Why I Won’t Teach My Kid to Respect Authority

baby seven months spring

Lydia, seven months old

The other day when I was getting my hair cut (for the first time in six months — ahem), my cousin/hairdresser started to tell me funny stories about her adorable, headstrong, smart-as-a-whip three-year-old. As clever and cute as her daughter is, though, she tends to get into trouble.

“And nothing I do gets her to behave,” she bemoaned as she trimmed my crooked bangs. “Putting her in the corner doesn’t work. Spanking doesn’t even work!”

“Yeah, spanking doesn’t work on some kids,” I agreed, with a kids-will-be-kids tone of voice (as if I know anything). “Some kids are just free-spirited.”

“But I want her to respect authority!” my cousin/hairdresser lamented.

* * *

I was mulling over our conversation yesterday as I walked home from the library with Lydia in her second-hand jogging stroller. The importance of teaching young people to respect authority is a widely accepted. But I’ve recently become a strong advocate for non-violent, non-authoritarian parenting, and something didn’t sit right with me with this notion of getting children to “respect authority.”

I realized while I was walking and thinking that when people say they want kids to respect authority, what they usually mean is that they want them to obey authority.

I want my daughter to respect everyone. But I’m not sure I want to teach her to obey authority.

Now hear me out.

First of all, I want to emphasize that I want my daughter to respect people. I want her to honour and cherish every person she comes into contact with, whether a newborn infant, a paraplegic old man, a homeless beggar woman, or an imprisoned felon. Every one of these people bears the image of God and therefore deserves respect.

People in authority — parents, teachers, police officers, pastors, etc — don’t deserve any more or less respect than anyone else.

In fact, I’m worried that instilling a strong sense of obedience towards authority can lead to blind, unquestioning acceptance of authority. And I want my child to have a healthy level of skepticism towards rules and the powers that be.

Most authority-figures are good and caring, but not all of them are. And most rules and laws are useful and good, but not all of them are. I want my daughter to have a discerning eye.

I think it should be an authority-figure’s responsibility to prove that she is trustworthy, not a child’s responsibility to obey her. The individual in power needs to demonstrate that she has my daughter’s best interest in mind before expecting compliance. My daughter shouldn’t have to listen to a person simply because that person has been given power over her, and will punish her if she doesn’t obey.

In fact, anyone who has to reinforce their authority through punishment ought, in my opinion, to be treated with a certain amount of suspicion. If a rule’s goodness and justness is not apparent to everyone, how can we be certain it’s worth following?

I don’t want my daughter to listen to me just because I’m her mom. I don’t deserve her respect just by virtue of being her mother. I deserve her respect because I’m an image-bearer. But I might be a terrible, abusive, neglectful mom, in which case she shouldn’t necessarily listen to everything I say. I might have unreasonable rules that she should question.

If a rule doesn’t make sense to my daughter, I want her feel free to question its validity until she does understand. If it still doesn’t make sense, I think it might be time for the authority figure (read: me) to rethink the validity of the rule. Hopefully we can talk it through until we both agree on a course of action.

Of course I want my daughter to listen to me, because most of my rules are for her own benefit. So my goal is to first and foremost prove to her that I’m worth listening to. I want to do this not by punishing her when she doesn’t obey, but by demonstrating that her well-being is at the forefront of all I do.  My aim is to show her that everything I do is to keep her safe and healthy, so that she understands that agreeing with me is (usually) best for everyone.

smiling copI also plan to teach her that in general, police officers and pastors and policy-makers have her best interest in mind and should be trusted, too.

I don’t want her to go around testing every rule or law. I acknowledge that sometimes you have to just trust authority. I want trust to be her default setting. Often, it’s healthier/safer/easier to assume that the doctor’s advice is best, that the traffic laws should be followed, that the teacher’s rule about running with scissors has merit.

But sometimes it’s worth questioning them. I want her to know she has that option.

So that’s why I’m ditching the idea that my daughter ought to respect authority.

What are your thoughts?

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  1. It is going to depend greatly on the personality of your child. My son 6 and LOVES rules. I have to teach him that sometimes it is OK to break the rules. If I explain my rules to him, he might be upset that they are there, but he understands and follows them. However, my daughter is 4 and many times no explanation of the rules will suffice. Her nature says “my way or the highway” even if it means she will get hurt. Discussion of the rules only leads to fighting.

    I also think that kids need to learn to respect rules and situations that they don’t agree with from their parents because the same thing is going to happen to them when they are adults. If they never learn that sometimes what they don’t understand works out for their own good, how will they react during a period of suffering that doesn’t make sense to them at the time? God allows us to experience things that bring us pain but in the end draw us closer to Him if we embrace Him and His word. Or we could get upset and rebel against God, doing it our own way because that is what makes sense to us. I want my children to learn to lean on Him even if they feel like He isn’t giving them what they want. And they can learn this love/obedience/trust starting with their relationship with us, their parents.

  2. You had me until
    “I also plan to teach her that in general, police officers and pastors and policy-makers have her best interest in mind and should be trusted, too. I don’t want her to go around testing every rule or law. I acknowledge that sometimes you have to just trust authority. I want trust to be her default setting.”

    Here’s how I differ in my approach with my 3 children: I teach my children that police officers and policy-makers have their own best interest in mind, and not the best interest of my children. (I’ll leave pastors out of it for now!). I want them to go around questioning every man-made rule or law, and follow only the moral law written on their hearts. I acknowledge that you NEVER have to just trust authority. I want a healthy skepticism to be their default setting.

    Didn’t you read Hunger Games? ;)

    • Terry: I struggle with knowing how much distrust of authority (and people in general) I should encourage. I agree that it’s important to teach young people that you never have to just trust authority. But I also don’t want to foster complete cynicism and defiance. I don’t want her going around assuming that everyone is evil and out to get her. I’m trying to figure out what is a healthy balance between skepticism and trust.

      • The line between skepticism and cynicism is very thin, for sure.

        • No Name says:

          I am very opinionated BUT also open minded. I believe in what the Bible teaches.
          First – you honestly base your child raising on Fiction books/movies??
          Second – the Bible has very clear commands on obeying laws of the land (Romans 13), discering good from evil, etc
          What about all those ppl out there who already do not respect law authorities? They speed, drink and drive which does hurt innocent ppl all the time. You would rather instil fear into your children than teach them discernment? Which is what you are doing by teaching them that police officers have their own interest in mind, …..
          I agree that not all laws are made in everyone’s best interest in mind, some are even contrary to Biblical teaching. So it only makes sense that we base our parenting on the Bible and EDUCATE our children to have discernment.
          With that we can’t just pick and choose what we are going to be taking out of the Bible. I don’t want my children to pick and choose what to follow from what the Bible teaches.

          • I am very glad that Kathleen wrote about this topic. You however do not seem open minded and frankly, statements in your comment do not make any sense. Educating children properly is teaching them HOW to think, not telling them what to think.

            Kathleen, thank you for writing about what so many parents like us believe in.

          • Oh please, not Romans 13 to justify mindlessly obeying the state again! That is taken out of context, with qualifier ignored. Just try reading the Bible and see what it says for yourself rather than listening to the interpretations of others.

  3. Kathleen, if you are fortunate enough to still be in the position where you can make this important choice for your child, I highly recommend a brand new book with lots of research you may never have run across anywhere else. It’s about adults, but it lets you see what choices you are likely making for your future adult. The book is called The Righteous Mind. The author is psychologist Jonathan Haidt. I am about 3/4 of the way through and loving all the insights.
    Patty Newbold recently posted..The 2 Biggest Threats When You MarryMy Profile

  4. Great post Kathleen. While parents do misuse the word ‘respect’ to mean ‘obey’ I do believe that all of this comes with age-appropriateness. With my children (3 years and 2 years) communication is limited and while I have no problem with them questioning us, I do expect them to use respect. It gives me pride (and I think its the healthy one) to hear my daughter say things like, “I am frustrated …” or “I am angry with you” when we lay down some guidelines that she doesn’t agree with. She’s learning how to express herself and we are given the opportunity to explain that we really are looking out for her.

  5. I am not a parent, so I probably don’t have the right to disagree, but I disagree :) The Bible is full of senarios where God commands Isreal do obey. He lays out specific rules, and when they are ignored, there is punishment. Only through this punishment and consequences do the Isrealites return to him. To me this sounds like Lydia will not experience consequences for her actions. I agree that all discipline and the requirement of obediance should come from a place to love for the child and never from anger. I see a trend with young adults (and adults!) who were not taught to obey or respect authority when young, and as a result are prideful, cannot admit when they are wrong, believe that they should be able to act as they please in the workplace and generally feel above the law. In contrast, when children are raised to obey and respect, they can gain a spirit of repentance, humility, and true respect for authority. God doesnt make rules because he wants to” prove to us that he is worth listening to”, he knows what is best for us and as a result makes rules he expects us to follow- if not their are consequences. As an adult, I DO listen to my parents becuase they have proved that they are worth listening to. But that proof came through their discipline (rooted in love).

    • Of course you have a right to disagree, Heidi. Anyway, I only have eight months more experience as a parent. :)

      I first want to point out that there’s one essential difference between God and human authorities: he’s perfect, and we’re not. Human authorities make self-serving laws, ignorant laws, and impractical laws. Children, citizens, students, etc. will sometimes need to protest against such laws and against corrupt leaders. But God’s love and his laws are always perfect and don’t need to be questioned (though God does welcome questions and criticism).

      And the interesting thing about the Israelites is how they seem to NEVER actually learn from consequences. They keep straying from God, over and over and over again! Making the same mistakes, breaking the same laws! Punishment seems to have no lasting effects. Finally, Jesus steps in and says, “Enough. I’m going to invite them to be my equals. I no longer call you servants but friends” (John 15:15). That’s actually part of the reason I’ve come to the conclusions about parenting and punishment that I have: I think even God stopped using punishments and rewards because he could see they just didn’t work to change human behavior.

      And I do want Lydia to experience consequences, nut hopefully mostly natural ones. (Like if she refuses to wear a coat, she feels cold; and if she breaks something, she has to pay for it — rather than getting, say, a spanking).

      The topic of punishment/consequences is, I feel, too big to get into fully here, but I want to explore it extensively in another post, when I examine the book Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn.

      I am also skeptical that an attitude of pride, inability to admit they’re wrong, etc., stem from a lack of discipline, but rather stem from a lack of education. I could be wrong, of course.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

      • Just can’t seem to help myself – I have to point out, Kathleen, that you first seem to agree that God is perfect, and then in the next paragraph describe Him as unable to know from the beginning of time what kind of discipline/relationship methods would work with His own creations. He started out using punishment/rewards and then switched when it wasn’t working anymore? If He is perfect (and I believe He is), He should never have a “failed” method of dealing with mankind.

        The Old Testament shows us the cycle of sin, I believe, so that we don’t fall into complete despair when we look at our own hearts and see our own cycle. “I do the things I do not want to do, and I don’t do what I want to do” Paul says, and I feel it deep in my soul. I deeply desire to please God with every aspect of my life, and yet time and time again, I repeat the same mistakes, I fail in the same ways. Is it God’s fault for not using the appropriate methods to train/discipline me!? May it never be! It’s just fallen human nature. The Law that God gave to His people was meant to point out to them the fact that they never could be perfect on their own – to show them the standard, and how on their own they could never reach it – , and when Jesus came, it was to release all of God’s children from the pointless striving to be perfect, and to meet the standard on our behalf.

        To be blunt, the punishment/reward system is clear in Scripture – hell vs. heaven, evil vs. wise. Punishment/discipline/training for our children (of which I have two, Katelyn-7, and Jonathan-5) is not unloving, but is perhaps the MOST loving thing we can do for them, to develop in them the ability to humble themselves before God, accept His discipline, and trust in Him for salvation.

    • No Name says:

      Great insight Heidi

  6. What would the “natural consequence” to my child when he pulls groceries off the shelves at the supermarket?? He’s 23 months so he can’t pay for any items broken, I would have to foot the bill. While my mild-mannered 5 year old daughter would never have pulled a stunt like that my boy is “free-spirited” and does things just to see what happens. I say no only when I have to, not just out of habit but that’s my child’s personality.

    He needs consequences imposed by me or he’ll learn that he can do whatever he wants to do – or be self-centered in other words.

  7. Random person on the internet says:

    I was raised to respect authoritys and obey the law and mostly not to question too much.
    Today I hate authoritys more than ever as a anarcho-communist/syndicalist, but there is a big difference between respecting and obeying authoritys. I respect my teechers, not because they have some sort of “power” over me, but that they are simply respecting me.
    Police officers are not there to protect you, only to enforce the law, and any authority with power over me is going to be questioned, no matter what.
    And don’t dare talking about things like this when you are following the biggest authority ever, God.
    Following God blindly is to follow authoritys blindly.
    Don’t teach your whildren what to think, but how to think, there is a big difference.

    -Random teenager who is supposed to work during a lesson.

  8. NatalieTM says:

    Hi Kathleen :) I discovered your blog several weeks ago and have kinda just been hopping around on it randomly- I really appreciate your perspective and enjoy hearing what you have to say! I’ve considered commenting on other posts and haven’t had the time, but this one really inspired me to just pop in and say, THANK YOU so much – you pretty much took the words out of my mouth! Honestly, I feel uneasy when I hear parents talk a lot about raising “obedient” children. I was raised to be “obedient,” and it did not serve me well. It took me years into my adult life to find out who *I* really was, because almost all I knew how to do to do what I was told. I don’t yet have children, though I have been very involved in helping raise children while working as a nanny, but I when I do have my own, I hope to raise them to think critically, to listen to people they know they can trust (not just because they are adults), and to feel confident in their ability to say “NO”, especially if they are being told to do something that makes them feel uncomfortable and unsafe. I believe that kids who are taught to unquestioningly obey authority are at a higher risk for abuse, because they believe they must go along with whatever an adult tells them to do, and if they don’t they will be in trouble.

    I heard a quote recently that I love, though I can’t remember to whom it was attributed: “Morality is doing what is right, no matter what you’re told. Obedience is doing what you’re told, no matter what is right.” I thought that was right on- I think morality is so much more important than obedience, and I think true morality comes from a foundation of empathy. And I believe children learn empathy by being shown empathy, which means listening to them and validating their emotions, and hearing their perspective, rather than simply issuing commands and expecting them to obey. …Anyway, I love your approach, and I know this post is a couple years old, so I hope I get to read more about how this is actually going for you in practice.

    I also want to just note that I am very glad to hear that you don’t use any physical punishment with your daughter. That is a major issue to me for reasons from my own life; speaking of trust, I just don’t have much trust in anyone who can justify hitting or purposely hurting a child. For me, that’s not a safe or trustworthy person – not when I was a small child, and not now at age 31. I have a LOT of thoughts on that subject – enough to fill a blog of my own one day I think, so we’ll see – but for now I just want to say it makes me happy to know that your little girl will always know she is safe with you.

    Sorry for a kind of rambling comment on an old post – and thanks for such an awesome blog!

  9. State Legislator says:

    I completely agree with Terry who said “I teach my children that police officers and policy-makers have their own best interest in mind, and not the best interest of my children.” This couldn’t be more true.

    I might also have a lesson with the kids discussing the “Stanley Milgram Experiments” (google it if you aren’t familiar). It basically involves several social psychology experiments that demonstrate how an extremely large percentage (a majority I believe) of individuals are easily be convinced to kill another person simply because they “trust authority.” Most people will abdicate their responsibility for making decisions about right and wrong just because someone is wearing a fancy hat or lab coat.

    I can also say from first hand experience. Policy makers (and police) do NOT have your children’s interest in mind. Ironically the “do it for the children” line is their go to misnomer when selling the people on all manner of violent offenses against our life, liberty and property.

  10. I just happened to come across this post and I’m so glad I did! This was so wonderfully written. People often confuse “respect” and “obedience.” I think we live in a world where it’s better to be polite in some ways than to be good or to do what is appropriate. Thank you for sharing this!

  11. You mentioned that authoritarian parenting is equal to “respecting authority.” I think the style of parenting that you described is authoritative which is different from authoritarian parenting. I recall reading a book that divided parenting into 4 quadrants. Passive, something else, authoritarian, and authoritative. They said authoritative was ideal. Giving boundries and rules, but in a sensible manner.

  12. I get what you are saying but what you will create although your intentions are good is a rebellious child that believes they make the rules and will question authority in a disrespectful manner! Children are children and if you agree with God’s truth, it clearly states that God has given the power to governing authorities and the law should be obeyed! A child doesn’t need help discerning between who has their best interest IU n mind. A parent should question the authority in the child’s absence like an adult should! Just be the parent and allow the child to be a child!

  13. As a 14 year old, I feel that I am in a position to say this.
    I will not obey. There is no reason for me to obey. Your being an adult gives you no more power over me than my 5 year old niece. You’re not special just because you’re older. Your experience is outdated. If I want to meet up with my girlfriend and bring her home so we can have sex, cuddle, and have sex again before going to get an order of burgers and fries, that’s my own damn business and I’m not going to allow you to get in the way. If you can’t accept that, there will be consequences for your delusional mindset.

  14. We’re a black family so I can’t teach my child that the police automatically have my childrens’ best interest at heart. In most cases, they don’t. But other than that, I totally agree with your sentiment. It’s dangerous to beat submission into children and teach them blind obedience to authority.

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