When we leave home, we don’t leave the Fifth Commandment behind. But what does honoring our parents mean when we are adults?
When my widowed father first moved into our guest bedroom, I wasn’t so sure it was going to work out. In fact, I was fairly certain it was not going to be a positive experience—for either of us.
We were anything but close. When I was growing up, I used to wonder how I could possibly have a father with a personality, perspectives, interests and an approach to life that was so completely different from my own.
I loved my father, but we were about as opposite as two people could be. His idea of fun was watching television, especially old Westerns, or going on a quiet walk or a fishing trip … by himself. He didn’t like being around crowds, and he avoided social gatherings and group activities as much as he could.
I rarely watched TV, and my lifestyle was anything but solitary. I liked having a lot of get-togethers at our house—especially really big parties. If I was out running errands, I made conversations with anyone and everyone who made eye contact with me—cashiers, other customers standing in line, whoever. My father, on the other hand, avoided stores and restaurants where the employees were “too friendly.” He didn’t want to have to engage in conversations with people he didn’t know.
And not only were my father and I opposites, we were basically strangers. When I started college, I moved to another city, about 100 miles from my hometown. After college, I moved to another state and for the next two decades, lived over 2,000 miles away from my father. During those years, we rarely saw each other. We’d talk on the phone every week or two, but it was only chit-chat—not exactly “meaningful” conversation.
So what was it going to be like having my father living in our house? How was this possibly going to work out?
The fact of the matter was, even if our home wasn’t the ideal match for my father, my husband and I believed taking him in was the right thing to do. My father had been dealing with some major health and financial challenges. If he didn’t move in with us, the other options would have been seriously detrimental to him.
Applying the Fifth Commandment
The Fifth Commandment, listed in Exodus 20:12, tells us, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” We felt that to not help my father in his time of need, when we could, would have been to disregard this commandment.
Obviously, this command doesn’t mean grown children need to obey their parents, but we still need to honor them. No matter our age, we need to show them respect, regard and esteem. If our parents are in need, we must try to make sure they’re well cared for.
If you’ve always had healthy relationships with your parents, it may be totally natural to bestow this kind of honor on them. But if you can relate to my story and have never connected that well with your mother or father, this can be hard to do. It can be even more difficult if your parents were not honorable, or if you saw far more flaws in them than strengths.
Still, the Fifth Commandment does not say we only need to honor our parents if they deserve it, or when they are good to us or honorable. We need to honor them even if they were difficult to get along with (see our online article “Dealing With Difficult People”).
When we honor our parents, ultimately we are pleasing and honoring God (Colossians 3:20).
Some practical suggestions
There are many ways to express godly love and respect for your parents as an adult, regardless of the kind of relationship you have with them. Here are some practical suggestions:
- Spend time with them.
Visit or call your parents on a regular basis. If you live in the same city, this may mean taking them to lunch, meeting them for coffee or inviting them to your house for dinner. Ask them how they’re doing and tell them what’s going on in your life. If distance separates you, stay in contact by phone or use a video chat service, such as Skype.
When we honor our parents, ultimately we are pleasing and honoring God.I have a friend in Illinois who calls her parents in Europe every Saturday morning. Each of them has a web camera set up. They’ll fill each other in on their weeks while my friend and her husband eat brunch and, due to the time difference, her parents eat dinner. “It’s like having a face-to-face meal together,” my friend relates. “Mom and Dad feel a lot more connected to us knowing we have this regular time to talk.”
Even if you are just talking about routine, mundane matters, don’t underestimate how important these conversations are to your parents. That’s a mistake I made with my father. But after he was living with us for a while, he told me how much those phone chats had meant to him—even if we were only talking about the weather.
- Be a good listener.
If your parents want to reminisce about the good old days, let them. My father sure had his stories. There was the one about how his hive of bees swarmed onto the diving board of the neighbor’s swimming pool. And how he won the local ice fishing exhibition one year. And how he met my mother—and on and on. I’d heard all the stories before and knew most of them word for word. Still, it was important to listen again.
Of course your parents may also want to talk about what’s currently going on in their lives—about their jobs or hobbies, interesting experiences, challenges they’re facing, etc. Whatever it is, give them your full attention. By listening to their stories, you are telling them that their experiences—and lives—are important to you.
- Seek their advice.
Show your parents how much their wisdom and experience mean to you by asking for counsel about life issues such as education paths, career decisions, choice of a mate, child rearing or dealing with trials. Tell them you’re asking because you value their insights.
I have a son in college who is pursuing a degree that is similar to my own college degree. Sometimes he’ll ask me for my advice on which classes to take, how best to carry out a particular class project or how to word his resume. I can’t help but feel honored when he asks me for my perspectives.
In the end, you may or may not take your parents’ suggestions, but as Proverbs 1:8-9 notes, their advice is definitely worth listening to.
- Express appreciation.
Rather than dwell on your parents’ flaws, look for the positive ways they impacted your life and sincerely thank them for all they have done for you.
Focus on whatever is positive: that they provided for you, taught you about life, offered helpful advice, were patient, planned memorable family activities, offered you unique opportunities and so forth.
Compliment them on their current-day accomplishments as well, whether it’s something job-related, a new project they finished at home or succeeding at some other endeavor. Parents want to feel appreciated for what they have done in the past, as well as for what they’re presently doing.
- Provide for them.
If your parents are elderly and live close by, you might offer to help them with their day-to-day needs by running errands, performing household repairs, doing housework or yard work, preparing meals, solving computer problems, etc. At some point, you may also need to help them financially and give physical care.
When my father lived with us, in addition to taking him to doctor appointments and doing his bookkeeping, I tried to accommodate him in other ways too—like moving social events to the backyard so the house stayed quiet or renting Old West movies for him to watch. These might seem like trivial gestures, but they were important.
In Mark 7:9-13 Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for not taking care of their elderly parents. In 1 Timothy 5:4 Paul teaches that grown children have an obligation to support their parents in old age or time of need, in effect repaying them a little for all their sacrifices.
- Pray for them.
Getting older isn’t always easy. Depending on your parents’ age, they may be dealing with issues like empty nest syndrome, loneliness, retirement blues, declining health, financial problems, life regrets or the loss of a spouse, all of which can be very discouraging. It is important for you, as their children, to pray for God’s blessing on them—and let them know you are doing so. Knowing you are praying for them may be just the encouragement they need.
- Be forbearing and forgiving.
Love and accept your parents, despite their idiosyncrasies, flaws and mistakes.
In practical terms, this means accepting your parents for who they are, not being overly critical of them and putting up with some of the things they might do that irritate you.
What if they’ve done a lot more than just annoy you? Be willing to forgive. Remember, there are no perfect parents. Everyone falls short now and then—including your parents and including yourself. Forgive your parents, just as God has forgiven you (Ephesians 4:32).
If you’re struggling with this, ask God for help. Depend on Him to give you the strength, and even the desire, to not only forgive your parents, but to fulfill the Fifth Commandment in every way you can.
I know firsthand this can be a struggle. My father lived with me, my husband and two sons for the last year of his life. It certainly wasn’t all smooth-sailing. But it wasn’t all bad either. During that year, my father and I had lots of time to sit around the kitchen table and talk, and even had some heartfelt conversations. I saw some wonderful qualities in him that I hadn’t seen before, and I grew to understand and appreciate him in ways I had never thought possible.
Always remember the very real rewards God promises for honoring your parents. That includes the blessings of a long life—and perhaps some unexpected gifts along the way as well.