Who Has the Final Word? Navigating Honour, Respect, and Submission to Parents When You’re an Adult Yourself

elderly_0  Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.  “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”

And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.

 (Ephesians 6:1-4 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+6%3A1-4&version=NIV)

I am fully aware of the irony of this post – sitting here in my parent’s house, typing up a blog on a topic I am not really all that sure of.  Of course, I have my own ideas, but since I am not a parent myself, I realize that a large chunk of understanding is missing as a result.  Additionally, I realize that this is not an easy topic to broach.  For sure, there are myriad opinions circulating around and it is likely challenging to ascertain which views are correct and which are not.  Furthermore, what is right and wrong, might change dramatically depending on variable factors.  For example: does respecting your parents mean the same thing if your mother of father has a significant mental illness or disability?  Do you honour your parents in the same way when they have Alzheimer’s or dementia?  Do you submit to your parents’ authority even when you are in your mid-thirties, married with children, living in a different province, state, or country?  And if you choose to submit to their authority how will this impact your marriage?  Will it bring a negative spin to your relationship when your husband or wife believes differently on a fundamentally important topic than your mom and dad do?  These questions are ones that are at the forefront of my mind as I write this, and I will not pretend for a moment that they can be easily resolved.  However, what I would like to offer below are some suggestions that spring from my own experience.  They may be helpful to you, or they might not.  You are free to agree or to disagree with some or all of them.  Ultimately my hope remains that you will find out what is right for yourself – how to serve God and love your parents while also respecting yourself.

#1: Understanding the Difference Between Submission and Respect

Throughout the Scriptures, children are taught to love, honour, and obey their parents.  Parents are to have authority over their kids, teaching them to respect others around them and training them up in Godly and righteous living.  Proverbs 22:6 tells us to “train a child up in the way he should go and he will not depart from it later in life.”  (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Proverbs+22%3A6&version=NIV)  It is important to note here that the Proverbs are not a set rule, but rather a strong guideline of faith.  Sadly, there are some wonderful parents who have raised their children up in a good home environment, and yet when the kids are older they stray and backslide.  Wayward children and rebellious teens are not necessarily the result of poor parenting choices, but rather can result from any variety of factors.  Nevertheless, there is a much stronger likelihood that a child who is raised with loving discipline in a positive home environment will oftentimes also raise their children with this same pattern than those who were not.  Of course, God is full of grace and so even someone who was raised in an abusive or dysfunctional family still has the ability to excel at parenthood, but I am talking mainly about generalities here.

Although children are called to listen and obey their parents’ suggestions and wisdom, the area becomes greyer when we address the topic of adult children.  This is because respect and submission are two different things.  Adult children should certainly still consider their parents emotional, social, and physical well-being.  This is not to say that parents should depend on their children or vice versa.  Over attachment or control can definitely lead to problems within a parent-child relationship.  Children (of any age) are not meant to solve problems for their parents or to be their confidants.  Nevertheless, whenever possible, I believe it is the Christian duty to take care of a parent’s needs (for example: providing good care for an ageing or sick parent, not neglecting elderly parents – making sure to visit at least occasionally and preferably bringing the grandchildren along, and respecting a parent’s wishes once the parent is deceased).  Of course, visiting and care-giving can be an additional burden when the adult child lives far away from home, but even in these cases, it is still possible to keep in touch electronically and perhaps to coordinate other friends and family members to help out with elderly parents if need be.  Even Jesus Himself entrusted His mother into the care of His best friend when He was about to die – we also should seek to emulate this high regard for parents (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+19%3A25-27&version=NIV)

#2: On Being a Guest

Next month, September, marks my 7th anniversary of living away from my parents.  For the first 6 years I lived about 4 hours from my hometown where I embarked on school and work, and this past year I spent living abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland.  This means that it can be quite challenging when I come back home to visit my parents.  Especially in the case of living abroad, I am very much use to an increased level of independence: doing whatever I want with whomever I want at whatever time of day I choose.  Since I am not married, I spend my “in-between” times with my parents, and this has resulted in a month spent in my hometown until I move on to my next project.  Although I am an adult and capable to making my own choices, I believe it is my duty to consider myself a guest when I am at my parent’s house.  Their house is no longer my house (and it hasn’t been for a long time) so it is only right to play by their rules.  This is the same attitude I adopt when visiting other friends or family members.  If I visit my best friend for a week, I wouldn’t go to town and paint her house purple.  I wouldn’t bring muddy shoes into the bedroom, or take an hour long shower.  I would respect the set up and the already existent structure.  When I visit my parents, it is only fair to be understanding that they are used to their own time and their own space.  Of course, they are happy to have me home, but they also have their own routines and their own systems in place.

Here’s a more practical example.  My parents don’t drink.  A classy glass of wine on the occasional dinner when we have guests around might be fine, but we don’t break out the bottle unless it’s something special.  I, on the other hand, drink socially and in moderation.  I wouldn’t go get drunk because I feel that would violate my moral integrity and Christian character, but I don’t mind going out with buds for a night on the town or even going to the pub after Friday night Bible study (hey, remember: I was living in Scotland!  We feel differently about these types of taboos over there!).  Even though I might not mind drinking a cocktail, when I’m with my parents I respect them and their wishes.  They know I sometimes have a drink, but I don’t need to talk about it mercilessly with them or bring beer cans into their house.  Remember: their house, their rules.

Here’s another example: my parents like to go to bed at a reasonable hour, but I do all my best thinking and writing during the wee hours of the morning.  What do I do when I’m home?  I’m an adult so I get to be in charge of my own bedtime, but that doesn’t mean I get to be loud and obnoxious (remember: I am an extrovert).  When I’m with my parents, I try to be home at a normal time so that they’re not too worried about what I’m up to.  If I do want to engage in a late night activity, I tell them in advance not to wait up for me and I try to be quiet after 11:30pm.

It’s not about being extreme.  Children should understand a parent’s worry and general best interest and likewise parents should understand a grown adult’s need for independence and self-expression.  It’s about finding a suitable balance, a respectful compromise and then going with that. And, of course, the same could be said about your parents coming to visit you.  When they’re at your house and in your space, then it’s your rules.  But always remember if a certain lifestyle choice causes another person to stumble, then try to avoid it as much as possible (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+8%3A13&version=NIV)

#3: Jesus as the Highest Authority

Finally, there may occasionally be issues in which you completely butt heads with your parents and where it will be impossible to see eye-to-eye on a given situation.  In this case, I believe there needs to be a hierarchy of who you will choose to listen to.  Firstly, if you’re an adult, you need to understand that you are capable of the final word.  This means that if your parents tell you one thing, but you’d really like to do another and you end up following your parents advice which ends disastrously, you don’t get to blame them.  On the other hand, if your parents are pressuring you to make a decision that you really feel uncomfortable about, you have the right to speak up in a respectful way and share your viewpoints and then agree to disagree with them.

Secondly, if you are married, you are called to submit to your spouse (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+5%3A21-33&version=NIV).  Oftentimes, wives get the short straw on this one, but actually if you read the passage properly you see that God calls both husbands and wives to take the other person’s best interests into consideration.  A marriage is between two people – not 6.  This means that ultimately you need to discuss the matter with your spouse and come up with a solution that works for your individual family unit, even if your parents might have other ideas.  In a best case scenario, the end result will be agreed on by everyone, but we must realize that that is not always a possibility.  In this case, husband/wife first, parents second.

Lastly, if you are a Christian, your ultimate authority must always be Christ and we must submit to His rule and reign over our lives regardless of the cost.  Jesus Himself said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+14%3A26&version=NIV)


Here’s an example of this from my own life:

As I mentioned above, I just got back from an incredibly packed year serving in Scotland.  My parents were originally far from supportive of this idea.  They tried to provide me with many reasons on why I should stay in Canada.  I often felt guilty and second-guessed what I was doing.  I could tell how silly they thought this plan was: an MDiv going out to do something seemingly unrelated to her field of study, turning down a guaranteed pastoral job in the process.  So why did I do it?  Because I trusted that this is what the Lord would have me do.  Even though my parents were dead-set against it, when I sought the Lord in my prayers and with my tears, I kept getting the same response: that I was to go abroad.  And that’s what I did.

Eventually, my parents came around to my point of view and they saw how good being abroad was for me.  I think they were able to witness a lot of growth in me personally and spiritually and so when I mentioned the possibility of moving back more long term in the future they surprised me by their willingness to allow this to happen.

Of course, such a decision is not made lightly.  My parents are still in relatively good health, but I have questions and concerns about depriving them of seeing their grandchildren more frequently or being a care-giver when the time comes.  Yet even despite these lingering questions, I know that God’s will is best.  If God reveals to me in a powerful way I cannot counter that I should be back in Scotland (or anywhere else for that matter), you can guarantee that I’ll be back there because my ultimate allegiance lies with Christ.

It’s the same for you.  If God is calling you to the mission field, or to pastor, or to do a certain profession or field of study – you must obey God rather than man (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+5%3A29&version=NIV).  It might be difficult for your parents to understand at first, but hopefully if they are also Christians they will eventually come around and begin to see things from God’s point of view.  Hopefully they will keep you in their prayers and maybe even become your strongest allies and ministry partners as you seek to share the Gospel with many others.

Conclusion: Navigating the parent-child maze from an adult-to-adult perspective is far from easy.  Although a healthy on-going relationship is vital to continued growth at any age, it comes with the challenge of having to avoid the snares of control and co-dependency.  Nevertheless, when we move from seeing ourselves as the centre of attention, to understanding the need to care for those who raised us, and when we begin to exert ourselves over unspoken expectations, we work to make this happen.  The journey is often difficult, paved with unexpected thorns and thistles, but the end result is always so worth it.  May God bless and guide you on the path to discovering wholeness as adult children and ultimately as His dearly beloved sons and daughters.

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