Recently I asked a dad I know how the teen thing was going for him and his 16 year old step-daughter who lives with him. “She seems to be doing well. But it would be going much better if she’d just do what I told her to do!” he replied. He was quite serious, but I had to laugh. He’d be happy if she did what he said and she’d be in therapy later learning to think for herself after years of misery. Such is life.
I suppose there are dads out there who have actually heard the words, “if only I had listened to you!” But those are probably the fathers of recovering intravenous drug users and people who get into relationships with the psychotically violent. The normal course of things seems to be that we find our own way down paths that nearly put our parents into an early grave and are glad for the experience. Later we complain that our own kids don’t listen to us. (All this is coming from a person about whom her mother’s most bitter complaint has always been, “not that you ever would have listened to us anyways.” Just so we’re clear where my own sympathies lie! LOL)
We pay a lot of attention to being a good parent, but especially in a culture like ours, we give relatively little thought to being a good child. Yet, although not every person is a parent, every person is a son or daughter. “Honor your father and your mother” is the first commandment regarding how we ought to treat other people among the 10 commandments. It is quoted 9 times elsewhere in scripture. It is the only commandment that comes with a promise attached to it – “that your days may be long in the land.” Apparently being a good son or daughter matters quite a bit to God.
In cultures where parents are treated with much more reverence than in our own, a premium is placed on obedience to one’s parents – particularly their fathers. Even in my own relatively mundane Roman Catholic upbringing being obedient to and honoring one’s parents were usually spoken of interchangeably. It will be no big shock to anyone who knows me that such notions never carried much weight with me. I was a kid who spent a fair amount of time wondering if the adults around me said the things they did because they actually believed them or if they just thought that they had to say these silly things to kids because they were supposed to. I readily admit that when my own opinion and my parent’s opinion about a course of action came into conflict, I invariably went with my own. But none of that ever meant that I didn’t take that commandment to honor my parents seriously. It’s just that in usual Rebecca fashion, I have my own upside-down interpretation of it.
Even as a parent myself, I must admit that I’ve never been a real stickler for obedience. Don’t get me wrong – I have no problem demanding and compelling obedience when I want/need it. It’s just that I don’t think it honors a parent for a child to obey with their actions while their hearts remain untouched. So I am far more interested in winning their hearts over than in simple compliance. And like most people, the moment I got out of my parents’ house I dropped whatever I was doing just out of obedience. And sometimes that was a mistake on my part. But those things that had won my heart over – those I held fast to.
Long, long ago I decided that rather than obedience, honoring my parents meant being an honor to them. Meaning that when people interact with me, I hope I they will assume only good things about the people who raised me. I wanted to take those things that my parents taught and passed onto me which were good and magnify them in my own life. Anything they taught or tried to pass on to me that didn’t work or wasn’t so great (I was raised by actual human beings, you know) could be left behind without guilt. I wanted to be a person who showed the best that my parents had to offer. In practice this has meant that I have tried to take on the best of my parents’ own values as my own.
To this day, I believe that being good is more important that being accomplished or wealthy because that’s what my own father valued. And even though I often drove him crazy with it, I have always been a maddeningly independent thinker because that’s something he spoke highly of. I strive to be logical and intellectually rigorous because that’s another thing that my own father – the former debate team member – valued greatly. My mother taught me that you could never go wrong being kind or having empathy and so far I’d agree with her. She also taught me the value of not allowing other people’s opinions or poor behavior control how I feel about myself. In fact, most of the things that I like best about myself have their roots in the things my own parents valued and taught me. The results haven’t always sat well with them. (I used to grouse that my dad always told us to think for ourselves but when doing so meant disagreeing with him he would get mad. Being a parent is almost as hard as being a kid!) But I do hope that I am an honor to them nonetheless.