Of Parents and Children


Not everyone marries and many people never become parents but everyone is a son or a daughter.

Our relationship with our parents—or even the lack of it—affects every one of us for good or for evil to the last day of our lives. And this is precisely what the fifth commandment—”

Honour your father and your mother”—is all about. It is about an attitude and a relationship.

We cannot change the reality into which we were born. None of us chose our parents, and neither can we recreate them according to our ideas of how they should be. One biblical writer recalled that our parents “disciplined us for a little while as they thought best”

(Hebrews 12:10). They may have done their job with consummate skill; they may have done it with many mistakes and blunders; or—like most of us— with some of both. What they did or did not do inevitably had an impact on us; but it can never be said too loudly or repeated too often: we are affected more deeply and permanently by our attitude toward their efforts than by the methods they used. And this is precisely what the fifth commandment addresses.

It lays the burden for the success of the relationship between parents and children at the place where the buck really stops.

The commandment focuses on the aspect of the relationship that influences us first and most, and it is the one about which we do have a choice.

Although we can neither choose our parents nor change them, the attitude we have toward them is definitely up to us.

And the way we feel about our parents— our attitude toward them, the deep, gut-level reaction evoked in us when we think of them—will profoundly shape the way we relate to all authority and, to a lesser degree, to all other human beings. And in all likelihood it will affect our relationship with God as well.

The principle laid down in the fifth commandment is a strong foundation for success in school, on the job and even in marriage. In fact, the first time the Bible mentions marriage it describes it as a man leaving his father and mother and joining himself to his wife (see Genesis 2:24). So the Bible sees even marriage as a transference and, in some sense, a continuation of a relationship that started with our parents.

People who have unresolved issues with their parents head into marriage with a serious handicap and they are at extremely high risk of having problems in other areas of life. That is why the commandment says that if we honour our parents our life will be “long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). This means that a healthy relationship with our parents is the basis for good relations, peace of mind, and success throughout our life.

Honour is an attitude of the heart. It refers not to a specific action or behaviour toward our parents, but rather to the way we choose to relate to them.

The apostle Paul tells us that the fifth commandment requires children to obey their parents (see Ephesians 6:1).

When some people, including some parents, hear the word obedience, they immediately think of control. But the obedience that springs from an attitude of “honour” is an intelligent response, an active expression of love and respect, not an automated compliance with authority.

Notice how the wise man highlights this idea: “My son, keep your father’s commands and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. Bind them upon your heart for ever; fasten them around your neck. When you walk, they will guide you; when you sleep, they will watch over you; when you awake, they will speak to you” (Proverbs 6:20-22).

Notice that he is describing an attitude.

Obedience without the attitude of honour is heavy drudgery. In fact, it is slavery.

Honouring our parents means we will want to make them look good by being good ourselves, and to make them successful in their efforts to help us be successful. The fifth commandment tell us to pull off our boxing gloves and get out of the ring, listen to their counsel, speak well of them and look for ways to show them our appre ciation and respect. Again we hear from the wise man: “May your father and mother be glad; may she who gave you birth rejoice” (Proverbs 23:25).

The principle of honour will express itself differently for a five-year-old than for someone who is 14. And at 14, it is not the same as at 25. The advancing weakness and infirmity of our parents as they age brings further changes.

Honouring them then takes on still another dimension. Failure to recognise and adapt to these changing circumstances by either side is a formula for problems.

Of course, even the death of our parents does not cancel our obligation to honour them. What we do and how we live can make them look good and honour their memory. We can live in a way that expresses gratitude for what they stood for and what we received from them.

Of course, nothing we have said lessens the responsibility of parents or justifies them in feeling they have little or no accountability for how they deal with their children. It is clearly impossible to consider children’s attitudes toward their parents without also seeing it as a two-sided coin, because the interaction between parents and children is profoundly reciprocal. When the apostle Paul speaks about the fifth commandment, he makes it clear that children’s duty to honour their parents is matched by the parents’ duty toward their children (see Ephesians 6:1-4; Colossians 3:20, 21).

Because the honour children are to give their parents is an attitude of love and respect, the vital question for parents is: What type of teaching and example can I give, what type of inter action can I promote, to facilitate this sort of reaction? How can I encourage this intelligent response in my children?

If we want to see in our children a response that springs from their own reasoning, their own intelligence and goodwill, then as early as possible, and as often as possible, we must begin to appeal to those higher faculties, remembering that our goal is not to control but to encourage an attitude of honour.

Enlisting the will of our offspring does not involve an irresponsible surrender of parental authority. But it does mean that as soon as possible, we will let them make choices in as many areas as possible. We need to look for points in which they really can make a legitimate choice. And before telling them no or “You have to do it my way,” we will ask ourselves, “Does it really matter?”

“What harm will it do?”

Does this mean that at times we will actually let them make wrong choices?

In some cases there is no better way for them to learn than by having to reap the consequences of a wrong decision.

And as the child’s judgment and maturity grow, it will lead to a gradual increase in autonomy as well as in accountability.

The years go hurrying by, and every human relationship brings with it some stresses and strains. This is not horrible or disgraceful, but normal. But if we have in our hearts the overarching principle of honour, love will prevail.

Honour your father and your mother, and your days on earth will be not only longer but much more satisfying and filled with peace and joy and success.

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