Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Piece of Advice #51: Honor your parents

It was Father's Day a few weeks ago.  We tend to take a low-key approach to Mother's and Father's Day.  We get together with family and exchange cards.  No big gifts, just an expression of appreciation for the things our mothers and fathers have done for us.

My husband and I are lucky to have come from intact families who loved and invested in their kids.  Neither family is perfect, but they have always made being a family a number one priority and have always been there if needed.  I didn't post about fathers on Father's Day or mothers on Mother's Day partly because I was busy celebrating those holidays, but mostly because I believe it's important to honor your parents throughout the year, and not just make a big gesture on one day of it.  Parenting is a big job.  I didn't have any idea of the scope of it until I became a parent, and even now I am still learning.  There is, of course, a tremendous amount of caretaking - diaper changing, feeding, etc. - but there's also the fostering of growth in your child - the time and money you invest to help him learn what he needs or develop a necessary skill or the effort required to push your child out of his comfort zone so he can become more than he is.  And then there's the discipline and developing tolerance for living with a small person who is, at least occasionally, very annoying.

My parents did all of this, and they didn't complain.  They still help me out and make it clear to me that they are there for me in any situation that I might need help.  They are my model for parenthood, and I try to live up to their example.  They have earned the right to be honored, and I try my best to do it.

The honoring I'm talking about includes showing respect and also meeting their emotional needs, to the extent that is possible or reasonable.  It means thanking your parents for the things that they do and continue to do and talking to others about them respectfully and kindly.  It means giving them your time and your affection and asking for their opinion or advice when you can and it would be helpful.  It means giving them access to their grandchildren and encouraging a loving relationship between them.

I was at a gathering this weekend with a woman who is visiting her parents for a couple of weeks with her children.  My sister asked her to dinner, and she said, "That would be nice.  I'm always looking for ways to get away from my mother."  I winced.  I know her mother, and she is not the easiest person to like, but she invested heavily in her daughter throughout the years and has been quick to offer her help with her grandchildren whenever it is needed.  She did not deserve this public disrespect.

I do understand that not everyone has a great relationship with her parents.  Some parents are neglectful, abusive, unkind, mentally unstable, or possessed of dangerous habits like alcoholism.  In these cases, yes, I would encourage you to limit your contact.  In most cases, however, when the parent-child relationship breaks down, it breaks down not because a parent is evil incarnate, but because there is a personality clash or because it takes work to sustain a relationship and one or the other doesn't want to put the work in.  We live in a very mobile society, and many people think nothing of moving far away from their parents or children to pursue career or personal goals, and life as it unfolds keeps them far away.  This aspect of our society has been very disruptive to the multi-generational family and is a significant factor for why so many old people spend their last days warehoused in sterilized nursing homes and why so many children spend their early childhood years warehoused in not very sterile daycare centers.

Most of the advice given here is framed in a "How will it benefit you?" way because I truly believe that the "old-fashioned morality" we used to use was in place because they protected or benefited people in some way.  This one I think you should do even if it's inconvenient or sometimes unpleasant because I think parents have already done their bit and should be honored for that.  I will say, however, that by staying in our parents' lives, my husband and I have had access to free babysitting, family vacations we didn't pay for, passed down furniture and cars, lots of lovely holiday dinners we didn't cook, and a general feeling that our backs are covered if life deals us difficult blows.


  1. Great advice. We have an excellent relationship with my wife's folks. They flew out to help for both of the births, and we constantly send them pics and vids via email and cell phone. Our 5 year old also talks to them on a regular basis. We have flown out to visit 3 times in the 5 years since our daughter was born, and they have come several times as well. Once a year I make a DVD with home movies and a picture slideshow w/ music. They absolutely love the DVD and I'm tickled to be able to do this for them. I think one of the secrets of life is finding ways to bring joys to those you love.

    Unfortunately my own folks aren't the same. They seem to find every effort we make as an invitation to up the ante. My father has never approved of my wife, and after a decade of making visits more and more uncomfortable for her he gave me an ultimatum to either divorce her or not hear from him. We didn't speak for about 4 years, but now he has cancer so we have been in contact a little more. However, he still hasn't agreed to let our daughter talk on the phone with him.

    We moved my mother into town here several years ago from a very bad position she was in in another state. We made it a point to invite her over regularly both for home cooked dinners as well as periodic babysitting. She got to the point where she wouldn't accept a dinner invite unless it was to a restaurant, and only then if it was the time and place of her choosing. She won't babysit except at her place, which is filthy. She also insists on watching TV at volume 50 when our daughter is over. So I don't ask her to babysit anymore. We didn't see her during the last pregnancy except when she needed rides to/from the airport, and when we had her over for Easter. Currently she isn't speaking with us because she feels we neglected her during the weeks after our son was born. Having a newborn is very busy, and we had the extra need for doctors/children's hospital visits.

    I mention both situations because I think it is important that parents/grandparents understand that there is a limit to the obligation their kids have to accommodate them. I've encountered grandparents both in person and on the web who complained about not getting visits. I suggest basic things to make sure the parents of the young children feel comfortable: Any pets are housebroken and not threatening the grandkids, make sure the home is safe for kids, avoid having TVs or radios on at a level which would hurt kids hearing, etc. Very often the reply is that they are set in their ways and the parents of the young kids need to put up with all of this stuff. I just mentioned this to a friend/colleague of mine and he said he sees the same thing with many of the elderly people he knows. They complain about not getting visits with the grandkids, but refuse to take basic health and safety measures to make the parents comfortable bringing them over.

  2. Sorry for the double post. Server Errors.

    And sorry for the rant. It felt good though!

  3. dalrock - it is a very unfortunate truth that you cannot pick your relatives. Also, some people will never be satisfied. Families are complicated. It sounds like you are fulfilling your obligations to the best of your ability. I hope in the future your parents will be open to reciprocating.

  4. I hope in the future your parents will be open to reciprocating.

    Past some point trust becomes difficult to regain, but yes there is always hope for the future.

    And none of what I wrote should be taken to diminish your main point. Exceptions don't define the rule. I had that better spelled out in an earlier version of the post which was lost due to server error. This is why I hesitated to comment at first. I feel like all too often we jump first to the exception when discussing obligations. This tends to water down the overall sense of duty.

    Thanks for zapping the dupe.

  5. I think duty is pretty important. Often unexciting, but crucial for society to hang together. I hope I manage to do mine with as much grace as my parents and their parents did.

  6. I will say, however, that by staying in our parents' lives, my husband and I have had access to free babysitting, family vacations we didn't pay for, passed down furniture and cars, lots of lovely holiday dinners we didn't cook, and a general feeling that our backs are covered if life deals us difficult blows.

    Hear, hear! My father has long since been dead, but my mom is still alive. I got all my furniture for nothing, and it filled a 2BR apartment (now house). My mom also helped set up my kitchen when I moved recently.