Honoring Parents in a Post-Therapeutic Age

Two old posts from the Feminacle, unrelated except in my mind, and a recent visit from my parents have got me thinking.

Over at FMH, Emily S. posted one of my favorite poems, about the austere and lonely “offices of love” which even the least skilled or emotionally savvy parents often perform for their children. Meanwhile, in the trenches of the mommy wars, a a guest poster and several commenters seem very certain of their superiority to their parents in terms of commitment to marriage and the ability to make it work. Naturally, I hope they are right. Divorce stinks, especially for kids, and we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t aspire to atone for the sins of the last generation and make a better world for our children. Still, perhaps because of my advancing age (:)), and my pained awareness of the thousand ways I fail my children despite my best efforts, I feel a great deal of sympathy for the parents whose children describe their failures so starkly.

It seems to me that we have lost something in our sophisticated understanding of our parents and our “dysfunctional families of origin.” Heaven knows we have gained things, too, and I really truly might not be alive if I hadn’t lucked into a highly skilled therapist at a time when I really needed one, so I’m not engaging in thoughtless nostalgia for a simpler age. I’m asking how we honor our parents while recognizing their flaws.

I was reading an old issue of the German version of _Parents_ magazine that someone left at my gym. (Yes! In German! On the Stairmaster! Be very impressed!). It mentioned that nearly 70% of parents in the former East Germany described their parenting style as similar to their parents’, while only 38% of those in the West did. This was really striking to me–seems that the more educated and well-off we become (i.e. the better our parents have done at encouraging us and providing us with opportunities), the less likely we are to demonstrate our appreciation for their parenting by emulating it.

So, if we pay people to help us figure out how to overcome the deficits of our childhoods, if we want to be different kinds of parents than our parents were, how can we fulfill the fifth commandment, “that [our] days may be long upon the land?”


  1. Nothing wrong with choosing a parenting style different from your parents. But I think we should generally avoid dwelling on our parents’ pecadillos–especially publically. Consider the different approaches Noah’s sons took when he the discovered him drunk. Shem and Japeth walked backward so as not to see their father and covered him with a garment. Ham publicized his father’s nakesness. Which sons honored their father?

    I doubt there are any parents who make it through the difficult process of raising a child without metaphorically exposing their nakedness. The fifth commandment remains a commandment despite this.

  2. This is a great question, Kristine. In a sense it relates to how people experience the church as well. What do we do when our own self-assessment and expectations far outstrip our view of our natal institutions (parents and church)?

    Interestingly I think this situation primarily obtains during adulthood, from say college until our kids hit college. Before that we haven’t become skeptical of our upbringing because we have not left it. After that we’re often too humble about our own failures to blame our parents that much (though we may still be riding the inertia of the worldview we developed in the interim).

    This ranges from the way our parents let us wander around inside moving cars with not even a seatbelt holding us down, let alone an ultra-safe car seat to the fact that they would let us spend hours unsupervised playing with neighborhood kids to the fact that they were petty and manipulative about our behavior to the fact that some of us have dealt with alcoholic or abusive or severely mentally ill parents (the anti-lottery winners get all three). We may have similar concerns about the Church, its messages about race and biological sex, its self-emphatic triumphalism, the gerontocracy and cheery materialism (to borrow a friend’s phrase). Both church and family were usually run not as we would have chosen, and we often find it difficult to honor them as a result, though we have little insight about how we would have acted in similar circumstances.

    I personally have come to something of a relational theology for both family and church, those two sacred institutions that we are so prone to blame for our failings. I have chosen to honor family as a set of relationships, not so much as my pre-primary education or my coming-to-be, but as a group of people who affirm their interconnections and seek to stay together. In this view, it doesn’t matter that my parents were (intermittently) quite bad at parenting. What matters is that they are my parents, and we have affirmed those bonds.

    Something similar has evolved in my experience of the church. I affirm the early LDS and the current church as my religious community, as the setting in which many of my spiritual interactions occur. They are my people. I am less concerned with whether they have been racists and sexists or had an unsavory history by present standards. I prefer to think of them as an extension of my family and to focus on my relationship to them.

    I’m not saying this approach is uncontroversial or even the best solution to the problem. I suspect several approaches would work well. For me, I have been able to honor my parents not as good parents necessarily (though my mother has been fantastic with rare lapses), but as parents. This still leaves me figuring out how on earth to be a good parent, but it leaves me free to honor those who have gone before.

    I feel similar feelings for the church. However neurotic it made me in early adulthood, however much I wish we had a clearer understanding of sexual equality and gender roles, I love and honor it deeply as my home and my religious community.

    At some point, as long as we’re not psychiatrically disabled (which can happen; I don’t mean the reference flippantly), we will come to own our lives. Whatever our origins, whatever our family or church experiences, we will, with God as the primary driver, be responsible for shaping ourselves into something better than we were and are. In my relational theology, I feel more confident that all of us–family, church, churchmembers–are in it together, each of us trying our best to be our best, and prone to many failures. I am slowly becoming more forgiving of my family, my church, and myself.

  3. Anonymous On This Topic says:

    Kristine, what an outstanding post–and what a good reminder to those of us like me who too easily slip into contempt for my parents. I consider learning to “honor [my] parents while recognizing their flaws” one of the biggest ethical challenges of my life. I have struggled, and mostly failed, to know what this means in practical terms for my life.

    My parents were pervasively neglectful and occasionally verbally and physically abusive. They were by no means as abusive as many parents are. As is so often the case, they were both abused themselves as children, and they both suffer from mental illnesses. Judgment of their degree of responsibility is clearly so complex as to be impossible for mere human beings. Nearly every day of my life for years and years I have prayed to be able to leave them in God’s hands and forgive them. While I have found some healing and peace, complete forgiveness and healing is a painstaking and slow process.

    In spite of their weaknesses, my parents also have great strengths and both gave me important gifts. I want to honor them for those gifts, but at the same time I don’t want to fall into the pretense that continues to dominate my family life. I struggle constantly to interact with them honestly–acknowledging both their gifts and their wounds, as appropriate–but without anger. That kind of interaction remains my hope and my ideal.

  4. Amri Brown says:

    I read something recently about how people have been parents for thousands and thousands of years but it is only recently (according to this author) that parents have become so aware of how they affect their children (or defect their children)and they become timid parents. Afraid to be the parent, afraid to discipline, afraid to trust themselves and consequently parents wallow more in their own issues and weaknesses.
    I’m not sure how aware parents have been throughout the millenia of their issues but it seems accurate to me that people I meet are paralyzed by this fear that they will mess other people up, mostly their children, beyond repair. In the end, everyone is messed up and most everyone deals.
    I thank God for good therapy I’ve had that has helped me rectify some of the problematic world-views I inherited from my parents but in the end I like who I am. That’s due to the goodness of my parents and also to their manic-depression, self-esteem problems and weird choices because of their fears of unlovability.
    My attempts to put off any paralysis honor my parents. I think my emotionally paralyzed(and dead since I was 13)dad would be very proud of me.

  5. I wonder if we don’t make the same mistakes as our parents, then we make others, and our children will have their own issues.

    I really feel fortunate to have no lingering issues from my parent’s parenting style and hope to do as well for my kids as they did for me. That said, I was the youngest :) I also think getting to know one’s parents breeds compassion.

  6. Thanks for the good responses. I think part of what I’m trying to get at is how the notion of having compassion for one’s parents (or for the “mother church”–thanks for adding that in, anone; it’s spot on) seems naggingly not-quite-right to me. Part of what makes parents powerful, and what makes “honor” the appropriate command, is the notion that one is never an equal, never really in a position of equality that would make the kind of thinking and talking about relationships that characterizes the therapeutic approach possible. I love the poem Emily posted because it gets at the hubris involved in judging one’s parents’ foibles. I think we’re so thoroughly conditioned by the way our culture thinks and talks about healthy relationships between parents and children that we really can’t anymore understand, for instance, what it would mean to be like a child who is “submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, *willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.*” We just don’t believe a parent-child relationship should be like that, and I wonder if our worship loses something because we don’t.

    I’m pretty sure that our understanding represents some progress from the days of children submitting or being whipped until they did, and I like it that I’m able to think through what it might mean to honor my parents in a relationship between adults who are still on friendly terms, but I don’t know how to properly read scriptures that presume a completely different cultural context. (Probably it helped that most parents would have died before their children got old enough to start wondering about such things! Honor seems easier as an abstraction)

  7. I read The Protestant Temperament (Grieven) for some of my research, and in it one prominent Puritan divine starved his 18-month old son in hopes of breaking his will. The forlorn, dehydrated child finally ate bread and milk from his father’s hand after 3 days. The minister gloated that he had eliminated the vice of willfulness from his child thereby saving his soul. Lucky there was no Dept Social Services in colonial America.

    Hard to feel like our pulling back the Ozian curtain on our parents is not an improvement on that model, but I hear what Kristine is saying. For me, it took moving beyond that old notion of honor to be able to honor my parents again, this time as fellow travelers (in a tuned-up versian of the Russian sense) on the road of life. I think it’s possible to honor them without giving them persistent authority over you, but you’re right, something is lost when we do so. Because, contra anone, something is lost when structures that provided stability and situated us in life no longer possess an authority to do so. We’re left as Mormon existentialists pecking away at the meaning of life and coming up with a rare stone in the sand that breaks our teeth.

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