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Authority in Parenting

May 8, 2009 | by Rebbetzin Chana Heller

Authority is not a four letter word. It's essential in raising healthy children, and in fostering their relationship with God.

Authority is a politically incorrect word for many of us, but it is alive and well in Judaism. In fact, everything in Judaism rests on the concept of authority -- the authority of God, the Torah, rabbis, courts of law, teachers and parents.

Authority is a good thing. Kids need it to grow up in a healthy way. They thrive on the fact that they have parents who are in charge, making rules and doling out consequences. Of course parents have to be loving and fair authoritative figures in order to create a healthy relationship, but kids want parents who are in control. No matter how much they try to run the show, children do not really want to be in charge. They know that they don't know enough and in order for them to feel safe, secure and loved they need parents who can confidently take charge.

Children see their parents as authority figures. From a child's perspective, parents are like God. They are omnipotent and omniscient. They care for us, feed and clothe us. They protect us from harm.

Lack of respect for authority makes many schools dangerous and fearsome places.

As an extension of this, children need teachers, principals and other authority figures to provide order and security in their world. So many children feel insecure going to school today. Bullies and weapon-toting kids seem to fear no one. Lack of respect for authority permeates many schools and makes them dangerous and fearsome places.

As a child matures, he realizes that his parents are not all-powerful or all-knowing. In fact, they are not at all what he first imagined them to be! If, however, the parents were successful at their task as parents, they have primed the child to be able to enter a relationship with God. The child understands the concept of authority. He has had the experience of submitting to his parents' authority and abiding by their rules. He has felt helpless without them for a significant period of his life. He recognized they had power to protect him and create order in his life. The child is now ready to take this experience to a higher level.


The parent-child relationship exists to teach us about our relationship with God. The concept of God is an abstract one, so God gives us an earthly parallel relationship that enables us to learn about who He is and how He relates to us. We learn about the possibility of unconditional love and compassion from our parents. We learn what it means to exist within a dependent relationship and to relate to authority figures who make rules for our benefit.

Human beings are the only living things created so dependent on their parents for such an extended period of time. God designed it this way so that we can understand the extent of our total dependence on Him.

When children honor their parents, it is considered as if they honored God.

Part of our role as parents is to transition our children from their initially immature concept of God-like parents to a mature relationship with God Himself. To this end, God gives parents authority that is akin to His own. In fact, our Sages say that when children honor their parents it is considered as if they honored God Himself (Talmud, Kiddushin 30 b).

It is not only children, therefore, who need authority. We all do. We all need to feel that we live in an ordered world with the right people in charge. The reason many of us feel so much anxiety is because we often feel we can't trust the people in charge. It is very painful to hear stories of policemen beating the innocent, government officials taking illegal campaign contributions and presidents lying under oath. We cannot feel safe and secure in a world where there is no authority to respect or trust.

We need a government that makes sensible laws that people follow. Imagine a world without law. Rabbi Chanina said, "Pray for the welfare of the government, because if people did not fear it, a person would swallow his fellow alive "(Pirkei Avos 3:2). Adherence to law and order is vital to our security and well-being.


God, of course, is our ultimate authority. He is our one and only security. We know we cannot fully trust anyone else. Just as children need loving parents who make rules for their good, we need God. God's laws order our world. They let us know what is expected of us. We know what the limits are and that there are consequences to our behavior. We also know we are too limited in our intelligence to be running the world. We make our best effort to contribute to society and improve what we can but in the end we are glad God is in charge.

One of the main tasks of a Jew is to accept the authority of God. Getting this concept is so critical to a Jew that we have a holiday which is devoted to internalizing this very idea. This holiday is Rosh Hashanah.

The main theme of Rosh Hashanah is the idea that God is King. The word "HaMelech", the King, is found innumerable times in the Rosh Hashanah prayers. We accept that we are living in His universe and cannot take even one breath without His will. We accept that we have no existence independent of Him and His will.

On Rosh Hashanah we do something we never do the entire year in order drive this reality home. In the Musaf (additional) service we recite the Aleinu prayer and where it says, "we bend the knee, " we actually prostrate ourselves fully on the ground. (More traditional synagogues do this. If you've never tried it, go to a synagogue this year that does it. I guarantee you an intense emotional experience!)

This bowing down is one of the highlights of my year. It is the one moment of the year that I feel fully in touch with reality. There is a God, He is in control, I owe everything to Him and am totally dependent. God is my King. The rest of the year I float in and out of this consciousness, but for that moment it is crystal clear and I ask God for the ability to hang on to this experience. Authority is real and its name is God.


God knows how difficult this concept is for us. Inasmuch as we want and need authority to make us feel secure and taken care of, we also want to run the show. The dual nature of man (call it the higher and lower selves or the Yetzer Hatov, the Good Inclination and the Yetzer Harah, the Evil Inclination) makes it difficult for us to accept authority. We see this in children as well as adults. It is human nature on the one hand to want to submit to God and on the other hand to want to be the one in charge, submitting to no one but ourselves and our own desires.

We're torn. We want to submit to God and we want to submit to no one but ourselves and our own desires.

It is a constant struggle. Submitting to God's authority is tough. Another tool a Jew has towards this end is saying the Shema prayer. It is our daily dose of proclaiming that God is King and accepting His authority. A Jew starts his day with the Shema and says it again before he goes to sleep, saying it out loud day after day in order to internalize its message.

We parents have a major responsibility in determining our children's future relationship with God. How we use our authority will have a major impact on how they relate to all authority figures and ultimately to God. We need to use our power wisely, by providing loving care, clear limits and fair consequences. We do harm by being neglectful and not providing a safe structure within which our children can grow. If our rules are arbitrary or we are on a power trip with our kids, the results could be disastrous.

Most parents are, of course, less than perfect and a few are downright abusive. Children of unfair, excessively authoritarian or abusive parents are very likely to have special challenges in learning to relate to God and accepting His authority. In fact, people who have trouble finding a relationship with God often attribute it to problems with their parents.

We need to work hard at making ourselves the type of people our children will be able respect and want to listen to. We need to ask ourselves where we are falling short and how we can improve. We need to know that by being the most loving authority figures we can possibly be that we are opening doors for our children's spiritual growth.

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