The commandment to honor our parents was given to us in the Old Testament—but from where did the necessity of such a commandment emerge? Surely it is natural to love and honor those who gave you life! Does a Christian have the right to take offense at his parents? Why do so many elderly parents find themselves alone nowadays? Are the children of “bad” parents exempt from any obligation to honor and care for them? How can parents and children develop a proper relationship? Igumen Nektary (Morozov) reflects on these issues:
It is unfortunate, but true, that many elderly parents live out their final years in loneliness. In many cases, these parents find themselves languishing in poverty—forgotten, utterly lonesome, and left alone to bear their illnesses, hardships, and material difficulties without aid—as their children live on, contentedly oblivious. How is it possible for a person with good moral qualities to rear a child who will abandon him in later life? Certainly, for believers, but also for any person, it is natural to care for those in need of care—especially when those in need are his parents. However, if we find a person absolutely indifferent to his parents’ well-being, it becomes evident that only they—the parents—are to blame, harsh as this may sound.
Every baby comes into the world small and helpless, possessing nothing, and, typically, this child develops within a family. Genes may contribute much to his formation but his upbringing and education will have the deepest impact on the sort of person he becomes. It is a common mistake to believe that it is possible to traumatize a child or raise a morally defective individual only by beating, taunting, and ignoring him, by abandonment, or in an unstable home with a mother bringing home strange men or a father drinking, taking drugs, and terrorizing the family. However, it is equally possible to spoil a child by pampering him and indulging all his caprices. In this very way, parents can raise an egotist who, when he is grown, is absolutely indifferent to anybody.
To form a child into a good, decent person (let alone a true Christian) is a far more difficult task than one can imagine. After all, a child is not a dog or cat which only needs to be fed well, bathed, stroked, walked, and little else. Raising a person who knows what is “good” and what is “bad,” who loves goodness and avoids evil—this requires considerably more serious and deeper work. It is not simply a matter of parental leniency or strictness; it is whether we, as parents, possess these deep inner principles which make us truly human, in the fullest sense of the word, and whether we are capable of instilling these principles in our children.
It is necessary to teach your child love, compassion, concern for another’s pain, to be responsible, steadfast, and strong. It is most important that your child always see these qualities in yourself and fully rely upon you for guidance. Your child should not feel fear or feel himself abandoned. He should see that these are the things his father and mother do, and feel that these are the things he must to in order to become a genuine person.
There exists the opinion that sometimes grown-up children shift the responsibility for their misfortunes in life onto their parents, though their parents are not truly guilty of it. Unfortunately, the reality is that the parents are to blame—they did not teach their children to take accountability for their own errors and left them to blame others.
This is another very significant educational moment. The principal teachers in a child’s life are his parents and the upbringing of children is the most serious process. However, can we truly say that most fathers and mothers agree with this? Alas, in many cases, parents only formally care for their children. Do many parents today read with their children, talk with them, know their inner world and the depths of their hearts? To be sure, the unity of a family is important, but what is the lasting benefit of a family whose members are like strangers to one another?
Intimacy and love should reign in a family because love is a normal form of relationships between people. If it happens that children abandon their parents, it is a sign that there was no love, no intimacy between the family members—they lived together and nothing more. Parents must love their children, but not with the love which spoils through excessive gifts and pampering—this is only what the parents think good mothers and fathers should offer their children. This is not love but only the cultivation of selfishness. One must love with true love, which gives what is necessary, demands what is necessary, disciplines, encourages, motivates to work, supports. As life experience shows, this true all-embracing love receives a child’s love in return and generates trust and unity.
Not parents’ guilt, but their misery
Is a child truly not responsible for the lack of good relationship with his parents? In truth, these are two sides of the same coin. Any adult is responsible for all he does—including the way he treats his parents. If parents have excessively humbled their child or used him as a plaything, striving to give him all, but depriving him of the main thing, freedom, while trying to control all his life, it often results in the child’s reluctance to maintain relations with his parents. He will eventually build an emotional wall between himself and his parents. As priests, we often speak with such children, who have abandoned their parents, and we must guide them in pulling down this wall, to the last brick, in order that they might overcome their inner fear and pain.
There is only one remedy in this situation: to stop feeling yourself a child, to grow up and realize that you are no longer a weak creature in need of some assistance or specific treatment which you never received. Instead, it is vital to start perceiving your parents as children themselves. They have made errors, but nevertheless are your parents, who are getting older and are now in need of care themselves. It is necessary, both for your parents and yourself, that you overcome this completely, lest this broken childhood deform and distort your entire life. Truly, this role reversal applies to any pain, to any trauma a person has experienced.
But where can one find the strength to make this change and upon what should one rely? First, one must know firmly that God created in us the wonderful capability to overcome all—we have the strength and potential to do this from our very birth. What is the source of this strength? Apart from the God-given ability to overcome difficulties, there is the Divine grace which can heal absolutely anything. Not only can it heal, it can transform and make a person completely different. We see this in the lives of the Saints as well as those of the ordinary people who go to church. How do they attain this transformation? Their attitude towards the Christian life is not simply formal. They come to understand that the true spiritual life is not simply reading one’s prayer rule and the Holy Scriptures, not only attending church and participating in the Holy Sacraments. Everything changes only when the Gospel enters into one or another person—only then does he begin to understand what is the most precious thing in life. The most precious thing in life is the Lord, in all that unites us with Him. As soon as this reappraisal of values occurs, a person obtains a colossal energy. Only then, does he begin to see his parents through the prism of the Gospel and realize how all the errors his parents have committed against him is their problem, not his—and he must not leave them alone in this trouble but do his best to support them. He may or may not succeed in this, but this natural desire must be borne. It is a matter of inner development and a huge victory over the self, this victory of love. Some parents may do everything wrong, but their children can overcome this, forgive them, and meet them in compromise and love.
A duty or a natural obligation?
Returning to the theme of lonely aging people—it is often said that it is important to look after your parents until their death. To my mind, this is not “important” but natural—there is no other way. Yes, some semi-barbarian tribes once used to carry out their elderly parents far away from their settlements, thus dooming them to imminent death. For our society, the following understanding is customary: if you do not take care of your parents, you are a defective person, you are not a person in the full sense of the word—and we should not depart from this rule.
Christians should not question this at all, because we are called to care even for those who are strangers to us, inasmuch as we find it possible to do so. To look after our parents is our duty; this would be so even if they were not close to us, even if we doubted whether we were relatives or not. Nevertheless, it is quite natural for us to care for them, since the Lord in his wisdom, united us together and does not wish for us to abandon them. It is here that the commandment to honor our parents is particularly revealed.
To be sure, caring for parents with whom one has had a difficult relationship will be a hard job. They may try to prevent us from caring for them and put obstacles in our way. Nevertheless, we must overcome even this and do our duty. Some elderly parents may turn on the gas stove or an electric iron while their children are away at work, thus putting their own lives and those of other residents at risk. Not everyone can afford to hire a caregiver and not everyone has relatives enough to organize a continuous chain of care for their elderly parents. In order to avoid a tragedy, some must resort to taking their elderly parents to special hospitals or institutions, not necessarily because of callousness, selfishness, or unwillingness, but out of necessity. Still, to render the care of one’s parents to an institution must be considered an extreme measure and considered justifiable only when there is sound reason. In all other cases, one must take the burden of all these hardships on oneself, recalling, as a Christian, all those who have taken strangers to their homes, tending them, treating them, and burying them, and derive inspiration from these examples. Further, one must not consider it an extraordinary heroic deed to care for their aged and frail parents, but a natural obligation.
To be a human being
Few will argue that it is absolutely natural to love and revere your parents. Yet, the Lord on Mount Sinai deliberately gave this commandment to the Jewish people. Why? It should be remembered that the world at that time was quite cruel and savage; people treated each other in a very barbarous way and frequently murdered each other. The Ten Commandments were given as a foundation on which a certain human society could gradually be reared and taught to live as human beings and, hopefully, devout believers. You shall not put out someone else’s eyes, if you do not want others to put out yours—and if this was done to you, your response should not be a return of the same—to forgive is better. This is why it is evident that the commandment to honor one’s parents was given to a people that did not do so, otherwise such a commandment would have been necessary. Unfortunately, this commandment becomes relevant again today as people lose more and more what it means to be truly human. To be human means, among other things, to love your neighbors and those who gave you life.
To love parents as…enemies
The commandment to honor one’s parents is known to everybody, but the phrase: “Ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath,” (Eph. 6:4) is not remembered by many. What is its meaning? A person may take the commandment of honoring parents very formally or even reject it in his heart: if your parents did not command your respect, from what can you derive your honor and reverence for them? If parents do not exasperate their children, but, instead, love them and take care of them, then naturally children should love, respect and honor them in return. You can gesture to a plot of land and demand that it produce plants, but only weed can grow on its own. If you want to gather a harvest of crops, you need to plow the land, to plant something, and to water and care for your crops. This is what St. Paul speaks about: do what is necessary in order to reap a harvest. In our case, respect and reverence are the harvest. It is true indeed, that as parents sow, so will they reap.
Even still, for a Christian, love and respect for a neighbor as an image of God is the law of life. You cannot exclude parents from the whole lot of people whom you must love and respect as a Christian by nature. Sometimes it happens that your parents did you more wrong than any other people—in this case they are like true enemies. If this is so, you must take great pains to learn to love them as your enemies. This kind of love has its own specific character. When we love our enemy, we forgive him, do him good, and overcome rancor and hatred. It does not mean that we are going to let him into our life, to let him destroy our house and damage our health. Common sense is needed in our love for such parents-enemies; we should reveal our love for them according to the circumstances. Whether one or another person is “good” or “bad,” we can love him as an image of God all the same. For a child who grew up a Christian and, therefore, sees life through the Gospel, such respect is natural. If the Lord deigned to give you these parents-enemies, there is something that ties and unites all of you in some mysterious way, and you must accept it from God.
If a child lives “wrong”
The process of “churching” sometimes may become a “stumbling block” in the relations between children and parents. It is not reasonable of some parents who force children to go to church and to participate in sacraments to also scold them for disbelief and non-Christian views. A question arises: what should we do if our child lives “wrong”?
One of the early Holy Fathers instructed that: “Whatever happens, always blame yourself for anything.” First of all, there is your fault in any problem—direct or indirect—as your errors or sins create a specific spiritual atmosphere in which all occurs. So it is quite natural not to blame your child for this, but, above all, to look at yourself and understand that what is going on is a result of your actions. You should not demand that your child change right away. If you were an atheist and at some point turned to Christ it does not mean that the same should happen to your child at once. The Lord waited for you for years, so you must wait for some time, too. If you cannot help, then at least do not interfere. When a parent literally drags his child to church by force, when he says that otherwise the child will not be given presents or sweets or otherwise God will punish him, it does not attract, but, on the contrary, antagonizes. “God will punish you”—these are the worst words parents can ever say—they simply have no right to pronounce them: they show God as a chastiser which creates some frightening image that provokes sense of guilt for the rest of a child’s life instead of love.
Parents who lead an active church life should try to figure out what led them to God and pass this on to their child, that he might see (at least to some degree) the light, the love, and the joy that they once saw and received. If your child does not see it in you, he will not believe you. If a child goes to church together with you and attends a Sunday school just formally, what will change then? Christianity will not be revealed to him, but he will see it as a certain form which at some point may become boring and lose its meaning—this is because your child never understood its meaning. We know what inoculation is like: it is when you first have a mild form of one or another disease and thereafter you will never have a severe form of it. So too, there is such a thing as “vaccination against Christianity,” when a person is given some outward form of Christianity instead of the genuine Christianity which transforms one’s mind and soul. Then a person begins to think: faith is just the morning and evening prayers, regular attendance of church, reading of the Gospel, confession and Eucharist. In reality this is not true Christianity. These are just elements of our church life. The genuine Christianity is when you hear Christ, when you understand what He tells us in the Gospel, when you accept it with all your heart and follow Him. That faith requires the fundamental change of our worldview, our way of thinking, and our inner world. A man cannot be satisfied with the appearance, with this outward form, he finds it dull and flat and ends up rejecting such Christianity. When he later hears about Christ again, he says: “No! I have already had it in my life. It’s a thing of the past!” So you must give your child Christianity as it is, provided you understood it yourself, never imposing anything on him, but instead giving him the choice which you once had yourself.
The problem is wider here: parents often cannot accept their child’s “dissent” in principle. How can you overcome this? If you have love, then you will have the ability to accept and understand. If there is no love, then it is all much more difficult. Again, the answer to this question can be found in the Gospel: just as you want others to do for you, do the same for them (see also Luke 6:31). Treat your own child as yourself, give him a chance to choose. You may make his choice easier by showing and sharing him with what you once experienced in your life, but do not force. Children perceive many things ingenuously. They respect beauty, power, something that is interesting, bright, deep. Show your child brightness, power, depth, beauty—and he will follow it. Why do today’s children tend to imitate all sorts of “spider men,” “supermen,” such absurd and ridiculous images? Because in their life they cannot find the examples which they want to follow. Who must be such examples? Parents, of course! If you want your child to be a sound, full-fledged person, be such a person yourself. Your child will see it in you and will be drawn to you, and no bad company will ever attract him because he will have something much more important at home. It will follow that when you go to church, your child will go with you—he will know that all that you do is right and good.
The most foolish and grave error of any parent is to rear children while failing to continue rearing yourself. First and foremost, you must be a teacher to yourself, never stopping the process of the creative transformation of your own personality. Naturally, your child will be involved in this process.
I have heard this phrase: “a parental love slides downhill and a child’s love goes uphill”—that is, it is easier for parents to love their children than the reverse. Frankly speaking, I do not understand why some say this. A person either has love or does not have love. Today, many parents see their children as a burden and want to live independently and to be free from them.
Love is something that fills one’s life with meaning. That is why everyone should learn not just to love their own parents, but to love in principle. Love is not only the foundation of life and happiness—love is life itself—and life without love is not full, it is only the rudiments of life. Furthermore, if you learn to love, you naturally learn to love those who are closer to you by blood, that is, your parents. The duty to love and care for one’s parents will come easily to those who learn to love in principle.