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Respecting Authority

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Stepping Down

I’ve been putting off writing this chapter.

It’s because creating a sense of respect in my kids still feels like having my fingernails plucked off one by one. With teenagers, our family is reteaching respect. And in response to my exasperation, John recently laughed; he thinks “obedient children” can occasionally be an oxymoron. Teaching obedience requires so much doggone vigilance, including consistency, rapport, and involvement.

American culture demands very little of my kids in this area. Our country was actually founded on some degree of rebellion. Yet previous generations and other global cultures have tended to expect more respect from kids. Some of those would be mildly horrified by the manners of some American children toward their parents. So I try to dial it back a few decades in my expectations of my kids.

But then again, previous generations tended to use shame as a motivator in a way we recognize as destructive today. Still, we can solidly establish respect without shaming children, though it’s harder to do without wielding a sense of disconnection and unworthiness based on our kids’ behavior.

Respect is what we see as God draws us near in the New Testament, apart from our obeying his law. Paul says that when we try to prove our worthiness by obedience, we “have been alienated from Christ” (Galatians 5:4, emphasis added). But, he continues, instead of viewing our nearness to God as a license to disobey, “do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (verse 13).

Our kids are going to be under authority their entire lives. Except for a few horrid dictators of suffering countries, everyone on this planet is under earthly authority of some kind. (Even Jesus was under authority: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing,” says Jesus of himself in John 5:19.) And while most of us live in countries with votedin officials, Scripture asserts, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves…For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:1-2,4).

When we require kids to respect authority, it’s in part because we don’t want our kids to be in rebellion to God’s authority or his agents. The only time they shouldn’t be obeying is when an authority figure’s command falls contrary to God’s. Think of Rahab protecting the spies (Joshua 2), Daniel and his friends worshipping only God (Daniel 3 and 6), the Magi reneging on their promise to return to Herod (Matthew 2), or Peter and John rejecting the Pharisees’ authority in order to tell people about Jesus (Acts 4:1-22).

That said, our days are stuffed with opportunities for kids to practice respectful submission: when they’re pulled over for a traffic stop, when they report to a teacher who could pave the way for their personal thriving or land them in the principal’s office, when they’re holding down a job, or when they need to honor someone who isn’t personally honorable. Offering our kids the gift of submission to and respect for authority is one of those keys that opens doors for the rest of their lives.

Obedience: Following the Leader

In practice for worship band, next to all my parts on the sheet music, I once scrawled 4". This was my shorthand to hold the mic four inches from my mouth whenever I sang harmony—to keep harmony second tier. Otherwise, I obliterate other musicians.

Any sound engineer will tell you that sound that grabs your heart from your chest involves just the right volume of each element. I hold the mic farther away when I sing harmony because it is often disordered and discordant when it sits at the same volume as melody.

Just as in a dance, one leads, the other follows. One is not more important than the other. They’re still in lockstep, working together. But following the lead matters. We’re training kids in the freedom of God’s proper order.

Worse than a Rebel

Kids learn how to obey God from how they obey us. So expecting respect from my kids is based on my God-given role to teach them how to obey God. What if I don’t teach this? Well, imagine the behavior that’s tacky in a three-year-old on full display in a fifteen-year-old, when it’s much harder to control and the possibility of life-altering havoc looms large and real.

Yet, even in that obedience, we don’t seek sin management but holistic heart change and knowledge of God’s ways. God speaks of the Israelites, whom he brought out of Egypt: “Your ancestors tested and tried me, though for forty years they saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways’” (Hebrews 3:9-10, emphasis added).

If our kids know and see God’s works but don’t know him, it’s a little like knowing your spouse on paper: their favorite coffee drink, their clothing size, the way they like their eggs. But if you didn’t know why their shoulders slump when they walk in from work or why your teenager makes them feel fear or what makes their heart leap, you’d be missing your spouse.

Permanent Truth

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We willingly place ourselves below those God puts in charge because we trust the order he puts things in. Respecting authority is about:

• not grumbling

• not excusing poor leadership

• showing respect for a person in all their imperfection

• comprehending the weight leaders carry

• learning to obey and trust God like Sarah and Abigail and early Christians did, even when we can’t see him sticking up for us

• knowing how to form a “respectful plea”

• responding from the heart, even in the absence of corresponding emotion

Most kids are primed to impress their parents. (I was good at this.) Read: You may not have a rebel. But a Pharisee could be worse. Yes, normal and healthy kids long for our kudos. Motivation by praise is a God-inlaid part of us (think “Well done, good and faithful servant”). But God also has much to say to people (like me) who crave the accolades of people disproportionately. He says that the Pharisees “loved human praise more than praise from God” (John 12:43). Author Tedd Tripp cautions, “A change in behavior that does not stem from a change in heart is not commendable; it is condemnable. Is it not the hypocrisy that Jesus condemned in the Pharisees?…Yet this is what we often do in childrearing. We demand changed behavior and never address the heart that drives the behavior.”1

We can follow the lead of God, who doesn’t just discipline us every time we do wrong. He parents our hearts.

Inside-Out Respect

What could it look like to focus on raising kids willing to follow from the inside out? Here are some general ways we can train our kids in respect.

Discipline differently for childish behavior as opposed to outright rebellion.

One time I found out one of my preteens had been spitting cherry pits onto the kitchen floor. After my brief cardiac arrest, I had to admit this was kids being (self-centered, lazy, irresponsible, airheaded) kids. It wasn’t malicious or defiant.

Differentiate between the request and the tone.

We want kids to know it’s okay to come to us for sibling arbitration or more apple juice. But if it’s presented in a tacky way, we can respond evenly, as if from a script: “You’re not allowed to speak to me that way.” I say this at least twice a day (sigh).

Peer beneath the surface of compliant older kids.

Having control over our kids isn’t the same as developing their ability to decisively shoulder responsibility for their own moral choices. The authors of The Cure & Parents assert, “In an environment where parents only impose rules through their child’s adolescence, it can thwart and stunt them from learning to own their choices. So a compliant, immature child grows into a compliant, immature young adult. When they discover imposed life choices didn’t work, they have no one to hold responsible but their parents.”2

As a compliant teenager, I found college overwhelming because I no longer had anyone to tell me what to do and how to do it. So I became a generalized people-pleaser instead.

Rebellious kids can be overwhelming and downright frightening. But kids who just do what they’re told may not internalize their own relationship with Christ or assert their own moral character outside of what others tell them to do.

Crack down on the interruptions.

This reinforces listening rather than our kids’ own agendas. We don’t interrupt authority figures (or people in general), and that includes parents.

Don’t let your kids divide your unified front.

If you have an issue with your spouse’s parenting, when possible, confront this in private, and if necessary, your spouse can return to your child and repent.

Kids also need to know that if they go to one parent for permission to do something, you’re both on the same page. They’re not allowed to go to the other parent for a different answer. Show them that you respect each other, and they need to respect your relationship as well. All of this can be especially important—and tricky—with blended families in their heightened quest for unity.

If we see an increase in bad attitudes, we sometimes take away media.

Media may not always be the cause; my kids can do bad all by themselves. But I want my kids to see the connection between their input and their output. Banning certain media tends to be a consequence that’s particularly painful (in a good way) for my kids.

Align expectations with your child’s development.

If you asked your four-year-old to accomplish five things and they didn’t, that may be more than their working memory can hold at one time. And a teenager won’t have a fully developed frontal lobe (responsible for judgment and memory, among other things) until around age 25, so set expectations accordingly. Think about what’s reasonable to ask of your kids (and have you taught them how to do it?). Communicate that home is an okay place to learn and make mistakes.

We don’t want AI children who mindlessly obey.

Sometimes I need my kids’ input too. I teach them the “respectful plea”—a “script” to respectfully disagree. It might sound like, Mom, I understand that you _____. Can I offer a different perspective? Because of _____, I think _____. But they have to be okay with a no even after I reconsider.

I frequently quote author Ginger Hubbard’s mantra to my kids: “Obey all the way, right away, with a joyful heart.”3 This encompasses the standard to which I want to hold them and will influence how they respect other authority in their lives.

Respect your spouse.

Stick up for each other in front of the kids. Someone might ask, “What if my spouse isn’t acting respectably?” For every person in authority, God still asks us to respect their position. Romans 13:1-7 was written when Nero was burning Christians as torches in his gardens.

Discipline with consequences rather than tone of voice.

Say you receive a letter from the IRS about an error in your taxes. The letter is in a completely neutral tone of voice; there are no exclamation points or irate language. But the potential consequences speak for themselves (and perhaps increase your blood pressure).

Motivate the rebels.

Author Gretchen Rubin offers advice that has been critical for my family in motivating the rebels among us (both tall ones and short ones): “For Rebels, the most effective habit-change strategy is the Strategy of Identity. Because Rebels place great value on being true to themselves, they can embrace a habit if they view it as a way to express their identity. ‘I quit sugar because I respect my body. I want to give myself energy and good health by eating only healthy foods.’”4

God made rebels for a purpose. Who’s to say your child doesn’t need that force of will to teach in an inner-city school someday? Live among an unreached people group? Help end human trafficking? Withstand persecution? Your child’s spirit doesn’t need to be broken. Just help that spirit love God’s leadership and authority.

Heart change and true submission to God and others are brought about only as our kids (and we ourselves) sincerely seek forgiveness from God and, because of his Holy Spirit, are given hearts of flesh rather than stone (Ezekiel 11:19). God is clear that he alone gives the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him (Ephesians 1:17). So, renovating kids’ hearts is ultimately something we only prepare the soil for, as we wait for God to give the growth. He’s the one who softens hearts as he chooses (Romans 9:14-18).

Writing on the Wall: Practical Ideas

Role-play situations where kids will need to obey in the future.

For younger kids, you could use stuffies, dolls, or puppets (bonus points if you make them together with paper sacks or socks). Imagine some hurdles to obey. The puppet says, “Hmm. I don’t want to obey. I want to _____. What should I do? What does God want me to do?”

If the condition persists over time, the consequences worsen.

Key parenting technique from my father-in-law: If the behavior doesn’t eventually respond to discipline, provided there aren’t underlying issues, the “fire” of the consequences turns up to lay on a little more heat.

Know your kids’ pain points.

Hint: This usually means taking away something they love. Baden loathes separation from his phone. Will and Jack immediately backpedal on disobedience when I take away screens (whereas Corinne couldn’t care less). Corinne loves alone time, so when she receives an extra chore, she gives me a gaze that could jackhammer concrete. (You might think different consequences for different kids threatens justice, but it’s not equal pain if a child’s consequence costs them nothing.)

Consider presenting moral decisions to them as choices, with a list of consequences.

As Joshua offered the Israelites: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). Locking yourself in a battle of wills turns your child more against you, making it personal, rather than helping them acknowledge their own choices and contributions. Disobedience is a choice, but not a good one—and we don’t want to shield kids from its consequences.

Repetition matters.

Someone once asked me to estimate how many times I told my toddlers they needed to say “please” or “thank you.” When I thought about it, I realized I was saying it at least 27 times a day. And at 365 days a year—because there ain’t no days off—they still didn’t have it ingrained until they were probably four or five. So after 9,855 times a year for five years, I get 49,275 times. (You’re thinking, Is she meaning this to be encouraging?) It takes so much time and repetition to change even the smallest tendencies of the human heart. Teaching respect takes time too.

Get out your kids’ train track set.

Tell them that obedience is like a railroad track. A train may think it has freedom by being able to go wherever it wants, but it’s only safe when it’s on the tracks.

Use a basic sticker chart.

Even smiley faces or frowny faces on a whiteboard can help a child visualize and be rewarded for obedience. Be careful this doesn’t stray into humiliation or shaming if kids start comparing themselves with one another. Little kids need more immediate rewards, so you might reward your three-year-old for five stickers instead of fifteen.

For more activity ideas, discussion questions, and other resources for teaching kids how to respect authority, visit janelbreitenstein.com/permanentmarkers/respectingauthority.

Fresh Ink: Resources for Vibrant Faith

For older kids:

•Try biographies like Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place and Barbara Rainey’s Growing Together in Courage. These provoke discussions about authority, ethics, and when it might be wrong to obey.

•Read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (available online). In his letter, King asks, “How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?” and lays out his biblical justification for nonviolent protest. Follow this by watching John Lewis: Good Trouble.

Try these picture books with younger kids:

Do Unto Otters by Laurie Keller

•Any of the Jane Yolen and Mark Teague How Do Dinosaurs…? books

True Colors: Discussion Questions for Kids

•What are the main reasons you think people don’t want to obey? What attitudes are at the core of disobedience and disrespect?

•Are there any good reasons not to obey? Can you think of times in history when people definitely should have disobeyed?

•Read the story of Abigail in 1 Samuel 25. How did she deal with being under a foolish authority figure? What do you admire? Who else was sticking up for Abigail?

•Compare the attitudes of Satan in Isaiah 14:12-15 and Jesus in Philippians 2:5-8. Then look at the outcomes of each. What’s the difference?

•When should you obey other kids?

Think Ink: Contemplative Questions for Parents

•In what situations do you find it hardest to submit to an authority figure—or choose not to? In what ways do you need to examine your attitude against Scripture?

•What areas in obeying authority do you let slide? Speeding? Taxes? Using someone else’s nontransferable season pass? Hiding a behavior your spouse has asked you not to do (see Ephesians 5:21)? Undermining church authority figures?

•Are there any ways you submit externally but not internally?

Parenting is full of many nightmarish days—days when discouragement swings you low. So, as we train kids in obedience, let’s do it full of openhanded trust in the God who raises what appears to be dead.

Prayer of the Dependent Parent

Master, you took on the form of a servant. You obeyed to the point even of dying on a cross, and God exalted you for it (Philippians 2:5-8). You washed the feet of your disciples. And my kids and I need that kind of all-the-way obedience that’s so contrary to this human condition of rebellion, selfishness, and superiority.

But it’s supernatural. You alone rescue us from our arrogance and self-reliance. My own authority in my house often comes from my desire for control, my own kingdom, my own reactions, and fear of failure. Even as I seek to teach obedience, I rebel against you as King of my house.

Grant me the courage and vigilance to teach and require respect of my kids that’s consistent with kingdom culture rather than my own. Help my kids think wisely about when they shouldn’t obey an evil authority. And expose whether my kids’ obedience proceeds from their hearts or some other motive.

I ask you to soften my kids’ hearts, bowing them down to you from the inside. Let them willingly choose you as Lord and truly enjoy submissively knowing and loving you.

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