There are a variety of reasons for expressing affection and care for one’s parents. Many feel gratitude for the sacrifices their parents made while providing for them. Others treasure memories of never doubting their parents’ love for them. Some enjoyed less idyllic childhoods, but honor their parents out of a sense of duty.
C.S. Lewis described the last type of family in The Four Loves. Rather than giving cause for their children to appreciate them, some parents raise obstacles to their affections.
We hear a great deal about the rudeness of the rising generation. I am an oldster myself and might be expected to take the oldsters’ side, but in fact I have been far more impressed by the bad manners of parents to children than by those of children to parents.
Who has not been the embarrassed guest at family meals where the father or mother treated their grown-up offspring with an incivility which, offered to any other young people, would simply have terminated the acquaintance?
Dogmatic assertions of matters which the children understand and their elders don’t, ruthless interruptions, flat contradictions, ridicule of things the young take seriously—sometimes of their religion—insulting references to their friends, all provide an easy answer to the question “Why are they always out? Why do they like every house better than their home?” Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?
Yes, there are several reasons for honoring our parents, even when they have not “earned” that respect. And now we can add another incentive to do so—because you might be sued in court if you do not honor them! While this statute has not arrived in the Western world, it is a relatively new law in the world’s most populous nation.
The recently revised law requires that adult children visit their parents “often” . . . without defining the specific frequency. Apparently, too many children have become preoccupied with their own concerns. (Shades of Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle.”)
Traditional Chinese culture is renowned for the value it places on revering elders in general, and parents specifically. In the Analects of the philosopher Confucius, an entire section is devoted to “filial piety.”
58. Confucius said: “When at home, a young man should serve his parents; when away from home, he should be respectful to his elders. He should always be earnest and truthful, express love to all, and follow men of virtue. Then, if he has the time and energy, he should study literature and the arts.” [1.6]
71. Confucius said: “When your father is alive, obey him. When your father has passed on, live as he did. If you do so for [at least] three years after your father’s death, then you are a true son.” [1.11]
72. Tzu Lu asked about the meaning of filial piety. Confucius said: “Nowadays filial piety means being able to support your parents. But we support even our horses and dogs. Without respect, what’s the difference between the two kinds of support?” [2.7]
73. Tzu Hsia asked about filial piety. Confucius said: “What matters is the expression you show on your face. ‘Filial piety’ doesn’t mean merely doing physical tasks for your parents, or merely providing them with food and wine.” [2.8]
74. Confucius said: “In serving your parents, you may disagree with them from time to time and seek to correct them gently. But if they will not go along with you, you must continue to respect and serve them without complaining.” [4.18]
75. Confucius said: “Never ignore your parents’ ages, which are both a source of joy (because they are still living) and a source of anxiety (because their deaths are coming nearer).” [4.21]
The Judeo-Christian tradition, of course, also demands respect for one’s parents. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Exodus 20:12, ESV). And from the Letter to the Church in Ephesus: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”
It is challenging to discern what it means to honor a parent who does not merit gratitude. Indeed, destructive (abusive) parents may well disqualify themselves from receiving honor, since they tacitly reject the very essence of what it means to be a mother or father.
Aside from these extreme cases, where only a biological relationship exists, we must be honest. None of our parents are perfect. But then the corollary is also true—none of their children are, either. It is in these common, shaded cases where our own character is tested.
C.S. Lewis lost his mother at a young age. His father remained distant, and sent his sons to distant boarding schools. During the First World War, Lewis was severely wounded and shipped from the front lines to a London hospital where he recuperated. While a patient he wrote the following to his father in Ireland.
Wherever I am I know that you will come and see me. You know I have some difficulty in talking of the greatest things; it is the fault of our generation and of the English schools. But at least you will believe that I was never before so eager to cling to every bit of our old home life and to see you.
I know I have often been far from what I should be in my relation to you, and have undervalued an affection and generosity which an experience of “other people’s parents” has shown me in a new light. But, please God, I shall do better in the future. Come and see me, I am homesick, that is the long and the short of it.
Sadly, Lewis’ father did not make the trip to visit his son at the hospital. Such is the nature of real life relationships . . . and such is the reason why honoring our parents sometimes needs to assume the form of a law, or even a Commandment.
May it not be so in your family. If your parents still live, I pray God will grant you great joy in honoring them. And, if you have children, I pray that the Lord will fill them with well-deserved affection for you.
If you have never heard the song “Cats in the Cradle,” you owe it to yourself to ponder its powerful message today. You can view it here.