When Children Refuse to Speak to Their Parents

“How many of you in this gathering never even speak to your parents?” Dennis Prager of http://www.prageru.com asked the question of an assembly at Pepperdine University, a Christian institution in California.

Prager is an Orthodox Jew, scholar of Russian history, and a conservative radio and Internet host. His growing influence stems mostly from videos and other materials on PragerU that set forth clear, conservative viewpoints that flow in a contemporary way from the wisdom of the Old Testament. It’s reported that his videos have been watched more than four billion times.

 Prager asked his question while expounding on the Ten Commandments. He had come to commandment five: “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God has given you” (Exodus 20:12).

Commandment five does not say you must love your parents, he explained. In brief sentences he allowed that mothers and fathers are often irritating and sometimes unwise or inept in their parenting.

But he made clear that, even when difficult to practice, this commandment is the word of God and it pronounces that children are to show respect at all times for their parents, even when a warm and fuzzy relationship is not possible. Of course, there would be rare instances of parents who are evil and the law must be called.

It’s nevertheless a divine law to honor parents. And treating parents with ongoing silence is deeply disrespectful. And damaging to both parent and child.

It was at that point in his address that he asked the crowd how many of them never spoke to their parents. He waited, encouraging those responding to raise hands high so he could be sure to see them.

After surveying the crowd, he announced that about 50 percent of the audience had raised their hand. He did not seem surprised, noting that whenever he posed that question to an audience the response was the same.

He went on to note how serious this is for our culture. Apparently great numbers of parents are deprived of any honor from the children they have birthed and raised to adulthood. They are utterly “divorced” by their child or children.

He pointed out that the high percentage is perilous because the commandment promises long life in the land only where offspring respect their parents. He was addressing the commandment principally to the Jewish people. But it appears to be a word of wisdom for all societies.

Prager’s 50 percent is not a validated statistic. It is his repeated observation. It is  nonetheless troubling. Raising children from infancy to early adulthood, functioning first as caretakers, coaches and protectors and later as cheerleaders, is an arduous and expensive task, even when done imperfectly.

Whatever the quality of parenting, the failure of even 10 percent of our population to honor parents flashes a red signal suggesting the deterioration of our culture.

It would be easy to cast this commandment aside as “dusty Old Testament Law.” But here’s how Jesus, our Lord, responds to such an impulse:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17,18)

And the New Testament adds a note of further importance to the law when the Apostle Paul writes: “So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified” (Galatians 3:24). That is, acquitted of our sins and referring as well to the reconciliation of broken relationships.

The Old Testament and specifically the Ten Commandments clearly prescribe that everyone honor their parents. Jesus and the New Testament require the same, by their affirmation of the Law.

Possibly we’ll know that our culture is being restored and the Spirit of God is moving among us in greater measure when we observe a movement in the land in which the hearts of children turn more generally to their parents, and parents to their children. The prophet Malachi promised as much for the nation of Israel (Malachi 4:5,6). May it be so for our nation as well.

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Photo credit: Ben Seidelman (via flickr.com)

To Vancouver and Back – Part One

Part One

This past week our daughter Carolyn and I flew from Toronto to Vancouver on a four-day pilgrimage. We were going to visit John David, our special needs son and brother who lives in a group home in Surrey, B.C., and to look in on my wife’s sister, Isobel, a resident in an Alzheimers facility in nearby Coquitlam.

John David was born just months before I graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. From the start we were perplexed by conditions that our three other children had not shown as infants. He cried piercingly most nights through much of the night and because of muscular weakness throughout his body it was difficult for him to swallow even the milk that he needed to survive.

When he was four months old Kathleen and I and our four children left seminary and crossed the continent diagonally from Kentucky to New Westminster, BC. I had been appointed to be pastor of the Free Methodist congregation in that city.

Our long, tedious trip was made more difficult by John David’s pressing needs. We did not know what his problem was and thought perhaps abundant maternal care would solve early developmental problems and help him to get his roots down into a normal life. But it was not to be.

When John David was one year old and had undergone three days of tests at Vancouver Children’s Hospital, a caring pediatrician, a Dr. Dunn, told us that our son would always suffer severe limitations and would need protection from society for the rest of his life. Parts of his brain were not functioning.

The doctor’s gentle suggestion pointed toward an institution.

Two years later, at three years of age we placed him in Woodland’s School, a large institution for persons like our son. Years later, when that place closed he was moved to the group home in Surrey where he has lived ever since. The group home accommodates four residents and a staff.

John David apparently suffered oxygen deficiency to the brain during birth. Nothing could be done for him, Dr. Dunn told my wife by telephone. John David is now 56 and does not talk although he makes elementary sounds that his caregivers seem to understand. He spends most of his time in a wheelchair. He is well cared for and his caregiver, Marie Ryles, shows a special love for him and he a special trust in her.

Reflecting back on the decisions that had to be made regarding John David we are reminded of the nagging guilt we struggled with over his and our future. When the Province of British Columbia made it possible for him to be cared for at Woodlands, we wondered if placing him there was an abandonment of our responsibility. That created guilt. Also, Kathleen, who had poured her days and nights into mothering him with all of her strength and skill, suffered acutely over the separation.

At the same time, his needs were so great and growing that the thought of trying to care for him ourselves raised questions about Kathleen’s well being, the needed resources that would be lacking, and what the decision would mean to our home and the other three children. Guilt either way seemed inescapable.

The recent visit our daughter, Carolyn, and I made was comforting. We are not sure the word, father, has meaning to John David though his primary caregiver believes it does and she is more skilled than we at reading the signals. The home seemed light and well cared for, the three staff members who were present gathered around the table with us and John David and we were impressed by their warmth and cheeriness. His primary caregiver, Marie, a devout Catholic Christian, shows special skill in dealing with our son.

Life has gone on for him and us and we are sure he has received the best and only care suited to his needs. Moreover, the provision of the group home is evidence of ongoing societal compassion toward him. But we live knowing that there is an imaginary chair at our family events that we wish had not been left forever vacant.


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What Made the Prodigal Son Go Bad? Part 2 of 2

Last week, I reviewed Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son as some readers today might interpret it. In short, I pointed out that a few may explain the prodigal’s choice to leave home, and the trouble this got him into, in a modern way. They might suggest that he went wrong because his family situation was defective. They might even paint him as a person victimized by life.

Then I asked why Jesus told the story without any of this kind of excuse-making, and I suggested that I’d give my opinion this week.

I grant that when it comes to the less-than-perfect environments we parents create for our children, we are all in the equation, without question. But — after secondary reasons are considered — the ultimate reason for the bad turns children sometimes take can be traced to what goes on in the command center of their own inner beings. It is that deliberate, out-of-sight, self-determining choice-maker over which they alone have a limited but still deciding authority.

There’s a story about identical twins who, it is said, were drawn into a study of what affects people’s outcomes in life. One twin, a homeless man was camped out near a sidewalk grate in a large city. He was asked how he explained this outcome. He said, “If you had known my father you would understand; he was an alcoholic.” The other twin, a businessman who had overcome great odds to succeed, was asked how he explained the outcome of his life. He answered, “If you had known my father you would understand; he was an alcoholic.”

Identical twins. A common parentage. After factoring in possible slight temperamental differences, and possible subtle relational differences, we come to the critical factor of personal choices. There, the differences are vast.

If the Christian Scriptures teach us anything about outcomes for this world or the next it is that in the final analysis we are all accountable for our choices. That’s why Jesus told the story the way he did.

The son appealed to his father brazenly for the big handout. That was a choice. He packed up and left home — a direction-setting choice. He took up with bad company, also a choice. Each choice came easier; each choice tilted the trajectory of his life toward a downward spiral.

Years ago when I began to hear the heart-breaking stories of children who had wandered into the “far country” of dissolute living I grew tired of the question, “What did the parents do wrong?” I grant that it can be an admissible question. We parents by our teaching and example can make it easier or harder for our children to make good, life-enhancing choices.

But I felt impatient with the question when it seemed to overlook the direction-setting choices the children themselves had made. After all, God created us to make choices! Vocational choices have vocational consequences, marital choices, marital consequences, moral choices, moral consequences, and faith choices eternal consequences.

There is bad news and good news in the story of the Prodigal Son. The bad news is that he chose to follow a path that led down the road to gnawing hunger in a pig pen. The good news is that in his impoverishment he came to his senses, took responsibility for outcomes, and started the long trek home to his father. He was moved to say to his Father (forgetting all the assumed offenses he might claim were committed against him) “Father, I have sinned.”

The Bible calls it repentance — the radical changing of the very set of the mind; the acceptance of personal responsibility; the big turn-around with resolution; and the pointing of life in another direction. It is the grace-enabled I word — a choice that arrests the downward spiral and turns the trajectory of life in an upward direction again.

(Note: I have taken from the story of the Prodigal Son only one element in the story to make one point. In this blog I have not explored the deeper and more complex theological question of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and the primacy of grace. Save those for another day.)

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What Made the Prodigal Son Go Bad? Part 1 of 2

Nearly everybody knows what the prodigal son did (Lk 15:11-32). He brazenly asked his father for his inheritance long before it was due. Then he went a great distance from home in search of “real freedom.” In that far-off place he attracted a following of ne’er-do-wells and together they caroused until his resources were spent.

Then came abandonment by his fair-weather “friends,” degrading work as a pig-tender, grinding hunger, disillusionment and desperation, and finally his forlorn trek back home — smelly and in rags — to throw himself on his father’s mercy.

Here’s my question: Is there today a more nuanced and thus better explanation for the self-destructive course the son took?

For example, there is no mother in the story. Might it be that the lad had been deprived of maternal warmth in his developing years that had left him insecure and therefore vulnerable to his own impulsive conduct?

And there was his heartless older brother who objected bitterly to his father’s tenderness toward the younger son. Should the prodigal’s bad judgment be viewed as less serious because of destructive sibling rivalry that had never been resolved? Maybe this was a factor in his hasty leave-taking!

Then what about the father? Had this father played favorites or otherwise failed his task in raising this younger son — with damaging results?

Should we say, for example, that the son isn’t responsible because his father should have put his foot down during the son’s early adolescence and notified him sternly that what he needed to do was to develop a good work ethic right there on the farm?

Parental mistakes? If we could blame adolescent rebellion on less-than-perfect parenting, all of our children would be delinquents. That’s because all parents make mistakes.

We can do things in our relating to our children, sometimes innocently, that inadvertently make it easier for them to turn to wasteful living. But is that the crucial issue in the prodigal’s case? And why did Jesus tell the story the way he did, offering no excuses for this boy’s behavior?

Next week, I’ll offer an opinion.

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Thou Shalt Respect Thy Mother

Enough time has passed that the truth can now be told – with permission: I have a son who was gifted with words from his earliest years, but when adolescence arrived, a hurtful side of that gift manifested itself.

It wasn’t that he became openly rude or defiant. It was more that he showed an ability to sting with veiled scorn at the mention of something he didn’t agree with. This registered first as disrespect for his mother as a woman and a mother.

In response, my wife reminded me behind the scenes that she would not take disrespect from any of her children. This was not a negotiable issue. Her words were firm and heavy with emotion. I knew she expected me to go into action.

Soon after that exchange the veiled scorn appeared during an evening meal. It was directed toward something my wife had said. I interrupted the meal to march him to his bedroom where I delivered myself of a lecture that, though many years have passed, still strikes me as right.

First I let him know that the kind of disrespect he was showing would not be tolerated in our home. I delivered my message with conviction. This was a high intensity engagement.

Then came the key moment of our exchange. I explained that I might not be able to curb the disrespect he showed his mother within his one-on-one relationship to her. But I let him know that she was my wife and I would not tolerate any disrespect I witnessed or became aware of after the fact towards the woman I had pledged at the marriage altar “to love and to cherish.”

That appeared a new thought to him and the message sank in. There was genuine remorse. We ended the meeting kneeling side by side at his bed and engaging in a heartfelt prayer for God’s forgiveness and help. After all, it is God who decrees that children are to “Honor father and mother” — even though it is a father’s responsibility to enforce that commandment when it is violated.

I recall a similar situation a father of my acquaintance had with an obstreperous daughter. She was only four years of age but she was already using newly-acquired vocabulary and a sharp tongue to make life miserable at times for her mother. The father shared with me that he came home one day to a distraught wife who had received this unpleasant treatment off-and-on during the day

Upon learning this, he told me, he went into a drill of his own. Taking the little girl aside he confronted her with intensity, making sure she realized her conduct had ruined her mother’s day. She listened in tears. By the time the meeting was over that girl knew that her developing misconduct was out of bounds in that home. The father now tells me that that and other talks over her developing years were powerful in recruiting her own will to the task of respectful behavior.

I am aware of objections to my insistence that fathers have a special duty to enforce in children respect for their mothers. It may be that in some homes no father is present. Or that a father may be feared too harsh in dealing with such matters. Or that a step-father’s intervention might not be accepted, possibly making things worse.

I realize also that some may contend that a mother should have the skills to command the respect of growing children by herself without calling for a husband’s help.

But a father can do wonders by standing up relentlessly to protect the well-being of his wife when a child seems committed to destructive disrespect. In the process, he is likely also to win respect for himself and peace for the family.

Both of the above scenarios happened many years ago. Whatever became of those children? The son skilled with words is now the father of married children himself, and channels his gift with words into his lifetime work as a publisher and editor. I can witness that he could not be more solicitous of his mother’s well being. And he himself has raised a mutually respectful family.

Of the girl, now a working adult, her father tells me that her relationship with both parents is warm and collegial. I can bear witness from occasional personal contacts with that family that the cohesion and respect among all members of the family is a delight to behold.

I may be old-fashioned in my views about the father’s role in such situations. As I see it, he is to be the authority figure and thus if growing children show insolence or impudence toward their mother, he should carry primary responsibility to curb that misconduct.

My observations across a lifetime of ministry is that families benefit dramatically when a father takes responsibility to foster such respect – respect that goes both ways, child-to-parent and parent-to-child. Such families experience playfulness and mutual enjoyment in the good times, and “store up” sufficient goodwill to achieve recovery in times when someone falls momentarily “below the line.”

Blessed is the mother who has such a champion during the tough times when children are growing up. And blessed are the children who have built into their characters such standards of respect — for the pressing needs they will face in their own adulthood.

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