Children owe honor to their parents. Parents have the right to expect and demand honor and even to extend discipline to children who fail to give it, for God himself commands “Honor your father and your mother.” When children are young, this honor is shown especially in obedience—they are to submit to the authority of their parents, for in doing so they are submitting to God, the one from whom all authority flows. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1). This is God’s world and according to God’s ways, this kind of honor is due to parents.
When my children were young, I expected and even demanded their honor, especially as it took form in obedience. I would explain to them that it was not first me who was concerned for their honor, but God. If they were to honor God, they needed to honor both me and their mother. I would at times discipline them for failing to show honor, whether that failure took the form of outright disobedience, or a breath-huffing eye-rolling bad attitude, or a failure to “do it now, do it all the way, and do it with a happy heart.” This was discipline done out of concern for God’s Word and out of love for my children. It was not always easy and they did not always respond well, but I think over the years they began to get it and to do it. They still respond well in those (thankfully occasional) times when honor is lacking.
But I knew that I didn’t only want my children to honor me. Honor would be good, but it wouldn’t be good enough. As I gazed into the future, I pictured a time when my children would befriend me. I pictured them loving me as both their father and their friend (with me loving them as both my children and my friends). I pictured a time when they would regard me well, when they would be affectionate toward me, when they would love to spend time with me, when we would add to the family dynamic a friendship dynamic. And I was pretty sure these two desires—honor and friendship—could be complementary, not in opposition.
Speaking to older, wiser, and more experienced friends—friends who had successfully raised children to adulthood—I came to understand that honor and love are different in a key way: I could demand honor, but I could not demand love. At least, not the kind of love I wanted to share with them. I suppose I could demand that my children love me in that “love your neighbor as yourself” way—the basic love that every human being owes every other—but I wanted far more than that. I wanted the kind of love that a friend shows to a friend—a love that is deep and mutual and voluntary.
My friends helped me understand that to receive and expect that kind of love, I would need to prove myself worthy of it. I would need to earn their trust and esteem and admiration, just as with any other friends. I would need to extend to them the qualities of both a father and a companion. I would need to raise them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, while also extending to them the patience, gentleness, and respect of a friend. I would need to relate to them as a father concerned to instill lessons in them and as a friend who was eager to learn from them. I would need to dedicate time to training and discipling them but also to just enjoying them. I would, essentially, need to woo and win my own children, to prove myself a worthy, valuable friend. That’s what I’ve been attempting to do for these past 19 years. God gave me three children, but he’s now also giving me three friends.
Along the way, I’ve learned that one of the great joys of parenting is growing from one kind of relationship to another with your children. It is becoming friends with them—coming to that realization that you would spend time with these people even if they weren’t your sons, even if they weren’t your daughters. Meanwhile, that joy is enhanced all the more as you find your children growing in love for you—coming to the realization that they don’t love you just because you’re mom or dad, but because you’ve won them as a friend, you’ve proven worthy of their trust, loyalty, and admiration.
Love is a many splendored thing, as the old song says, and that is certainly true of the love between parents and children. It is a thrill and a joy to be both a father and a friend, to relate to them as both children and trusted companions. It is a blessing to be loved not just because they have to, but because they want to.