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Authoritarianism and Family Relationships

How children are raised affects authoritarianism, and so do gender differences.

Key points

  • Children learn about authority based on the way they are raised by their parents.
  • Socioeconomic status can have a strong influence on how obedient children are expected to be.
  • Gender expectations play a role too, and they can vary greatly based on culture.

Children learn about authority as it relates to the relative status of children and adults or of men and women. What they learn is adapted to the realities of adult life. So, the level of obedience asked of children mirrors adult conformity to rules.

Obedience to Parents

Young children are dependent on their parents for basic necessities of food and shelter. They are also considerably smaller than adults. This boils down to having lower social status in the household, although many are skilled at getting their own way if thwarted by their parents.

The level of obedience expected of children varies considerably around the globe. Children from subsistence societies studied by anthropologists are generally raised with a great deal of indulgence (1). Consequently, they mature into independent-minded adults. Individualism is advantageous in a society that lacks written laws and where social transactions are mediated through face-to-face interactions.

More complex societies inculcate greater conformity to rules and conventions and require obedience to authority. This is particularly true in societies where high social status and wealth are inherited. Children are more industrious and hard-working in societies where social status reflects individual effort (2). This applies to students studying for exams today as much as to members of the Yurok tribe of California making canoes and baskets for sale.

Gender Expectations

Simple hunter-gatherer societies had few status distinctions because they were nomadic and had minimal personal property that could be used to define social classes. Women might play socially-prominent roles as head women or as shamans.

Yet, men were assumed to have authority over their wives. Marital infidelity was quite common, and this often resulted in domestic violence (3).

This inequality could have a simple explanation. Male dominance is a feature of most primate societies. This is often reflected in size differences by gender, such that males are conspicuously larger and also more aggressive, as illustrated by gorillas and chimpanzees.

Primatologists can point to some exceptions, like geladas and Indian macaques, where males are mostly excluded from female groups and have lower status than females (sometimes despite a size advantage).

Human societies used to be male-dominated. In 19th-century England, for example, women could not vote or own property and were legally treated as possessions of their husbands.

This subservient status is maintained in many religiously conservative societies, such as in Afghanistan, where females have little freedom of movement and where their sexuality is rigidly controlled.

Long after winning the vote in the United States, women struggled to achieve equal treatment under the law, and that struggle continues in the wake of Roe vs. Wade being overturned by individuals who want to control female sexuality.

Women make most of the purchasing decisions in a household, suggesting greater economic power, although it could be argued that this is just one aspect of doing more of the domestic work.

Women's economic power increased with their greater entry into education and careers from about the 1950s onward, with steady increases in workforce participation and improving equity in pay.

The family dynamics of authority play an important role in politics, and this connection is demonstrated most clearly by changes in political views in response to economic circumstances.

The Connections of Poverty and Inequality to Authoritarian Politics

Psychologists have long noted the connection between economic stress and authoritarian rearing styles. Whereas middle-class households emphasize reasoning and explanation as the basis of child discipline, households under economic stress emphasize parental authority and back it up with corporal punishment.

Religion is another key variable. Muslim households emphasize male authority and assert an unusual level of control over female sexuality based on Sharia law (5). These patterns are particularly strong in Arab societies of the Middle East. This may be associated with the prevalence of authoritarian governments there and the absence of democracy.

These family dynamics play out on the larger stage of national politics. The rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930s could be explained in terms of economic distress within families pushing families towards authoritarian views, and such shifts occur during economic recessions (5).

With worker incomes stagnating in the U.S. over the last several decades, even as the wealthy became much wealthier, there is a deep feeling of social malaise as families struggle to make a living, often working long hours for low pay and having limited health care. Many of these problems are worst in small towns that have limited employment opportunities and are recruiting grounds for violent militias (6).

In addition to economic problems, the Internet is a major factor in the rise of authoritarian leaders from relative political insignificance. Examples range from Duterte and Orban to Bolsonaro and Trump (6).

The Facebook algorithm helps extremists to associate with others of their ilk and creates the rabbit holes of conspiracy theories where their sense of grievance is magnified and broadcast to a large audience via the metastasis of “liking” and “friending.”


1 Berry, J. W. (1967). Independence and conformity in subsistence-level societies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 7, 415-418.

2 Low, B. (1989). Cross-cultural patterns in the training of children. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 103, 311-319.

3 Shostak, M. (1981). Nisa: The life and words of a !Kung woman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

4 Garcia, H. A. (2021). Sex, power and partisanship: how evolutionary science makes sense of our political divide. Lanham, MD: Prometheus Books.

5 Inglehart, R., and Welzel, C. (2005). Modernization, cultural change, and democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

6 Walter, B, F. (2022). How civil wars start and how to stop them. New York: Crown/Random House.

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