By Emerson Eggerichs, Ph.D.
Special to Inside The Pew

Years ago when I was a pastor, I was speaking at a Christian summer camp. I was about to give the evening message and my son David,Emerson Eggerich who was around age ten, was misbehaving because he wanted to do something that we did not have time to do at the moment. I distinctly remember feeling: This child is purposely defying me. He is showing me disrespect to retaliate for not getting his way.

I took David out to our car, where I hoped to reason with him. He sat in the backseat; I sat in the front. I tried to get him to talk but got only cold silence, which made me feel more and more disrespected. Finally, I angrily bawled him out for his disrespect, but that only made David more convinced I was being unfair and unloving. He stared out the window with no remorse or apology—only silence—and it ended in a stalemate. I had to speak in a few minutes, so I had David accompany me to the auditorium, where I addressed the crowd as best I could, all the while feeling like a complete hypocrite because of my horrible parenting.

When kids do not listen to parents, at some level, parents feel disregarded and disrespected. But what else is going on from the child’s perspective? I want to give you a game plan for raising your kids, no matter what their age. To help you build this game plan, there are two basic principles to understand and apply to all ages and stages:

  1. Kids need love
  2. Parents need respect

The parent-child relationship is as easy, and as difficult, as love and respect.

When frustrated with an unresponsive child, a parent does not declare, “You don’t love me!” Instead the parent concludes, “You are being disrespectful right now.” A parent needs to feel respected, especially during conflicts. When upset, a child does not whine, “You don’t respect me.” Instead, a child pouts, “You don’t love me.” A child needs to feel loved, especially during disputes.

The good news is that when children feel loved, they are motivated to respond positively to parents, and when parents feel respected, they are energized to be lovingly affectionate with their kids. When these needs are met, good things happen in the family.

But, of course, the reverse happens all too often. An unloved child reacts negatively in a way that feels disrespectful to a parent. A disrespected parent reacts negatively in a way that feels unloving to the child. We might say that every negative action in the family has an equal and opposite negative reaction. This dynamic gives birth to the Family Crazy Cycle: without love a child reacts without respect; and without respect, a parent reacts without love.

Parents need and want the respect that Scripture plainly says is their due: “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12) is one of many passages where children are clearly told to honor and respect their parents. And children need and want the love and sensitive understanding that Scripture teaches parents to give them. See Titus 2:4, Ephesians 6:4, and Colossians 3:21 for just a few examples of where parental responsibilities are mentioned or described.

As I reflect on that scene where I blew it with David, it never occurred to me that he may have been feeling unloved. Perhaps he just wanted time with me and was feeling left out. If I had addressed the situation with that understanding, could this conflict have been avoided? It is hard to be sure, but one thing is for sure: my angry outburst accusing him of being disrespectful did not help him open his heart to me. I could have decoded him much better, but I did not know then what I know now. What I had to learn, by trial and error, is that parenting is for adults only, and as adults we need to learn to decode what’s going on between us and our kids.

For example, there’s not always a clear-cut “yes or no” answer to the question, “Is my child feeling unloved?” It is entirely possible that he is acting this way out of childish irresponsibility, selfishness, or even open defiance. He is unhappy, he is just not getting his way, and he is letting you know it. On the other hand, there are times when parents can start the Family Crazy Cycle by overreacting to kids just being kids. Our rigidity and negativity are perceived as unloving to our children, who then feel unfairly judged, and now we have entered the Family Crazy Cycle.

All we may want for Christmas is respect…but demanding it from our kids all year long will not help them to feel loved. In fact, it will have the opposite effect and the Family Crazy Cycle will keep spinning! As parents we need to decode and make the first move. As we begin to see love and respect as basic family needs we will be able to stop this cycle of conflict and work towards harmony in our home.

Emerson Eggerichs is the author of Love & Respect in the Family: The Respect Parents Desire, the Love Children Need (Thomas Nelson Publishers). Eggerichs, a resident of Grand Rapids, Mich., is founder and president of Love & Respect Ministries and holds 30-plus years of pastoring and counseling experience and extensive scientific and biblical research. Eggerichs earned a master’s degree in divinity from Dubuque Seminary and a Ph.D. from Michigan State in child and family ecology. He has been married for 40 years and is the father of three grown children.

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