Teaching Children to Respect Law and Authority

Male police officer high-fiving a young boy
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In light of the popular sentiment to resist and challenge authority and to ignore laws with which we disagree, what should a parent do in terms of teaching his or her child to respect law and authority and to live in a civil society?

Teach Them Correct Principles

Living together in a community requires a commitment to the rule of law. We can teach our children what it means to live in society, that laws are made not on a whim but by our elected representatives after careful deliberation. Even laws like speed limits are set after careful analysis and engineering review - and more complex laws have even more careful consideration. Respecting the law is part of what it takes for people to live successfully in a community. 

Teach Them to Obey at Home

Teaching children respect for law and authority starts early with how parents teach and interact at home. When the family has rules, there is an expectation that they will be followed and that, if the rule is wrong, we can talk together as a family to examine it and potentially change it. The way we set and enforce family rules at home sets the stage for how children deal with rules outside the home at school, at work and in the community.

Be Consistent With Expectations

If we allow the rules to be bent or violated without consequence, we may unintentionally teach a disrespect for laws and authority. As parents, respect is gained and kept by our consistency in applying rules and in living in ways that show respect. We have to allow our children to experience the natural consequences of their obedience or disobedience. If we protect or shield them from those consequences, we do them a disservice and teach them that they can get away with things.

Model Your Own Respect for the Law and Authority

Do we ever catch ourselves denigrating police officers, elected officials, or those charged with enforcing the law and protecting the community from those outside the law? Do we chafe publicly about this or that law that we see as unneeded and not applicable to us? When we demonstrate disrespect for the law, we communicate that it is OK to do so. Instead, we should teach our children to work to change the law (emailing our elected representatives for example) rather than simply choosing to ignore the law.

Create Opportunities for Positive Interaction With Authority Figures

Most schools today have police officers present serving as. Many police departments have community policing officers assigned to neighborhoods. Take the opportunity to create positive interactions with police officers in non-highly charged situations. Point out the good things that police officers do like prevent traffic accidents, help stranded motorists, and respond to emergency situations. The more they can see authority figures in a positive light, the more likely they are to handle a difficult situation with respect.

Talk About Situations Where Disrespect Is Shown

After a recent, racially tinged officer-involved shooting, the community where the situation took place became the scene of riots, looting, fire-setting, vandalism and other violence. As the images are portrayed on television and the Internet in situations like this, we can talk to our children about the situation, why violence and disrespect are not the best answer, and about how laws and policies can be changed when they are not working in a community.

In an era of significant distrust of authority, it can be hard to teach the need to respect authority, to accept consequences for our actions and to avoid responding with violence or misdirected passion. Change happens as we work effectively to encourage it, and our children will be better citizens as we treat authority figures with respect and as we teach them the importance of respect in a civil society.