Love, Authority and Power

In Norwegian homes, it is the mother who sets the limits. But when a conflict between the mother and a son or daughter escalates, the conflict is resolved by the father. The father’s exercise of power is regarded as legitimate, while that of the mother is seen as incompatible with good motherhood.

This article is based on a study of the parenting of Norwegian youth and uses some of the data collected for the study: stories about authority and love as narrated by 20 couples with a son or a daughter of about 15 years of age, and 20 interviews with teenagers (Hennum 2002). The analysis given describes the setting of limits in the private sphere and illustrates a power narrative: power as an element in the relations between generations. It shows that gender gains significance in these narratives.

The setting of limits; power and violence

The setting of limits proved to be a practice of authority that could activate the power present in relations between parents and teenagers. Power was understood by the parents to be something that they had to exercise or use in order to have their way in limit-setting situations: locking a door so that their son or daughter could not go out, for example.

Power was used when conflicts of interest arouse between the parents and their teenage child concerning a limit. The exercise of power was used with the intention of gaining a result in one’s favour when negotiating a limit. That is, using means which could force the other person to act according to one’s will. There were many means of exercising power and they were used by both the parents and the teenagers. Power was thus something that flowed between the mother, father and teenager. Use of violence was the ultimate form of exercise of power aiming at setting a limit.

Detailed descriptions of the exercise of power provided insights into the ways in which it can provoke violence when limits are set – both violence by the parents directed at the teenagers and violence by the teenagers against the parents. By using violence the teenagers destabilized the structure of the authority relation, while the violence-using parents ( in general fathers), tried by these means to re-establish the conventional structure of authority. The teenagers’ violent acts were triggered by negative responses to their requests to get money or go out. For example, a locked door could provoke a fight between father and daughter. In most cases, the fight ended when one of those involved was hurt and started bleeding. The parents also mentioned hitting, kicking, breaking furniture, throwing hard objects towards the mother or father, throttling and fighting as violent acts.

The violence enacted by the parents was often provoked by the father pulling the son or daughter away from the mother, usually into their bedroom, in order to avoid the mother being hit. In some cases the father considered it necessary to hold his son or daughter onto the floor since nothing else worked. Pulling away the teenager, or keeping him or her on the floor was not an easy task, since the teenagers clearly resisted these acts. The parents in the study described such situations as involving a lot of screaming, anger, scuffle: sometimes the parties involved were physically hurt and quite often material damage to the home was done. Usually a limit-setting situation involving violence ended with the teenager getting his or her own way.

According to the data, violence between generations caused feelings of both guilt and shame in those involved in the action. Therefore such actions were kept as secrets within the family. “It’s not something one wants to talk about, since then both him and me get labelled”, as one mother put it. However, the parents still used the concept “violence” and described an act as “violent” in relation to the setting of limits.

None of the teenagers mentioned that they used violence at home or that their parents used violence against them. To a very large extent, the teenagers gave an image of their family relations that was in line with cultural expectations pertaining to youth. They described themselves as challenging teenagers and their parents as responsible parents who set limits. In this way, they made themselves and their families seem ordinary, while the parents did the opposite in mentioning the teenagers’ use of violence. They talked about the extraordinary.

When was violence mentioned?

Not all actions involving open exercise of power were mentioned as violent actions. Narratives of violence show that the mothers and fathers described their son or daughter as violent, or defined the actions as violent on the basis of an overall evaluation of the situation.

There were a number of circumstances that must be present for an action to be described as violent or for a teenager to be regarded as violent. Firstly, it was only in connection with the setting of limits that the parents mentioned that their teenager became or was violent. Further, the teenager in the family had to have carried out actions that led (or could have led) to one of the adults getting injured and/or resulted in material damage. The actions also had to have occurred on more than one isolated occasion. Repeated actions made the mothers and fathers adopt the notion of violence. Finally, the actions had to create fear (i.e. fear of physical or material damage). The fear aroused by the actions had to be so strong that it resulted in the teenager getting his or her way – gaining power over the parents – by carrying out such actions.

In their narratives, the parents mentioned two persons exercising violence: the teenagers and mainly the fathers. But, as was mentioned earlier, the parents described their own actions as an exercise of power with the aim of setting limits, not as violent actions. Thus, they represented their own exercise of power as legitimate, while the teenagers’ exercise of power became illegitimate and stigmatizing. Mothers and fathers regarded extensive exercise of power as a sign of coercion in the relationship, and they dissociated themselves from it since it threatened the intimacy that they wished to have with their son or daughter. The fact that mothers and fathers chose not to set limits by using violent action in order to maintain their relation with their son or daughter, can be an explanation as to why they did not regard themselves as being violent. According to them, they did not overstep the mark that would result in disrupting their contact with their son or daughter.

The teenagers, on the other hand, did seem to overstep this mark: in some situations the parents had to protect themselves against a son or daughter who in that case was described as violent. Violent actions were depicted as actions carried out by teenagers lacking control, who “no longer knew what [they] were doing”. This stood in contrast to the mothers’ and fathers’ narratives of themselves as responsible adults who carried out well-considered actions.

Mothers’ challenges

The study of the use of authority in families with a 15-year-old child reveals that it is the mother who in practice instigates the use of power – which often led to violent responses. If the mother did not take the fights over schoolwork, or when to get home at night, no conflicts emerged and neither was there any requirement of use of power. Few fathers proved to actually take the initiative in setting limits.

The mothers were the ones who set the limits in the first instance, since the teenagers both turned to their mother with different issues and put up resistance against her. In cases where the mother was very patient or persistent, the father was not drawn into the situation. When the conflict between the mother and her son or daughter escalated, the father changed from a passive to an active participant in the conflict. Thus, the conflicts did not start with the fathers, but were resolved by the fathers exercising power and putting an end to the negotiations. This did not mean, however, that the limit was respected, or that the authority was accepted. When the conflicts with the mother escalated and turned violent, the father had few opportunities to successfully exercise authority.

Authority is supposed to produce voluntary obedience without the exercise of power. According to Lincoln (1994), women often have to manifest the power of their authority in order to achieve obedience. But when they do so, they disqualify themselves as authorities. Thereby he notes that women can possess power and handle the symbols of power, but they do not have authority. When, for example, mothers decided that their teenager was not to go out in the evening, the authority should have consisted in the son or daughter voluntarily respecting the set limit about not going out. At the moment when a mother deems it necessary to lock the door and thus manifest the power that so far was implied by her authority, she is no longer a woman with authority, but a woman exercising power. The reaction to an exercise of power can, as mentioned above, be violent actions on the part of the teenager. A mother exercising power breaks the cultural expectations pertaining to how a mother should behave in relation to her child. These mothers were described in negatively loaded terms in some contexts, for example by child welfare authorities.

Privat vs. public sphere

Lincoln (1994) notes that the location where the acts of authority are carried out is important in order to understand the ways in which authority gains legitimacy. This point is relevant for exploring the exercise of authority within the home. In some narratives the mothers mentioned that they had searched the room of their son or daughter looking for proof to confirm suspected use of drugs. They wished to confront the teenager with what they had found so that he or she would understand why he or she could not go out, or why the mother could not give him or her the freedom requested. When some of the teenagers mentioned to the staff at a child welfare institution that their mothers had rummaged in their things, the mothers were described as dominant or controlling in the case documents. They had violated a space which is culturally regarded as private.

At institutions, the teenagers’ rooms are also searched regularly, sometimes without prior notice. The explanation for the searches at the institutions was that it is forbidden to keep and use drugs within institutions. The law has to be followed, and statutes were found in the legislation that enable such searches. It is, however, common knowledge that it is not allowed to keep and use drugs at home, either. There is a general prohibition against drugs in Norway. Nevertheless, the searches acquired a different meaning at the institutions than at home. It became an expression of positive authority and was regarded as legitimate. At home, on the other hand, the search was seen as an act of power by a mother against her son or daughter – something that is culturally seen as a violation. The mothers did something that mothers are not supposed to do: they mixed love and power.

Combining love and power

In scientific literature, the relations between mother and child are mostly described in terms of caring, where practices of love occupy a central position. Authority is implicitly regarded as a part of caring, and is seldom explored as a theme separate from that. The absence of studies on mother-child relations as an authority relation reveals a cultural understanding of what women symbolise or should symbolise in our culture, that is, love in the sense of caring and intimacy (Jamieson 1998, Seymour & Bergueley 1999).

In research on fatherhood, on the other hand, the notion of authority is strongly present. This is particularly clear in studies problematising connections between problematic behaviour in children and the absence of their father (Marsiglio 1993, Burman 1994, Shapiro et al. 1995). These studies see the father as wanted not primarily as a caring person, but as a clear symbol of authority and limits.

Mothers and authority not being a theme in studies on motherhood does not mean that mothers do not exercise authority. But there are several indications that women will not be affirmed as mothers by being authorities. Women are accepted as mothers by mastering the cultural codes of love and intimacy. The lack of studies on authority and mothers can be interpreted as an expression of what writers on authority point out as being the eternal problem of authority: it must be legitimated constantly. Without legitimacy there is no authority.

Power does not provide authority with the necessary legitimacy when gender is made relevant. Love and power even prove to be contradictory, in some cases incompatible, when the focus is on motherhood. A combination of love and power contributed to the devaluation of women as mothers. A relevant question here is how women can become mothers exercising authority instead of mothers exercising power? In other words, how can mothers become legitimate authorities, not just legitimate providers of love?

By Nicole Hennum


Burman, E. (1994). Deconstructing Developmental Psychology. London: Routledge.

Hennum Nicole (2002). Kjærlighetens og autoritetens kulturelle koder. Om å være mor og far for norsk ungdom. NOVA-rapport 19/02.

Jamieson, L. (1998). Intimacy. Personal Relationships in Modern Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Lincoln, B. (1994). Authority. Construction and corrosion. Chicago:The University of Chicago Press.

Marsiglio,W. (1993). Contemporary scholarship on fatherhood: Culture, identity and conduct. Journal of Family Issues, 14(4): 484-509.

Marsiglio,W. (1995). Fatherhood: Contemporary Theory, Research and Social Policy.Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Seymour, J. & Bergueley, P. (eds) (1999). Relating Intimacies: Power and Resistance. London: MacMillan Press. Shapiro, M. et al (1995). Introduction. In Shapiro, M. Diamond, M. & Greenberg, M. (eds.) Becoming a Father: Contemporary, Social, Developmental and Clinical Perspectives. New York: Springer.

This article was first published in Norwegian in NIKK magasin 2 2005 © NIKK

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