by Casey McFall
Deuteronomy 5:16 says, “Honour thy father and thy mother, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.”
If we want to live long, prosperous lives, we must learn to honor our parents.
For many people, after reading this verse the first question that pops into their minds is, “How can I show honor to my parents?” I know that I personally have thought this. After thinking about it for a while, though, and meditating on this verse, I realized that this is the wrong question. The verse does not say, “Show honor to thy father and thy mother”; it says to honor them. There is an enormous difference between showing honor and truly honoring!
Understanding the Difference
Showing honor to others is merely an outward display of respect. Employees who say “yes sir” or “yes ma’am” to their bosses while speaking respectfully are certainly showing honor to their bosses. Whether or not they are actually honoring them, however, would be evident after the boss walks away and the employees can speak freely! If the employees immediately began talking bad about their bosses and putting them down verbally, they were merely showing honor and were not truly honoring them.
As opposed to this outward behavior, honoring someone is an internal mindset.
Honoring someone is inherently superior to showing them honor for several reasons. First, because showing honor can be faked. It is easy for people to put on a front while pretending to show respect or even admiration to another person, all while criticizing them in their minds. By its very nature, the mindset of honoring somebody cannot be faked. It may be an active choice, and I may not believe the person is worthy of that honor, but it is still real.
The second reason why honoring is superior to showing honor is because a show of honor is a temporary thing. We can put on a display of honoring another person a couple of times a month or a few times a year, but would quickly grow exhausted of the pretense if forced to do it every day or several times a day. Honoring, on the other hand, will naturally result in a constant display of honor toward that person, regardless of how often that honor has already been shown or of whether the target of the honor is even present to see that display.
The Importance of the Distinction
This is a very important distinction to understand for several reasons. First, because just showing honor will not be enough to meet the commands in the Bible! I use the word “just” because those who honor others will show honor to them, but the reverse is not necessarily true. People who are showing honor without actually honoring are not honoring their parents (Ephesians 6:2), not honoring the elderly (Leviticus 19:32), and not honoring authority (Romans 13:1).
The second reason why it is important to understand this distinction between the two is because this understanding allows us to teach our children correctly. Without understanding the difference between the behavior and mindset, it is too easy for us as parents to focus on what we can see (the behavior) without thinking about what should be driving the behavior (character and mindset). A change in behavior without a corresponding change in mindset leads to temporary results at best. Teaching children to show honor can be easily accomplished with the proper application of discipline because it is truly nothing but a change in behavior. To create a lasting mindset however, a four-channel approach is required. To teach honor, parents must teach it, live worthy, show it, and remove undermining factors.
Before anything else, parents must teach their children. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Parents have a duty and an obligation to instruct their children! In this specific context, this means teaching their children whom to honor, when to honor them, and what it means to honor. Whom to honor is definitely the easiest to teach. The Bible commands us to honor our parents, the elderly, leaders in the church, and social authority figures (Ephesians 6:2; Leviticus 19:32; I Timothy 5:17; Romans 13:1).
Knowing when to honor them is also easy to teach but hard to practice.
This is because the Bible does not put a condition on the command. Ephesians 6:2 does not say, “Honor your father and mother…unless they are wrong.” Even when our parents, elders, or authorities are completely wrong, we are still required to honor them! This may sound shocking, but it is true. There have been several presidents against whom I have voted; I have felt that they had a terrible impact on America and were immoral men living immoral lives while setting a bad example to the country. Regardless of my own feelings toward them, I am still commanded to honor them. Romans 13:1-2 states very clearly that those who are in power are there because God put them there and that we are to obey and to honor them.
This fact holds true even regarding abusive parents. It is not easy to say, but the children of parents who are abusive are still required to honor them. I Peter 2:18-25 teaches honor even in the face of injustice quite clearly. Verse 18 states, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.” Verse 20b goes on to say, “…when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.” God wants us to endure and to respond respectfully even when we are mistreated! Note that this does not mean that it is all right for parents to be abusive, nor does it mean that the children of these parents should simply do anything and everything that the parents want while ignoring the personal consequences. To do so would not only be to misunderstand what it means to honor someone, but would also ignore the fact that we are supposed to obey God and His laws first. Therefore, if someone who God commanded us to obey is telling us to do something against the laws of God, then that specific command from the person should not be obeyed (still honoring while declining) since the individual did not have the authority to overrule the command of God.
This leads to the final piece about honor that parents should teach their kids: what it means to honor. Looking up “honor” in Webster’s 1828 Dictionary returns a long list of potential definitions:
- To revere or to respect. To treat with deference and submission.
- To manifest the highest veneration for, in words and actions; or to entertain the most exalted thoughts of. In other words, to worship or adore.
- To dignify. To raise to distinction or notice. To exalt.
- To glorify or render illustrious.
- To treat with due civility and respect in the ordinary intercourse of life.
Clearly, we are not supposed to fulfill each of these definitions whenever we honor someone. After all, one of the definitions was to worship; but we are commanded not to worship anyone but God Himself (Matt 4:10). The important thing to understand here is that there are different degrees of honor. The Bible also indicates this, as it declares elders who rule well to be worthy of double honor (1 Timothy 5:17). There are several implications of this. The first is that everyone must be given at least the lowest level of honor: to be treated with due civility and respect (1 Peter 2:17). The second is that honor does not unequivocally equal obedience.
We can honor someone without obeying them!
The last is that the degree of honor required does depend to a certain extent on station and merit. Remember I Timothy 5:17? It was the elders who rule well who were worthy of double honor.
The next step to instilling in children a mindset of honor is to live worthy of it. This is part of the reason why it is important to understand the difference between showing honor and honoring. Parents can alter the behavior of children through positive and negative reinforcement and punishment, but will find it extremely difficult to alter the mindsets without living worthy of that honor. It is still absolutely vital to discipline and to correct our children. This is a principle that is taught clearly in multiple places in the Bible (Prov 19:18; 22:15; 23:13-14; 29:15).
However, the requirement of discipline does not alleviate from parents the duty of living worthy of honor. In fact, the verse immediately following the one commanding children to honor their parents is a charge to parents about how to live. Ephesians 6:4 says, “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Colossians 3:21 says, “Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.” Parents are given authority over their children but are commanded not to wield that authority as a baton with which to beat their wills into their children.
Training (Prov. 22:6) and correcting (Prov. 29:17) is more than just disciplining!
The third step to successfully teaching children to honor, is to give them positive examples. The Bible does not advocate a “do as I say and not as I do” teaching method! Romans 2:20-21 says, “An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law. Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal?”
Actions are inherently more impactful as a teaching method than verbal communication. How much time do we spend talking to our children? This would not include teaching necessarily, but just talking. Regardless of how much time we do spend, it will always be less than 100% of the time that we are around our children. Our children will always be able to observe our behaviors! This means that our behaviors are teaching our children a significantly greater amount of the time than our words are.
Another reason why actions are more impactful than verbal communication is because of understanding and emulation. Whatever we say to our children must be mentally processed and understood before reaching any meaningful part of the children’s brains. This not only means that there is a time of processing (during which time the children may make decisions about our teachings that do not align with what we want them to believe), but also that the children may not be paying attention while we are talking (limiting the impact), may not understand all of the words, or may misunderstand the message. Actions, however, are not conveyed to the brain as a message but rather as raw data. There is no thinking about what we see someone doing unless we intentionally take the time to review that raw data and think about it. Moreover, people (not just children) tend to emulate the behaviors of others without even meaning to, and that emulated behavior has a direct connection to decision-making portions of the brain. (This is the simulation theory of empathy.)
The final step in the process is to remove undermining factors. This step goes hand-in-hand with the previous one because it still relates to how children learn through observation. The thing is that children do not only observe their parents (although this will be a primary source if they are being raised with a stay-at-home parent). The social cognitive theory of psychology suggests that people (children especially) learn from seeing how others behave. This theory is primarily based on research conducted by Albert Bandura and the Bobo doll. In this experiment, the children watched as adults either played aggressively with the Bobo doll (hitting and punching it) or played mildly and kindly. Those who watched the aggressive adults were significantly more likely to play aggressively when given their own opportunity to play with the Bobo doll. Follow-up experiments found that this principle held true even if the children did not watch an actual person playing with the doll, but were instead watching something on a TV screen.
What all of this means is that children learn from watching us as their parents and learn from watching others.
To ensure that they are learning proper behavior and are developing a good mindset of honor toward others, we must be cognizant of factors that could be undermining our teachings and strive to remove them from our children’s lives or negate them. The difficulty is that these undermining factors can come from a wide variety of potential sources. The most obvious would be the shows on TV. I will not call out any specifically, but consider for yourselves whether the popular, animated shows that are currently being produced demonstrate children honoring parents and the elderly or whether they are dishonoring them. Are the children obedient and respectful to their fathers who they look up to as figures worth emulating, or are the children wiser than their dumb parents who are nothing but a laughing stock to be made fun of? If the latter is the case, then allowing our children to watch such shows is inviting in a source of teaching that undermines what the Word of God commands us to be teaching our children.
Another noteworthy example of a potential source is other children. As parents, it is our duty and responsibility to help our children choose godly friends. The impact that friends can have on a person is well-noted in the Bible (Prov 13:20 and I Cor 15:33).
If the kids with whom our children spend time are dishonoring to their parents, our children will learn that behavior and mindset from them very quickly!
Even just seeing other children behave in this way can negatively impact the effectiveness of our teaching. For this reason, we must prevent as much as possible or negate when impossible to prevent. It is neither advisable nor feasible to rear our children in a social vacuum where they do not see other kids. It is possible, however, to promote friendship with children whose parents are actively teaching their kids to honor. For those occasions when we cannot limit contact but other children are displaying poor behavior, parents should point out that behavior to their children and talk with them about it in order to emphasize its wrongness. This response to seeing bad behavior will serve to negate the natural response to emulate.
Now that we understand the difference between showing honor and actually honoring, parents should not rely solely on teaching behavior through disciplining but should instead focus on a holistic approach toward teaching their children to honor others. Instilling in others a mindset of honoring is not an easy task; however, it is one that parents have a God-given obligation to undertake. It is also one that parents who love their children should strive to achieve with the utmost of their ability as it will allow their children to live longer and happier (Eph 6:2-3). One way to accomplish this is to follow the four-pronged approach: teaching our children to honor, living worthy of honor, showing honor to others, and removing or negating undermining factors in our children’s lives.