God’s Design for Parents and Children

by Harry F. Sanders, III and Liz Abrams on June 7, 2023

A child’s first and most formative relationships are with his or her parents. Parents are given the unique responsibility to care for the physical and spiritual needs of their children and to guide children from their initial state of complete dependence to adulthood, through all the intermediate states.

Most children long to grow up and to participate in adult things. Yet, because God created the maturation process, it is good to be a child. It is good to be under the authority of a parent. God’s design for humanity involves the parent-child relationship, and he repeatedly encourages husbands and wives to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28, 9:1). In God’s eyes, children are a good thing (Psalm 127:3).

God Created Families

As Christians, we should affirm the good design of the family and defend against attacks on the family, such as laws interfering with parental authority

Some realities in our world are the result of Adam’s sin and the resultant fall. However, the parent-child relationship was part of God’s original “very good” design. While Adam and Eve were created as mature adults, they would go on to have offspring who would start life in the womb as unborn children, be born as infants, and go through a maturation process that is similar to what we go through today—although in an unfallen world, it would not have involved sickness, death, and diseases that many children experience today. In an unfallen world, parents and children would also not sin against each other.

As Christians, we should affirm the good design of the family and defend against attacks on the family, such as laws interfering with parental authority (while of course supporting the protection of children from genuine abuse, neglect, and danger).

Infancy and Childhood

Children pass through several stages of life with relationship to their parents. The first stage runs roughly from birth to the teen/preteen years. At birth, a child is utterly dependent on his or her parents. Gradually, children develop skills and the ability to care for themselves in some ways. In this stage of life, children tend to be very impressionable and desire to please adults. They certainly can be disobedient, stubborn, and difficult but are much more moldable. It is during this time that a child’s character can be most easily forged, and if godly parents don’t lovingly do it for their child’s benefit, others will. It is the responsibility of the parents to guide the formation of the child’s character in a biblical direction.

During this time, the relationship of the child to the parent is one of dependence and need. Dependence begins at fertilization in the womb, where children are completely dependent on the mother for nutrients and protection. The dependence continues after birth, as they are completely helpless and in need of parental care. The responsibility of caring for a young child is great indeed, but it includes far more than simply providing food, clothing, shelter, and love—though all of those are important. Scripture commands parents to bring their children up “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4, KJV).

The upbringing of a young child is intended to draw them closer to God. Repeatedly, throughout Scripture, God commands parents to teach their children and children to learn from their parents (Deuteronomy 6:7, 11:19; Proverbs 1:8–9, 22:6). This teaching is not just doctrinal. It also involves answering a child’s questions about God and the world by pointing to what God has done in the past (Exodus 13:8, 14; Joshua 4:6). Further, parents are commanded to discipline their children. This is both for the child’s spiritual and temporal benefit (Proverbs 22:15, 23:13–14, 29:17).


As children enter their preteen/teen years, their horizons begin to expand. They begin to make independent decisions. They are less dependent on their parents’ opinions and begin to seek the opinions of their peers. Sadly, in some cases, they begin to rebel against their parents’ authority.

While it is good and natural for a child to begin to develop independence, rebellion is a very serious sin against God (1 Samuel 15:23). Children are commanded to obey their parents (Colossians 3:20). However, there is a caveat to this command. Obedience extends only to those commands which are of the Lord (Ephesians 6:1). Children are not required to obey if their parents command something sinful. However, they are required to submit to their parents in lawful commands and to do so without a rebellious attitude. Parents are the child’s authority and ought to be honored as such, whether their commands are pleasant or not. However, parents have the responsibility to not provoke their children to anger (Ephesians 6:4) by misusing their authority. Parents play a vital role in helping their children to navigate their newfound freedom and independence by encouraging young people to be responsible while providing appropriate boundaries.

Allowing children to be independent where it is appropriate while explaining the reasoning for rules and boundaries can help them develop their own values, which they will need when they leave their parents’ home. Instead of molding character, the role now becomes preparing the child for independence. Different parents will pursue this goal in different ways. It often involves increased responsibility around the house, more freedom of movement, and less monitoring. However, it is important to remember that children remain the responsibility of the parents, not of their teachers or the state. It is the parents’ responsibility to teach their children the truth. Nowhere in Scripture is that responsibility abrogated.


When children become adults and establish independence by getting married and establishing their own careers, the relationship between parent and child changes again, this time in the most drastic way. The child has achieved independence and no longer is the direct responsibility of the parent. Additionally, the child is not obligated to obey the parent in the same way he or she was when under the parent’s roof. There should ideally still be a close relationship where there is communication and respect, however.

Scripture exhorts people of all ages to honor their parents. However, there are other factors that make these decisions more complicated. The child acquires additional duties, such as those to an employer, a spouse, and children. Husband and wife are one flesh (Genesis 2:24; Mark 10:8), and, as such, their primary duties are to one another. However, marriage does not absolve either spouse from duty to honor their parents. Balancing the commitments of a marriage, children, and parents will look different for each family, but that is part of becoming a mature adult.

What About Abusive Parents?

Parental abuse is a fundamental betrayal of the vulnerable children that God placed in the care of those parents. In such cases, we should be primarily concerned about the safety and well-being of the children.

Children should not be pressured to prematurely forgive abusive parents or to honor or obey them in traditional ways when the parents have demonstrated that those actions are fundamentally unsafe for the vulnerable child. Children can honor abusive parents by praying that the parents will repent of their sin and be saved. The relationship can only be reconciled after genuine repentance and evidence of a changed life over time, and even then, depending on the severity of the abuse, the child may never feel safe in the parents’ care.

Just as adultery breaks a marriage, abuse breaks the parent-child relationship, because it is a fundamental betrayal of how God designed the relationship. God can change people, and reconciliation can happen, but we should never pressure an abuse victim to honor the abuser. Rather, victims of abuse should be encouraged to primarily honor Christ in their attitude toward their abusers. God displays anger toward anyone who would harm children. In Scripture, it was especially heinous for people to kill their children as an offering to Molech (Leviticus 18:21, 20:2–5).


Children are both a responsibility and a blessing.

Children are both a responsibility and a blessing. Both parents and children have responsibilities to each other that begin at fertilization and extend to the death of the parents (or sometimes, tragically, the children). In our fallen world, there will be inevitable complications from the interactions of fallen human beings. However, the commands of Scripture are clear. Parents must teach their children, and children must obey their parents. God, as our Creator, knows us. Following his good design for families is best, as healthy families are the basis for a healthy society.


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