and freedom will tend to look more like the stock market than anything else, with lots of ups and downs over the course of time. When trust is broken, authority rises and freedom falls. As trust is rebuilt, freedom rises and authority falls. 

Love: The Never-Changing Constant

While freedom and parental authority in your child's life may change over time, there is one more component in our illustration that needs to be understood – love. Unlike the other components, love never changes. Our love for our kids should be unconditional. Whether they have good days or bad days, whether they obey or disobey, our love for them should never change. So, while the lines of freedom and authority might go up and down over time, love is a steady constant, never changing from beginning to end. In a perfect world these components would look something like this.



Love and Trust: Not the same thing

Let's say I tell my children they can play in the front yard, but they have to stay away from the road. Well, it doesn't take them too long before they're disobeying me and playing in the road. As a result, my kids are now only allowed to play in the back yard. When I enforce this new rule, I'm increasing my authority and decreasing their freedom. I do this because trust was broken, not because I don't love them. In fact, the opposite is true; it's because I love them so much that I'm removing some of their freedoms. 

Or think back to the two scenarios at the beginning of this post. In both instances, the limiting of freedom in the teenager's life can feel like the parent is acting in an unloving way, when in reality the opposite is true. The parent's love never changes, but authority and freedom do because trust was broken. However, if you ask your children if they feel more or less loved after they've been disciplined and lost freedom, most of them would say "less". 

While children can get love and trust confused, so can parents. It's never easy to see your children angry or crying. Some parents will do anything they can to stop those tears. They can feel as though they are being less loving as they increase their authority in the lives of their children. While this is not true, it's easy for all of us to get love and trust confused with one another or assume they're the same thing.

God's word sheds light on this. Proverbs 3 says, "My child, don't reject the LORD's discipling, and don't be upset when he corrects you. For the LORD corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights." If we are receiving correction or discipline, we are reminded not to reject it or become upset. We can also clearly see that correction should flow out of love and delight in the person receiving the correction, not anger or frustration.

Steps Toward Navigating a Healthy Balance Between Freedom and Authority

1. Clarify the Difference Between Love and Trust

The first thing we must do as parents is clarify the difference between love and trust. Do your children know that you love them unconditionally, or do they think your love is conditional, based on their behavior or performance? Don't be too quick to answer this. I believe if you asked most children, "Do your parents love you more sometimes and less at others?" they would say, "Yes." This is because they naturally associate trust with love. It's our job as parents to instruct them that trust is earned, but love is unconditional. 

2. Communicate Unconditional Love

If our children are feeling less or more loved at some times than others, how do we communicate that our love is unconditional? Do you regularly say, with your mouth, that you love your children? Are you taking opportunities to encourage them and build them up? Do they know you are proud of them and appreciate them, or is your relationship primarily corrective, focusing on the negative? Have you ever withheld affection towards them as a form of discipline? Each day provides ample opportunity to communicate unconditional love to our children – LET'S TAKE IT!

3. Establish Appropriate Levels of Authority and Freedom

Finally, we need to evaluate whether our current level of authority and the corresponding level of freedom is appropriate for our children? Some parents have given too much authority to young children who are not ready. Your three-year-old should never tell you what to do, what they are going to eat, or when they are going to bed. They're just not ready for that kind of freedom! Advance ten years and consider whether your teenager should be allowed unfiltered access to the Internet alone in their room (this one's easy - the answer is no). It's way more freedom than their young minds are able to manage!

Maybe you're on the other end of the spectrum, protectively hovering over your children, even giving your sixteen-year-old a spit bath as they walk out the door. Your excessive authority in their lives is likely keeping them from taking responsibility for some of their own decisions and the consequences that follow.

In either case regularly evaluating and adjusting authority and freedom in the lives of our children is essential to effective parenting. 

Take the time to explain the relationship between authority and freedom. Help them see that as they build trust, freedom will follow, but as they break trust, freedom will be removed. Most importantly, make sure they know your love for them never changes, regardless of how much you trust them in any given season of their life!