They are the bane of restaurant diners. They create chaos, stress, and embarrassment for their parents and everyone else. And in a culture where unearned affirmations and self-expression are seen as inalienable rights, disrespectful and disobedient children are becoming more common. Disrespectful children are not a credit to anyone (Proverbs 17:25), including themselves, and the Bible has much to say about them.
Before we lay the blame on disrespectful children, we need to start with the parents and/or caregivers. Children are born with an inherited sin nature (Psalm 51:5; Romans 3:23). No child is naturally respectful. They must be diligently trained to behave in socially acceptable ways. Simply telling a child what to do is not the same as training him or her (Proverbs 22:6). So the fault for disrespectful children rests upon the shoulders of those who should have trained them and did not.
Under the Old Testament Law, the penalty for out-of-control children was severe: “If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid” (Deuteronomy 21:18–21).
Clearly, this law was not intended for tantrum-throwing five-year-olds, but that five-year-old could grow up to deserve such a penalty if his disrespect and rebellion was not curbed early. It is likely that this particular law was not enforced very often, because just the threat of it would keep unruly adolescents from getting out of hand. What we learn from this law is that maintaining order and godliness in the family unit is essential to a stable society. Defiant, disrespectful children who dishonored their parents threatened the very fabric of society and had to be dealt with. Proverbs 29:15 says, “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.” In other words, parents should do what’s necessary to instill manners, respect, and righteousness in stubborn little hearts while their children are still teachable (see also Hebrews 12:11).
Children learn respect through discipline and also by watching respectful behavior. Mothers and fathers should treat each other with respect and require their children to do the same. They also need to model respectful behavior toward their own parents (Exodus 20:12). Moms and dads who lovingly care for Grandma and Grandpa are showing their children the proper way to interact with others. When and if a child acts out in a disrespectful way, a wise parent will call attention to the error and bring swift correction.
Disrespectful children become disrespectful teenagers and then disrespectful adults. Today’s culture staggers under the burden of overgrown adolescents who have never learned respect, who can’t engage in civil discourse, and who take to the streets when someone’s contradictory opinion hurts their feelings. We have allowed culture at large to become extremely disrespectful of the law, of honor, of purity, and of God. Basic civility is fast fading away as individual preferences and feelings take precedence over humility, dignity, and restraint.
Showing respect is by its very nature a humbling experience. To show respect means we defer to someone else. To show respect is to extend honor to others, and a selfish world does not want to do that. Children are commanded to obey and honor their parents (Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:20), and respect is a part of that. Showing respect is good for all of us. Respect reminds children that they are not the center of the universe and that other people have rights and feelings, too.
The following are some suggestions to parents for raising respectful children:
1. Never argue with a child. Children will protest and argue with authority figures as long as they can. It is their attempt to gain control of a situation, and if it works once, they’ll try it again. Children are always trying to find out who is in control, and if parents don’t demonstrate with finality that it is not the child, there will be constant battles. Setting clear boundaries and expecting compliance will stop most attempts to argue. Children should know the consequences of boundary violations and that additional consequences will come if they argue about it.
2. Treat the children with respect. Respecting a child does not imply a buddy relationship or that the child gets a vote in adult decisions. It does mean that parents give careful attention to their children’s thoughts and opinions, and the children know they have been heard. Empty threats, belittling words, and physical abuse are not respectful. Children will model what they’ve experienced. A parent who treats his or her child with respect can expect respect in return.
3. Talk to children. As much as possible, parents should seize teachable moments throughout the day, explaining life and the difference between right and wrong. As young as two years old, children can understand what Mom or Dad expects and why. Having a talk to remind children of the behavior expected of them before a situation develops can save a lot of frustration later. When a child has a clear understanding of what Mom and Dad expect, obedience and good decision-making come more easily.
4. Be consistent with discipline. One mistake parents make is threatening discipline that never comes. This lack of follow-through gives a child the impression that Mom or Dad is a liar. Threats are not consequences and don’t teach anything. Children need the confidence of knowing that, if they violate a set boundary, there will be painful consequences. Every time. Some children learn on their first test of the limits; others will test the limits over and over. But consistency teaches children that Mom and Dad are to be respected.
5. Invite a child’s opinion if he or she conveys it respectfully. Children should be taught that Mom and Dad are approachable. Even in disputes over house rules, children should be able to talk to their parents, if they have thought the issue through and can present their ideas civilly. This trains children to think before they speak and that there is great reward in speaking respectfully with authorities. They can be taught the meaning of Proverbs 29:20: “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” When parents listen respectfully to their children, whether or not they agree with what is said, they set an example for the way they want their children to listen to others.
6. Teach children that it’s not all about them. Our world promotes a self-centered perspective, and many people grow up thinking that they are the center of their own universe and should have what they want when they want it. The wants and needs of others are disrespected. Parents must counter that message with the truth that life is not all about them. People are designed by God for His purposes and for His pleasure (Colossians 1:16). Helping our children understand the perspectives of other people and demonstrating empathy when someone else is hurting reminds our children that they are not all-important. Parents can help them internalize the truth of Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.”
In summary, the Bible teaches parents to instill godly values in the children God entrusts to them, and respectful behavior is one such value (Deuteronomy 6:6–9). Parents should not tolerate disrespect but instead model what respect looks like and convey the importance of showing respect to others. By requiring respectful behavior from children, we position them to respond appropriately to God as they grow up. Respectful children become respectful adults, and the world needs more of those.