The Difference Between Obedience and Respect

Last week I taught four groups of children (preschool to fifth grade) for five nights at VBS. Obviously controlling four groups of children with different ages is incredibly difficult…which is why I had to upgrade my treasure box.

Last January when one-on-one tutoring in the schools system became an outreach opportunity I invested in a five-dollar treasure box, and filled it with prizes from the dollar tree. The results amazed me. You would be very surprised how hard a child will work for an Incredible Hulk sticker!


Leaving tomorrow for a week of VBS in Kentucky, I think I’m ready #mrjohnstreasurechest

A photo posted by wilburninmelbourne (@wilburninmelbourne) on Jun 5, 2015 at 9:30am PDT

// the groups at VBS were much larger I traded in my treasure box for a small wooden crate filled with toys, stickers, and the occasional water gun.  

Gave my treasure box an upgrade! A photo posted by wilburninmelbourne (@wilburninmelbourne) on Jun 8, 2015 at 1:50pm PDT


Thankfully the sessions went well [1] and I was able to share the Gospel with all the children including their parents on the last night while they carefully followed Mr. Wilburn’s rules [2]

Most people would view the treasure box as my secret to controlling children but it actually isn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. Kids will definitely obey you if a candy bar or sticker is given as a reward. But over the years I’ve learned there is a huge difference between obedience and respect.

  1. Obedience is listening to Mr. Wilburn because he will reward me with something from his treasure box
  2. Respect is listening to Mr. Wilburn because you like him (he is your friend)

My point is this. All the stickers and candy in the world can’t gain the respect of children. You have to earn it.

And that’s why I showed up thirty minutes early

In the time leading up to VBS every night I did my best to be there early and interact with kids in silly ways

  1. Like racing them across the parking lot running in the funniest way imaginable
  2. Threatening to throw them in a nearby creek
  3. Chasing them with my dreaded tickle monster (my hand folded so it resembles a mouth) [3]
  4. Give out princess or dinosaur stickers
  5. Call children by the wrong name on purpose
  6. Give everyone a high-five. Telling them very firmly “don’t you give me a hard high-five!” which of course made them do just that, and I respond as if my hand was going to fall off
  7. And doing exercises like jumping jacks or high jumps

By the time it came for the Bible lesson (and I was usually dripping with sweat) the kids obeyed me not because of the box in my hand, but because I connected with them.

  • That’s the guy who gives me a high-five every night
  • Races me across the parking lot
  • And acts like he is going to throw me in the creek when I call him a silly name

Is this kind of work exhausting? You better believe it! Is it necessary? Absolutely!

In the end rewards are meant to be PHYSICAL REMINDERS of the rules that can be used when things get out of control instead of truly enforcing them [4]. The true influence comes from connecting with them in a way that’s meaningful.

As someone who works with children a lot I realize it’s more difficult than ever bringing structure into their lives (give clear rules they can understand and obey). But trust me when I say the answer isn’t bigger toys…it’s taking the time to earn their respect.

  1. Tuesday night with the pre-schoolers was a little rough 🙂  ↩
  2. I use the same as Child Evangelism Fellowship: Sit Up, Look Up, Hand Up, and Zip Up  ↩
  3. of course no tickling was done, Mr. tickle monster would just bite down on their arms  ↩
  4. rewards can enforce rules, but it becomes difficult to do this over time since the rewards have to constantly get bigger  


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