How should an adult grown (presumably married, but not necessarily) child relate to his or her parents? There is a tension in Scripture between obeying the Scripture which says to “leave and cleave” in forming your own adult identity and family (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5) and obeying the Scripture which says to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12;Ephesians 6:2).
Every family has it’s own rhythm. Every family has its own share of circumstances, from abusive to permissive to annoying, etc. So how one adult child handles his or her parents isn’t necessarily a blueprint for another. Still, the Scriptures seem to indicate an intentional approach to the way we love our parents as adults.
This is a journey I’ve traveled in the last few years. I seem to have endured the typical cycle: being cared for and nurtured by my parents as a child, distancing and forming my own identity as a teen (though still wanting their money and food), thinking my generation will solve all the mistakes my parents made, and finally where I am today: appreciating my parents and figuring out how I can love them better. I’m guessing you’ve traveled a similar road.
As I’ve pondered this important relationships, I’ve come up with five general guidelines for the way adult children should handle their parents. Like most of my lists, this is not exhaustive. Here’s the list:
1) Always respect your parents, even when it is difficult. By honoring, the Bible is saying more than simple respect, but it’s not saying less. I’m amazed at how I hear otherwise good; devout people treat their parents. I’ve been in nursing homes where kids are yelling and berating their parents. I realize that sometimes parents are not the easiest people to love, but this is why love is something we do and is not something we feel. Your parents, regardless of their flaws, brought you into the world. They nurtured and cared for you and loved you the best way they can. Give them some respect, treat them with kindness and deference, and realize that one day you’ll be the one with the walker and the really bad elastic pants. You don’t want your kids yelling at you that way, do you?
2) Find ways to affirm the good things they did in your childhood. I’m not sure there is a generation with more childhood angst than mine. We really think our parents messed everything up so badly and that we’ll get it just right. I thought this way right up until I became a father and realized just how difficult parenting could be. I understand the need for catharsis and fleshing out past hurts and using your past as a context for your future. Yes, I get it. But do we have to start every negative conversation with, “Growing up . . . .” I’m speaking to myself here. Let’s instead find ways to affirm the good our parents gave us–which is likely a lot more than we think. Let’s tell them to their faces how much we appreciate their care, their love, their goodness. Parents, especially as they age, can be incredibly reflective. They question themselves, Did I do the right thing? They have regrets; some even have shame. So be an encouragement to your parents. Do this often and do it with intentionality.
3) Find ways to bless them in physical ways. Sometimes this simply means going out for coffee and being quiet and letting them talk. Let them tell those same stories they’ve told before. It’s good for them and good for you. Sometimes this means lending financial support if your parents fall on hard times. Sometimes this means doing physical things, helping them clean out their home, taking them to doctor appointments, the airport, or anything they need. Sometimes this means allowing them, in advanced age, to stay in your home and care for them. All of this, I think, is in the spirit of what the Scripture says when it says to “honor your father and mother.” It means to make sure they are always well-cared for as best you can. It’s ironic how the life cycle goes, is it not? Our parents spend their most productive years caring for us, and now we get to return the favor and care for them.
4) Set healthy boundaries. You need to set healthy boundaries with your parents, so they know where the lines are between your family and them. They don’t always know this and sometimes if the distance is too big, they think they are introducing every time they come over. If the distance is too small, it can suffocate your own family. You need to “leave” your parents in the sense that you need to be financially and physically separate as best you can. You’ll have to have some frank conversations at times. Again, every situation is different, so no judgment here, just some general wisdom. In setting boundaries, always, always, always do it with grace and respect (see #1 above). Make sure you are making your own decisions in your family, but don’t hesitate to ask your parents advice. You don’t have to take it but you just might learn something from it, and it will make them feel good as well.
5) Don’t try to change your parents. The real way to love and honor your parents is to simply just love and honor them, despite their flaws, despite the annoying things you disliked when you were a kid. Put up with whatever it is they do that annoys you. Do it, not because you’ll get a tangible benefit, but because they are your parents and you are to love them. Let them know they are welcome in your home, that you enjoy having them around, that they don’t have to walk on eggshells around you. Yes, you’re way of doing family may be different (that’s okay), yes they will probably give your kids candy before dinner (that’s okay, too), yes you wish they were a little more this way or a tad more that way. But hey, they are your parents, they brought you into the world, and if you are serious about obeying and following Jesus, you’ll honor them and love them.