Love is a Gift. Respect is Earned.

Written by Janet Denison
Published on October 16, 2018

Our kids understand they are loved unconditionally. We teach them there is nothing they can say or do that will cause us to stop loving them. That unconditional love gives them a strong foundation for knowing God and understanding his love. But there is another lesson that is equally important.
Most kids expect us to respect them like we love them. It’s a good day when kids figure out that respect isn’t an unconditional gift; it’s a paycheck earned.

Parents often assume kids understand this difference, but most kids don’t. They get a hint whenever they make a bad choice and get disciplined. After ten minutes in a chair, however, we tell them we don’t want them to do that again, we hug them, and all is well—until the next time they throw a toy at their brother or best friend. Or, they take the car and drive somewhere they weren’t supposed to go. The discipline that follows is more potent if kids understand that not only are you disappointed, but you have lost some “respect” for them because of their choice.

Theologically, we call it “loss of reward.” God forgives, but there is always blessing lost when we make wrong choices. We missed the chance to earn God’s favor, and we usually withdraw on that account as well. We count on God’s unconditional love, but we also need to live with the goal of earning his favor.

All kids desire their parents’ respect, usually for their entire lives. Knowing that is a powerful tool in parenting. Kids will take advantage of your love but will learn they should be careful to value and work to earn your respect. It’s just human nature. We value things more when we need to work hard to achieve them. We want kids to understand they need to earn our respect.

Consider the story of the prodigal son. We almost always hear that story taught to express the unconditional love and forgiveness of the Father, and rightfully so. We don’t stop loving our kids; that’s why the prodigals break our hearts. But, the key to parenting is to raise our kids to be the older son.

Why do you want to raise the child that griped at his dad about taking back his prodigal brother? The older son usually gets the shaft in most sermons, but he shouldn’t. What child would want to see his dad set up for heartbreak or abused by a sibling? Haven’t you been angry at a sibling who took advantage of your parents? The older brother just needed to understand the difference between love and respect. So, the dad taught him.

Luke 15:31 is really the key verse in the story. After the older son gripes about his prodigal brother, the father comes out to find him and gives him this amazing truth: “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.’” The older son didn’t lose anything. He still had his entire inheritance. God looked at his “unprodigal son” and said, “You never lost my respect. You never lost any blessing.”

The younger son was celebrated for returning to his father. He was provided for, loved, and accepted into the family. But, the story never says he earned back the inheritance he had wasted. That is the difference between love and respect. Love is a gift. Respect is earned, preserved, and, sadly, sometimes wasted away. We want to raise our kids to be the older son. They won’t be perfect, but they will keep their inheritance intact.

How do you teach kids the difference between love and respect?

• When your toddler throws his cookie across the room, tell them you are sorry they wasted their treat, and don’t give them another one.
• When your kids lie to you about something, choose not to trust them for a few days. One of my sons lied about where he and his friend went to play. The next day I told him that he couldn’t go to another friend’s house because I just couldn’t trust he was telling me the truth. He stayed home that day and a couple more before he “earned” back my trust.
• Your daughter dumps a friend and slanders her on Facebook. You stand over her while she publically posts her apology. And you will worry and make written schedules the next week (or month) because she won’t have a cell phone with her. But, her friend will, so don’t worry too much.
• You find out your child did something incredibly kind for someone. Your child calls you and asks for you to pick her up because she doesn’t want to do what the rest of the group is choosing. You hug your child and tell them you adore them. Then, you give them a powerful gift. You tell your child that they have really impressed you and you respect the person they chose to be.

The older son in the story wasn’t perfect because the only perfect child was born in a manger in Bethlehem. There are some prodigals, but most of your kids will be the older son. Prodigals know they can count on your love, but they shouldn’t be able to count on your support and respect. The “older sons” are always with you and have “all” the blessings of your love and respect.

Love is a gift we both receive and give. Respect is a blessing we both earn and keep. If your kids will learn that early in life, it will protect them from wasting their blessings.

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Janet Denison

Janet Denison teaches others to live an authentic faith through her writing, speaking, and teaching ministry. She blogs weekly at and often at

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