Developmental psychologists study the means by which children learn cognitive and behavioural skills. Many have linked authoritarian discipline to bad behaviour and cogitive delay. Today I’m interested in Lev Vygotsky, a marxist psychologist and founder of the cultural-psychological movement.
Vygotsky emphasises the importance of cultural conditions in the formation of personality and behaviour. Vygotsky saw the parental relationship as vital to the development of the child’s interpersonal and cognitive skills. Through the example and assistance of a parent the child’s social development is advanced by activating what Vygotsky calls “the zone of proximal development”. Thus children who experience cooperative and assistive, rather than punitive styles of parenting, will quickly increase cognitive skills and be motivated to learn. This applies to practical skills like writing or building things from blocks, as well as the learning of ethical and problem-solving behviour.
Through learning from the example of one’s parents, Vygotsky says, children learn to internalise the values and behaviour appropriate to their culture in a process called ‘cultural mediation’. Vygotsky was of the opinion that authoritarian parenting resulted in stifling the child’s natural creativity and limited their capacity for cognitive progress,
obedient children usually represent a vivid example of ungiftedness, simply because they… are dull and narrow-minded, follow the line of easiest adaptation to the environment, and either do not need very much, or who, very early in childhood, grasped the secret of a happy life and value it above all other blessings. People with great passions, people who accomplish great deeds, people who possess strong feelings, even people with great minds and a strong personality, rarely come out of good little boys and girls (Vygotsky 1926).
Vygotsky advocated the “demolition” of “the authoritarian principle”, believing it fosters, not eradicates, bad behaviour in children while it stifles their ability to be learn. The kind of right behaviour that authoritarian parenting or teaching invoked was essentially hypocritical in Vygotsky’s view: for instance when the parent hits the child to teach them not to be aggressive, it is irrational and contradictory at base.
Vygotsky advocated right behaviour to be taught not through physical enforcement, but through teaching empathy, “the foundation of moral feelings have to be sought in the instinctive sense of sympathy for another person, in social instincts” (1926). The outcome of Vygotsky’s theory regarding authoritarianism and the role of social relationships in teaching behaviour is that we would expect to see increased compliance and less self-motivated or creative behaviour in children with strict or punitive parents. They may have difficulty solving practical or social problems and need excessive instruction. Developmentally, we would also expect to see adults with more authoritarian attitudes towards their own children and others, less ability to solve interpersonal problems with spouses or people they may come into conflict with and less emotional control.
Modern research into the affects of physical discipline on children has borne out Vygotsky’s claims.
Read: Vygotsky, L. (1926). Ethical Behavior Educational Psychology.
- Goldilocks and the Zone of Proximal Development (websofsubstance.wordpress.com)
- Authoritarian Parenting Is Poison: Faith Beauchemin’s Thoughts (homeschoolersanonymous.wordpress.com)
- The constructivism theory of Piaget and Vygotsky. (macjoseph.wordpress.com)