While it’s true that children should honor and obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1-2, Colossians 3:20), that doesn’t mean that children should obey everyone. Obedience that pleases God means choosing to do what someone God has put in authority tells you to do because you trust and love God (Philippians 2:8, John 14:15, Romans 6:17), Being obedient is not the same as doing good. Children need to be taught who to obey and who to disobey. Knowing what to do is called discernment, and it’s important for kids to learn discernment in order to be safe and make good choices. Sometimes disobedience is the best choice. Brave heroes throughout history have disobeyed when someone told them to do wrong.
If you put too much focus on being obedient, a child might start to believe that obedience itself is the only thing that is important, not thinking about who or when to obey. They may start to obey only when you are watching, just so they look good. But in their hearts, they are not obedient. Their actions are not based on trust. They may care more about what they get for obeying, things like gifts, praise, and approval more than they care about doing what’s right and being honest. Or they may care only about their own sense of safety and comfort, not wanting to face the pain of punishment. They learn to decide who to obey based on reward and punishment instead of trust and love.
Jesus the good shepherd told the following story about who to trust and why.
The man who does not enter the sheep pen by the door, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. The man who guards the door opens it for him. And the sheep listen to the voice of the shepherd. He calls his own sheep, using their names, and he leads them out. He brings all of his sheep out. Then he goes ahead of them and leads them. They follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger. They will run away from him because they don’t know his voice.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep. The worker who is paid to keep the sheep is different from the shepherd who owns them. So when the worker sees a wolf coming, he runs away and leaves the sheep alone. Then the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. The man runs away because he is only a paid worker. He does not really care for the sheep. My sheep listen to my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
– John 10:1-5, 11-13, 27
The sheep have learned to trust the shepherd. They trust him because he doesn’t just tell them to go somewhere, he goes ahead of them and leads them by example. They trust him and know he is good because he doesn’t run away from danger, but stays to defend the sheep when danger comes. He is willing to die for the sheep. The sheep have learned to trust the shepherd as good to them, and so they listen when the shepherd calls them.
Children taught to obey for fear or reward will follow anyone who offers either. But it is not safe to trust someone just because they appear to be a shepherd. The thief will rob them and lead them into danger. Even the hired worker, though he may be good will not protect and love them like the good shepherd.
It is more important that children learn who to obey based on trust and love. Then no other voice can pull them into danger with a threat or treat. No one can steal them away. They need to be reminded that God is always watching and that His opinion is more important than anyone else’s opinion. No reward is better than the love of God, the Good Shepherd. Love overpowers fear (I John 4:18).
– Excerpted from “Parenting in Christ: Lessons from the Parables”