Sylvia would not leave her kindergarten playground. I'd given her two warnings and explained that we needed to pick up her brother and a friend in time for art class. "It's time, Sylvia. We have to go." She dug in her heels—or, rather, her hands, since she was on the monkey bars. Aiming for efficiency and efficacy, I ducked under her, caught her hips on my shoulder, pried her fingers from the bars and carried her away.

"You have to mind me when we're meeting people and have to be somewhere," I said. This "minding"—I invoke it holding hands for safety when we cross streets, and when we have to get out the door to school. I couch it in reason, however exhausted that leaves all of us, and it positions my husband and me as clear authorities. Is "clear" the same as "unquestionable"? I don't think so, which may be why it's proven difficult to define "talking back" to 8-year-old Theo.

We want him to ask questions and challenge us when he doesn't agree. We also want him to respect his family, teachers and peers. The way we talk to people shows we respect them. The way we discuss rules—and why they're important to families, classrooms and communities—is also about respecting each other, even in disagreement.

“It starts at home,” is how my sister puts it. “How we talk to all people starts with how we talk to each other at home.” She’s expressing a line of political science research that’s recently come to the fore. 

American politics and media are dizzy with the ascendancy of Donald Trump to GOP front-runner. His popularity befuddles everyone except his ardent supporters, who prompt applause, political angling, sociological evaluation, consternation and/or terror, depending on where you're coming from.

It turns out that Trump supporters are also reflections of—and, I'd argue, cause for reflecting on—parenting.

I would not be writing about politics and parenting—topics that are plenty polarizing on their own—if I hadn't come across an article in the news outlet Vox called "The Rise of American Authoritarianism." The article pegs a trait common to Trump voters, who otherwise span all measure of education, gender, age, religiosity, income and geography: Authoritarianism.

It seems that a simple set of questions about parenting can determine whether a person is inclined this way.

Authoritarianism as a political system promotes tough central leadership and circumscribed civil liberties, but the study of it leans to the psychology of authoritarian people. Since WWII, it has been a focus for psychologists and political scientists. In these fields, it describes individuals who prize forceful leadership, hierarchy, obedience, order and conformity, and who fear outside forces that threaten to disrupt the status quo.

Asking questions about parenting goals separates authoritarian values from specific political allegiances. Political scientists Stanley Feldman and Karen Brenner articulated this in a 1997 study, and the four questions they came up with are still widely used:

  1. Which of the following qualities is the most desirable for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  2. Which of the following qualities is the most desirable for a child to have: self-reliance or obedience? 
  3. Which of the following qualities is the most desirable for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?
  4. Which of the following qualities is the most desirable for a child to have: being considerate or being well-behaved?

People who prioritize the second choices on each question reliably track as authoritarian. In the Vox studiey (and elsewhere), authoritarians track as the most reliable Trump voters. Plenty of articles cite this and jump into political implications, which also are plenty.

But I'm curious about this: Why might authoritarianism—and whether or not it's on the rise in the US—be a parenting issue?

Respondents to each of Feldman and Brenner's questions may value both qualities, but they have to choose one. I skew one way, but I think all the qualities have merit. Still, researchers define one worldview that prioritizes respect, obedience, good manners and appropriate behavior versus one that prioritizes independence, self-reliance, curiosity and considerateness.

Independently, the values of the former aren’t worrisome. What does worry me is that the authoritarian set correlates strongly with fear, particularly fear of perceived outside threats and disruptions to social order. Fear-driven reactions can be newsworthy, sure, but they’re not generally the most sound. The authoritarian profile is less able to tolerate change and more aggressive against those they see as responsible for bringing it on. Blaming a visible “other” is simpler and more galvanizing than trying to understand complex, faceless forces. It’s much easier for 5-year-old Sylvia to blame me for not instantly meeting her demand for a dreamy homemade dollhouse than it is for her to consider why high-handed orders aren’t particularly motivating. It’s easier for me to blame my husband for forgetting to buy coffee than it is for me to rethink my sleep schedule. It doesn’t take much imagination to jump from here to the extreme ways in which this is playing out in current political rhetoric and posturing. 

As a parent, I keep returning to fear. My husband and I talk a lot about how to raise our kids in a complex world without buying the line that the world is a scary place. We want to introduce them to a fascinating, powerful world, not a terrifying one. We want them to embark on adventures with resilience and awareness, not anxiety.

As a parent, I keep returning to fear. My husband and I talk a lot about how to raise our kids in a complex world without buying the line that the world is a scary place. We want to introduce them to a fascinating, powerful world, not a terrifying one. We want them to embark on adventures with resilience and awareness, not anxiety. 

Of course, a parent's worries are practically infinite. And I've often heard people without kids say they didn't want to bring new life into such a scary, screwy world. Compelling arguments can be made that the world is "dark and full of terrors," to quote Game of Thrones' Melisandre. But I reject this notion, and I don't believe it's naïve to do so. I think it's imperative to reject it if we're to raise kids who have resources to navigate an increasingly diverse world with something like humanity.

In the late 1970s, authoritarianism was defined as a parenting style by developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind. In the world of education, teaching and classroom management styles are similarly categorized: Permissive-indulgent, permissive-neglectful, authoritarian, and authoritative. Pretty much across the board, the former three are associated with more psychological and behavioral problems.

Baumrind and others since have noted that authoritarian parenting can lead to twinned conformity and depression/anxiety, lower self-esteem, aggressive behavior outside the home, compromised social skills, and diminished ability to self-direct or self-regulate. Authoritarian teaching risks drilling compliant kids who don't know how to think critically and who aren't necessarily engaged in learning or its relevance.

In any field, authoritarianism deals in black-and-white, good-and-evil, right-and-wrong—top-down binaries that shut down conversation before it begins. And what is parenting if not a life-long conversation? Nonauthoritarian parenting emphasizes response over reaction precisely because response predicates a relationship.

Without the capacity for compassion and conversation, we humans resort to stigmatization and violence. This is not how I want my children to respond to people who think, look, feel or act differently from them, whether it's around our dinner table, on the playground, or in our community, country or the world. Differences are a given. If we accept Heraclitus's "the only thing that is constant is change," we do our kids poor service by not preparing them to adapt to a changing world.

It's telling that political scientists chose parenting questions to determine authoritarianism. The Vox article called the parenting-values topic "so banal it seems almost laughable." But I disagree: The questions are intensely thought-provoking for their ability to predict political action, and for their insight into how we raise our children as future citizens.

However they choose to act politically, our kids will determine the tenor of their families, their communities, and the country that's built on them. They will face threats, real and perceived. They will have to make quick decisions and weigh nuanced lines of thinking. Do we want them to react or respond? What tools are going to better prepare them to communicate with different kinds of people, modulate their emotions and behavior, address complex problems and imagine solutions?

I'm hardly the only mom who's pried her daughter off the monkey bars or sternly admonished her son not to talk back. Can we teach deference without submissiveness? Can we stave off fear with dialog, travel, reading and modeling? Parenting is one on-the-fly question after another.

How we address the questions—which is different from answering them—has societal consequences. When I try to teach my kids independence, self-reliance, curiosity and compassion, I am also teaching myself. I prioritize these not only because I think it will lead us to more fulfilling lives, but also because I believe it makes a better toolkit for our collective future.