Growing up in South Carolina, I often answered adults with a “Yes sir” or a “Yes ma’am.” These phrases were as comfortable in everyday southern speech as a dish of chicken bog at a church potluck. I’m not sure I always spoke them out of intentional respect as much as they were simply part of the fabric of polite conversation. Travel elsewhere in the country, and a “Yes ma’am” could actually cause considerable offense.
Now that I’m raising my children away from the southern culture, I’ve had to consider how I want them to respond to authority, in particular to me as their dad. Is it possible that “Yes sir” is just an antiquated or cultural phenomenon? Does it really matter how they respond with their words as long as their heart is submissive?
The answer to these questions begins with a proper understanding of your God-given authority as a dad. Kristopher has already written two excellent foundational articles on this topic: Dads and Authority, Part 1 and Part 2. If you haven’t yet read those, please take a few minutes to do so as they provide an important biblical foundation.
Based on the Bible’s emphasis on submission to authority, it is clear that our children must learn to respond to us in a submissive manner. A vital part of training your child to submit includes requiring a verbal expression of submission. It could be “yes sir” or “ok” or “yes, dad.” Whatever form it takes, teach him to say “yes”. We’ll explore the reasons for this principle and some ways we can practically carry it out.
Why should he say “yes”?
Words matter. What you say with your mouth both reflects and affects what you believe in your heart. The Bible places a great emphasis on the power of words. Just after the nation of Israel crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land, they were to take time to review the curses and blessings inherent in the Mosaic Covenant. After each curse was spoken, all the people were to answer with a verbal “Amen” to demonstrate their inward agreement with God (Deut. 27).
God indeed knows what is in our hearts, but He also wants us to speak it with our lips (see 1 Sam. 3:9; Luke 12:8; Rom. 10:9; Heb. 13:15). Teaching your child to say “yes” impacts his heart in three significant ways.
- It exposes. Jesus revealed that “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart” (Matt. 15:18). According to James, a key diagnostic for someone troubleshooting the nature of his faith is how he uses his tongue (James 3:1–12). Teaching your child to say “yes” provides a simple standard that can expose complicated heart issues.
- It guides. On the flip side, the tongue can also guide the heart. Israelite families were to repeat key truths about God several times a day so that their children would grow in their faith (Deut. 6:4–25). Teaching your child to say “yes” can help shape his heart attitude toward authority.
- It prepares. You are not your child’s ultimate authority. Jesus is. At some point in your child’s life, Jesus will begin speaking to him through His Word, calling him to submit, and how your child responds to that call carries eternal consequence. Your child’s eternal joy is dependent on how he responds to Jesus. When Jesus calls him, he doesn’t need to deliberate or consider whether or not His demands are reasonable. He should simply say “yes” because Jesus is Lord. Teaching your child to say “yes” to you prepares him to say “yes” to Jesus.
How does this work?
Requiring a “yes” from your child seems simple enough, but it can present some unexpected challenges. Here are a few ideas for successfully implementing this important habit in your family.
- The standard shouldn’t change. While your strategy may change over time, strive to keep the standard static. When you as the authority give a command, your child’s automatic response should always be “yes.” This unchanging standard frees your child to enjoy the results of obedience without unnecessary deliberation. You and your wife should pick a response for your children (“yes sir, “ok,” “gladly,” etc.) and stick to it.
- Take time to train. We don’t learn new habits overnight. If your child isn’t accustomed to saying “yes,” set up some practice scenarios and, when he responds correctly, give over-the-top praise. Some kids get a kick out of learning a new habit like this one.
- Give advance warning and clear commands. Sometimes a child can be caught off guard by a command and not be quite ready for a knee-jerk “yes sir.” For younger children it can be helpful to say something like, “I’m about to give you a command, and I want you to respond like we’ve talked about.” It’s also helpful to ensure that your commands are clear. It may feel firm at first, but “Please clean your room” makes more sense to a five-year-old than “How about you go clean your room now?”
- Give reasonable commands. I’m often too optimistic about what my children are able to do. Before you give a command, stop and ask yourself, “Can my child actually do this, and am I prepared to follow through with this command?” Consult your wife if you’re not sure.
- Certain responses are off limits. Your child should know that certain words are never an option, the worst offender being “no.” Unless your command is sinful or your child is no longer under your care, he should never be allowed to respond to you with a “no.” Some other unacceptable responses might be “but,” “I don’t want to,” or silence.
- Your child should obey first. Ask questions later. This is tough but so important. None of us likes to be told what to do because we want to be our own authority. When your child obeys with the right attitude despite a swirl of objections in his head, that action is a huge step of obedience to God. Sometimes, my daughter responds to difficult commands with a noble “It will be hard, but I will do it.” Make a big deal out of those moments of obedience! [^1]
- Attitude matters. It’s possible to say “yes sir” and not mean it one bit. Make sure your child says “yes” in a respectful manner. True, his inner attitude may still be defiant, but requiring a sweet outer attitude can help to guide his heart. Consider teaching him the phrase, “quickly, sweetly, and completely” to guide his responses.
Some of these principles may rub you the wrong way. If so, thanks for reading this far! Here are some responses to a few potential objections to requiring a “yes” from your child.
“What about my child’s freedom of expression?”
Requiring certain words from your child might initially seem to hinder his freedom of expression and even dampen his happiness. However, not all self-expression is good. Some self-expressions are displeasing to God and therefore reduce our capacity for joy. While vocal resistance to authority brings unhappiness (Prov. 20:20), submission to authority brings blessing (Prov. 1:8–9; 6:20ff; Eph. 6:1–3). Your job as a parent includes guiding your child in the path of true joy, the path of obedience.
“I want to know what my child is actually thinking.”
That’s good. Open dialogue with your child is necessary if you are going to shepherd his heart. It is possible, however, to have open lines of communication without forfeiting your responsibility to teach submission. In fact, you may find that teaching your child to say “yes” actually sparks conversation rather than hinders it.
“Do I really want my child to speak words he doesn’t mean?”
The Bible clearly teaches the danger of submissive words spoken from a rebellious heart (Isaiah 29:13; Matt. 21:29–32). The danger here, however, is not the words, but the heart. We certainly want to aim for the heart. Requiring certain behaviors, far from ignoring the heart, is actually a way to reach the heart.
“What if I’m wrong?”
Unlike God, you’re wrong sometimes. You’ll have to apologize to your children. You will make mistakes. You will give dumb commands. Thankfully, your child’s hope is not you but the God who made you his dad. God promises blessing to those who submit to imperfect authorities (see 1 Peter 2:13—3:6 for some examples).
“Shouldn’t my child learn to appeal?”
Absolutely. At some point, your child will be mature enough to respectfully appeal your commands. This maturity is more dependent on attitude than age. Ideally, a respectful appeal uses a preplanned sentence (“Can I make an appeal?”) to present information that dad doesn’t know (“There’s a crocodile in the backyard”) and to ask permission to follow a different course of action (“May I cut the grass this afternoon instead?”). Once again, attitude is key in this process.
Dads need to say “yes”
The process of teaching my children to say “yes” has often turned the mirror back on my life, in particular my responses to God. When I read God’s Word, He gives me clear commands. Sometimes, instead of responding with a ready “yes, Lord,” I ignore, question, or even resist His authority. But as I guide my children in submission, my own responsibility to submit to God becomes clear. As for my children, my task is simple. When God gives me a command in Scripture, I must, without deliberation, argument, or resistance, immediately respond with a “yes, Lord.” He is the ultimate authority for children and dads alike.