No Western social institution has changed more over the past 50 years than the family. Just a few years ago, families were profoundly authoritarian, patriarchal and sexist. For centuries, they produced traditional models and perpetuated conservative values. The father imposed his authority and the mother gave her affection. Children, both boys and girls, had to obey.
Everything began to change with the countercultural revolution in the 1960s, and the sexual liberation that came along. Before that, divorce was illegal and entailed social penalties. Those who divorced would face social ostracism. From the 1970s, couples began separating, divorcing and remarrying. Two-thirds of all couples have done it in the United States, and at least a third in Latin America. In Colombia, by 2015, a third of all women aged over 40 years told a poll they had already been married two or more times (DANE's 2015 Encuesta nacional de hogares or National Households Poll).
Today, women's role in society is no longer exclusively tied to procreation. In most European countries, women tend to have their first child after the age of 30 (32.1% in Spain, 31.9% in Italy, among others). Likewise, their entry into university and the labor force has become widespread. Worldwide, 60% of university graduates and 53% of the workforce are women. To this last figure must be added the immense unpaid work that our still patriarchal society has assigned them in the home.
The changes in the structure of families have generated a profound transformation in the exercise of authority.
In 1976, the psychiatrist David Cooper anticipated the death of the family. His prediction did not come true, but families have undoubtedly reinvented themselves. Families made up of a father, mother and children have become the exception. In Colombia, 70% of households have other structures, which is why we should speak of "families" in the plural.
There are elderly households; young people sharing flats; gay couples are increasingly visible and accepted and it is increasingly normal to see people living alone; and childless married couples or those living apart, among other options. In this country, the average number of people per household went from 9.4 in 1966 to 3.1 in 2019, and 38% of these are headed by a woman (DANE Households poll, 2020).
These changes in the structure of families have also generated a profound transformation in the exercise of authority and in children's upbringing. I want to talk about one specific change: the emergence of families where authority no longer centers on the parents and has been transferred to the children. Children have acquired full powers to judge, act and decide at all times and in all circumstances, and this entirely dilutes all limitations and authority at home. They take the important decisions on social meetings, what to wear and where to go, what to do and when they can come home or study, regardless of their age. It is a recent phenomenon and often involves middle or upper-middle class families. Curiously, these remain authoritarian families: only this time, it is the children, not the parents, who hold the reins of this power.
One of the keys to understanding permissive families is that parents' priority and meaning in life is no longer centered primarily on their children. Fathers and mothers have their own ideals that lead them to expand their studies and their own life projects. It is a society that is more oriented to work than to the family nucleus.
Children learn early on that their parents suffer when they throw a tantrum in public — Photo: Wallpaperflare
Permissive parents dedicate little time to their children and, to remedy this weakness, allow them to do whatever they want. They try to compensate for the lack of affection and communication with gifts, freedom of choice and absence of limits.
Ultimately, the permissive parent's goal is for their child "to be happy." They consider themselves to be friends of their children. But they do not realize that in winning a friend, their children are losing the mother or father they need. These children learn early on that their parents suffer when they throw a tantrum in public, and recognize this as an effective strategy to impose their will. With manipulation and tantrums, they get whatever they want.
Their parents seem to be unaware they are breeding little tyrants who bite, abuse and insult and impose their will through emotional blackmail. In time, they may come to reproach their parents for not abiding by their own "free" rules, and subject them to emotional abuse. It is very common for them to abandon or mistreat their parents psychologically and emotionally. In any case, the consequences of authoritarianism are reproduced, but now exercised from the children towards the parents.
Children of permissive parents are easily spotted at schools because these children tend to be rejected by their peers. They never learned to listen, to dialogue or to reach agreement. Their parents have not taught them about co-existence, about asking to speak, sharing toys or respecting rules. They are kings at home, where they are overvalued. They are often the only child, and, if not, they act as if they were.
Nor do such children — being needy, whimsical and disrespectful of norms — arouse much sympathy among their teachers. Hard work and perseverance are not their forte. Colombia's ICFES, a state body that evaluates schools, has found them to underperform in studies. It is not surprising, as education is a process that requires grit and hard work in grappling with ideas, both old and new.
Excessively authoritarian or permissive upbringings will not forge the citizens we need to live in a better society.
Authoritarian parents create melancholic children who are obedient and weak of character. Permissive parents produce overconfident children who are insensitive, and hard pushed to empathize with others. The former overvalue discipline and authority, and the latter underestimate the need for limits. There is too much control in authoritarian homes, while limits are absent in permissive ones. Both ignore Plato's recommendation to avoid two excesses in educating the young: too much severity, and overindulgence.
Democratic families do things together, talk among themselves and support members. Authority, however, necessarily rests with elder members. Similarly, democratic governments respect the independence of powers, promote participation and freedom of press and opinion, but it is clear that they have to make decisions that, with some frequency, do not satisfy everyone, although they always seek the benefit of the majority.
The conclusion is clear: Excessively authoritarian or permissive upbringings will not forge the citizens we need to live in a better society. Winston Churchill may have been right to see democracy as the worst form of government "except for all those other forms." I would add, the same may be said of families. Ultimately, the citizens of tomorrow will be formed in our own households.
*Julián de Zubiría Samper is headmaster of the Alberto Merani school in Bogotá.
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