One afternoon recently a woman called to ask me to speak at her son’s school. Here is what her end of our conversation sounded like:
I think you should speak on Thursday the tenth of April. Did you look in the bottom drawer? Because on the third the parents of the fourth graders, try on Daddy’s desk, will be picking their kids up from the retreat, not before dinner, and they’ll probably want to be at home with them that evening. I said you can have it for dessert, not now. Are you available on the tenth?
I had to decode which part of the message was for me and which part was directed to Barbara’s son, Sam, who at the time of the phone call, was both searching for Scotch tape and importuning his mother for a Popsicle. Fighting irritation, I wondered if the problem was Barbara’s or mine. Was she just a nice, casual person and was I persnickety and old-fashioned? Was she multitasking? Or was she harming her son by letting him interrupt and walk all over her this way?
Parents’ complaints about lack of respect range from the serious–“She actually said, ‘Mom, I hope you die. Soon.”’–to the seemingly trivial–children leaving Oreo crumbs on their parents’ bed. In general, they complain that their children talk back, don’t accept no for an answer, don’t help around the house without heavy-duty prodding, and use the parents’ belongings without asking. This worries me, as I envision a future populated by self-absorbed, rude, thoughtless people–our children, grown up.
There are passages in the Torah requiring us to love God, to love ourselves, and to love our neighbors. Yet nowhere does God decree that children must love their parents! The Fifth Commandment–“Honor your father and your mother”–is about behavior, not feelings. Just as God understood that it is difficult for people to feel gratitude instead of envy, he also recognized that children are not naturally inclined to treat their parents with respect, so he commanded it.
The inclusion of the Fifth Commandment in the Big Ten is proof that rude children are nothing new. But today, more than ever, we sympathetic, fair-minded parents need to make a conscious effort to establish ourselves as the honored rulers in our homes. Yet many of the parents I talk to actually feel guilty about demanding respect from their children. They tell me they have an aversion to being authority figures, that it feels presumptuous, rigid, and undemocratic. Many prefer to think of themselves as their children’s friends. I’ve heard mothers boast that they like the same styles, the same movies, and the same music their kids do.
But your children don’t need two more tall friends. They have their own friends, all of whom are cooler than you. What they need are parents. You alone can guide them so they grow up strong and secure; you alone can teach them the rules of our culture so that when they’re adults, they’ll know how to fit in. The catch is, your children will only accept your guidance and heed your advice if they respect you. In fact, it’s fair to say that if you don’t teach your children to honor you, you’ll have a very hard time teaching them anything else.
Judaism, with its two-thousand-year-old perspective on family dynamics, can help you take your rightful place at the head of the family table. Torah teaches that there are three partners in the creation of a person–God, the father, and the mother: ‘When a person honors the parents, God says, ‘I consider it as though I lived with them and they honored me.”’ On this earthly plane, parents are the holy stand-ins. By revering them, children have an opportunity to show their reverence for God. Honoring parents at home also helps children make the leap from family to community; it is a way to grow a civilized society.
Excerpted with permission from The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (Scribner).