The Fourth Commandment is “Honor your mother and father.”
Why is it so important for us to honor our parents? How do we honor our parents?
And how can we fulfill this commandment if our parents hurt us?
Why We Honor Our Parents
We honor our parents first and foremost because they gave us life. We owe our existence to them. This is something we all get from our parents, regardless of how good or bad they were as parents otherwise.
Of course, most of our parents do much more for us than give us life. Whether biological or adoptive, our parents fed us, clothed us, housed us, and raised us. Maybe they even gave us the foundation for our life of faith, which is a priceless gift. Being a parent is a very difficult task. From changing diapers to buying school supplies every year to dealing with the challenges of our teenage years, our parents made sacrifices for us. For this, we honor them.
We also honor our parents because they have legitimate authority over us. Especially when we are young, we should obey them. The Catholic Church teaches that this commandment can be extended to apply to others with legitimate authority over us. As we get older, our parents’ authority over us lessens. There are always others, however, to whom we owe obedience. So obeying teachers, following the law, and listening to our bosses are ways in which we live out this commandment in other relationships in our lives. (Of course, if our parents, teachers, the civil law, or bosses command us to do something immoral, our obligation to obey them does not apply.)
How We Honor Our Parents
When we were children, it seemed fairly simple to know how to follow this commandment, even if it was difficult to live it out. Obviously, honoring them meant obedience to their rules, even if we didn’t like them. It meant that we did the chores they assigned us. If they punished us by telling us we couldn’t watch television, it meant not watching television. At times it was frustrating to have to follow rules that we thought were arbitrary or unfair. Even so, it was usually pretty clear what the commandment meant we should do.
As we get older, however, it becomes more difficult to know how to follow this commandment. Obviously, a 30-year-old should not have the same relationship with her parents as a 3-year-old. In fact, it would be unhealthy for her parents to tell her what to do the way they did when she was growing up. When we are adults, we should be making decisions for ourselves. We might seek our parents’ advice, but it is ultimately our decision whether to accept a job offer, to whom we get married (or if we get married at all), and how to raise families of our own.
Because we have more freedom as adults, honoring our parents is going to look different from person to person. There are some ways we can honor our parents that work for the relationship we have with our parents, but might not work for another parent-child dynamic.
That said, what are some concrete ways we can honor our parents? Here are a few:
- First and foremost, we pray for our parents.
- We can listen to their advice, when it is appropriate, showing that we honor their opinions and perspective.
- Keeping in touch with our parents is another important way to honor them.
- We should care for our parents as they age. How we care for them obviously depends on our geographical distance from them, our financial ability to help with their care, and the time we have available. We should do what we can to help them and at the very least not abandon them in their old age.
- Finally, just as we pray for them in life, we should pray for the repose of their souls after they die.
When Your Parents Don’t Seem Very Honorable
Of course, not all of us are fortunate to have good parents who love us rightly. Sometimes parents have an unhealthy relationship with their children. Some parents even neglect and abuse their children. In these cases, is God demanding that we remain in dysfunctional or abusive relationships that cause us harm?
Of course not! We should still honor our parents, but God understands that honoring our parents means something different when our parents have not fulfilled their obligations to us. The appropriate and healthy way to relate to a kind, loving parent is very different from the appropriate and loving way to relate to an abusive parent.
When Paul is telling the Colossians how to live as Christian families, he teaches that both parents and children have obligations to each other:
Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged (Col 3:20-21).
Even if we have a good relationship with our parents, they may be unwise or foolish. If so, following their advice might make them feel better, but it won’t be good for us. We have no obligation to follow bad advice, even when it comes from our parents. There are other ways to honor unwise parents and show our love for them.
In more extreme cases, engaging in any sort of relationship with a parent might be unhealthy. Even as adults, we can be hurt by abusive parents. If calling them, visiting them, or inviting their input into our lives is genuinely harmful to us, God does not require us to do so. Perhaps a relationship can be re-established if both parent and child can grow to the point that their relationship does not cause harm, but if that is not possible, the child is not obligated to hold onto an unhealthy relationship, even one as important as the parent-child relationship. In this case, we can honor our parents by forgiving them (as hard as that may be) and praying for them.
Reflecting the Love of God
At their best, parents reflect the love of God in their own love for us. God frequently compares himself to a father, and sometimes to a mother, to show us just how much he loves us. Although we are obligated to honor our parents, this obligation is for our good. When parents fulfill their obligations to their children and children honor their parents, the relationship gives joy to both parents and children.