Aaron and Jennie wanted the best for their daughter Claire. They knew a good high school resume was important to get into a prestigious college. They also knew this didn’t just happen; it required years of preparatory work.
Over the years, they pushed Claire to excel in school and extracurricular activities—the ones she would need in order to be a “success.” Aaron and Jennie sacrificed a lot of time and energy to help Claire lay the groundwork for her future.
Early in her life, Claire sensed how important her achievements were to her parents. She wanted to make them proud of her. Whether it was her grades, sports, cheerleading, or clubs, she did it all and excelled at most. But sometimes she neglected more mundane responsibilities because she knew she could count on her parents to bend over backward to make sure she overachieved on the “important stuff.”
For example, when Claire rushed off to school and left her room in a mess, her mother would clean it up because she knew Claire would be exhausted when she came home. Claire’s back-to-back activities were often on different sides of town, so her parents took turns leaving work early to drive her from one to the other. When Claire remembered before a club meeting that she’d signed up to bring brownies, her mother would drop everything, go to the store, and make the brownies so Claire could work on her homework instead.
So who really was running Aaron and Jenny’s household? It was Claire.
Her needs came first, and her parents formed their schedule around hers. Her parents’ desire for success led them to sacrifice their time, money, and energy for the goals they had for Claire.
That may sound noble at first, but a closer look at the role of the central authority will show you how turning the hierarchy in the home upside down actually results in less growth and maturity, less preparedness for the world, and the possibility of a serious case of entitlement on the part of the children.
So what is a proper biblical authority structure for parents and children?
A hierarchy for healthy families
The undeniable fact is that God expects parents to lead the family. In fact, He spelled out a hierarchy designed for healthy family functioning: The husband is to be the loving, self-sacrificing head of the wife and kids. With this authority comes the most challenging task of all: to love his wife the way Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:23). Talk about a high calling!
Next, the wife is to be intimately involved in and consulted on family decisions. (See Ephesians 5:21 and 1 Peter 3:7.) Just because she is subject to the husband’s headship doesn’t mean she has no authority. In reality, lots of child-raising responsibilities are delegated to Mom, and Dad must support her in those tasks.
Finally, children are to obey their parents and learn from the loving, empathetic relationship that develops with them. (See Ephesians 6:1-4.) God designed the family in such a way that parents are to function as a team of true, loving, central authorities. This lays the foundation for everyone to fulfill his or her responsibilities to the family with love rather than selfishness or pride. (See Ephesians 5:21-6:4.)
Parents must learn the dynamics of exercising authority together. Intuitively, kids will learn to master the divide-and-conquer approach to dealing with authority. They will quickly recognize the weaknesses in the parental team and learn how to pit Mom against Dad when it works to their advantage.
For example, if Mom has a particular way of dealing with problems and Dad has another, the children will learn to choose which one is better for them as each individual situation crops up. They can run to the rescuer to avoid consequences and to the dictator when they need a problem solved.
Kids are much more likely to learn how to solve problems and face consequences when their parents are united in their approach and fully supportive of each other. These parents are able to provide clearer boundaries and a greater sense of security to their kids.
This may require parents to have team meetings from time to time in order to work together. Ideally, you’ll discuss these difficult parenting issues in private so you can agree on boundaries and deliver effective consequences as a unit. Even if you don’t have time to consult one another before each issue, you’ve got to be supportive of the other parent and keep your disagreements private and behind closed doors.
Fear of discipline
An even more subtle way children indirectly acquire the role of central authority is when parenting decisions are shaped by a fear of discipline or causing pain. When parents fail to exercise their authority because they can’t stand to see their kids suffer consequences or because they are afraid their kids will be mad at them, the kids have become the authorities in the home. These fearful parents resort to pleading, bargaining, or whining to get their kids to do what they want, but these approaches undermine their authority and rarely get the responses they are seeking.
Some parents are so afraid of being disliked by their kids that they fail to establish reasonable boundaries for the kids’ behavior. These parents rationalize with comments like “Well, they were going to do it anyway, so I thought they might as well do it where I can keep an eye on them.” What’s sad is that the effort to convince their children to like them usually results in disrespect and entitlement instead.
Still other parents are afraid to exercise their authority because they think that enforcing boundaries with consequences will damage their child’s self-esteem. They believe every experience must be a positive one or their child will become discouraged and lose heart. But one of the reasons God gives people trials is to build perseverance, maturity, and confidence. Parents who believe in their children and support them in their struggles without rescuing will find that godly self-esteem is a natural by-product of the process of struggling through discipline. (See James 1:2-4 and Romans 5:3-5.)
In contrast to the parents who are afraid to exercise authority, other parents exercise it too harshly. These parents run the family like a drill sergeant, barking out orders and expecting everyone to jump at their commands. They often insist on “first-time obedience,” expecting their kids to obey every command without challenge, excuse, or delay.
While we all want our kids to obey the first time we ask, the dictatorial approach sends a message that we aren’t willing to listen to our kids. It emphasizes our power and authority over the value of having an authentic relationship with our kids. This makes obedience difficult for rebellious kids and mechanical for compliant kids. In neither case is the child learning from his or her experiences because the parents are forcing their will on the child rather than walking beside them and using the experiences to shape their character.
Far from having the positive influence they desire, an overbearing parenting style can cause kids to become preoccupied with the power disparity. As a result, many kids can’t wait to get out from underneath this power structure as soon as possible. In the meantime, they will look for passive/aggressive ways to exert their own power.
As parents, it is time to reevaluate what it truly means to exercise godly authority. This is not being permissive or domineering but rather being balanced as God is balanced. He will help us learn to exercise our authority well and how to maintain a careful balance between truth and love. God expects and equips us to exercise our power empathetically and judiciously, with the overarching goal of encouraging each member of the family to grow into the person He designed them to be. Pray for the wisdom to be that kind of parent.
Bringing it home
God created families with a particular hierarchy in mind, and parents are at the top of that hierarchy. For dictators, this is a comfortable position. For rescuers afraid of disciplining their kids, it can be more difficult. But a balance of bonding and boundaries is essential to being a godly authority that earns respect by treating his or her kids with respect. A balanced parent sets boundaries, gives age-appropriate choices within those boundaries, and delivers consequences when kids stray.
Kids will sometimes assume the position of authority in a family when the parents cede power to them, either by making the children’s activities the most important events of each day or by failing to deliver consequences when they are deserved. Take some time to reflect and pray about your responsibilities and priorities for your family. Is family time sacred, or does it get sacrificed in order to get to the next practice, game, meeting, or event? Do you eat dinner together often, or is life too hectic for that?
Do you lovingly discipline your children when they make poor choices, or are you afraid of their reaction? What about the reaction of other parents? Do you worry that you might be seen as a bad parent if your kids are not doing all the things the other kids are doing? Or do you insist on first-time obedience and fail to consider that it’s important for your kids to know the reasons for asking them to do something? Is your attitude “my way or the highway” where your kids’ thoughts, opinions, or reactions are ignored just to get things done?
Take heart! God knows your struggles and your tendencies. Ask for help, and wait to hear. Spend some time with your Bible and look for God’s wisdom. He will speak through the words on those pages. Be empathetic and earn the respect of your kids through clear boundaries, consistent consequences, and a willingness to walk with them through the struggles of life.
Taken from Parenting by Design, copyright © 2014 by Chris and Michelle Groff, with Lee Long. Used with permission of Westbow Press, a division of Zondervan publishing. All rights reserved.
Listen to Chris and Michelle Groff tell FamilyLife Today® listeners what they learned while their son was in drug rehab, and how they used this information to start their own ministry helping other parents.
No matter the child, no matter the situation, every parent longs for obedience from their offspring. The Groffs book, Parenting by Design, describes a relational approach to raising children, relying less on rote obedience and more on walking with your children through their decision-making development. This book will help you parent with grace and love, two key elements in motivating a child to obey. Order Parenting by Design today.