Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. – Exodus 20:12
All of us are familiar with the biblical commandment that is the cornerstone of child rearing: Honor father and mother. But what does it mean? On one level, of course, it simply means that children must learn respect. In the eyes of small children, father and mother stand for God; if they do not honor their parents, how can they ever learn to honor him? On another level, it places a burden on every parent: the responsibility of seeing that this commandment is obeyed.
Honor starts with respect for authority, with the "fear of God" and the similar "fear" of parents, who stand in God's stead. Obviously this does not mean that children should be afraid of God or their parents. Rather, it means that as they grow up they must learn to overcome their inborn self-centeredness, and yield to others when the situation calls for it.
But if respect is achieved by authoritarian means, it will eventually breed anger and rebellion. Instead, children must find a willingness to submit to authority that is born of love and reverence. This takes effort. It can be gained only gradually, and must be fostered in an atmosphere of love and trust.
Yet because respect is a basic part of every wholesome relationship, it is vital that it be taught starting at a very early age. In my experience, it must be established well-within the first four years. In most families with young children this task will fall to the mother, since she is the one most likely to be at home with her children during the working day. Of course a husband should always support his wife, but it is imperative that she establish an authority of her own, too, otherwise her children will not obey her when she is alone.
At times this is easy: guiding a child with a gentle word, or appealing to its inborn love. Just as frequently, however, it will demand a struggle. Then the most important thing is that the struggle is fought through and won. Disrespect may seem manageable in small children – you can always use a "time out" until they are ready to listen – but costs a painful contest of wills in teenagers. All the same, if a battle seems inevitable, it should be met head on and fought to the end.
Still, respect must be earned and not only demanded. When children lack respect for adults, it is usually because the adults in their lives lack respect for them. Even if you feel you deserve a child's respect, digging in your heels for the sole sake of asserting authority will backfire. Your long-term relationship with the child will suffer, and you will achieve nothing other than a hardened heart.
My father felt strongly that a parent's authority must be grounded in love: "If we as parents love God with all our heart and soul, our children will have the right reverence for us, and we will have reverence for our children and for the wonderful mystery of becoming and being a child. Reverence for the spirit which moves between parent and child is the basic element of true family life."
Jesus says that there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for a friend (John 15:13). A father should lead his family with such love and respect, and must be ready to die for his wife and children. This conviction will inspire his children to honor both him and their mother.
Everything in a child's life hinges on respect for father and mother. Such an attitude will engender respect both for self and for others, which in turn will lead a child to the service of God and humankind.
From Why Children Matter by Johann Christoph Arnold.