Because I was raised in the church, “Honor your father and mother!” was an instruction I heard frequently. More often than not, this commandment was wielded as a threat or ultimatum, spoken to deter us children from behaving in ways our parents did not approve of.
There was no explanation as to why we might want to honor our parents or what honoring someone actually means in practice. There was no discussion of Jesus’ statements about hating one’s father and mother or how to reconcile them with the Old Testament commandment. It was the final word.
So I grew up thinking that honoring my parents meant pleasing my parents, which in my case included, at a minimum, getting good grades and being accomplished in other capacities; sitting quietly and not speaking unless spoken to, much less expressing a contrary opinion; and unquestioningly obeying them—doing as I was told regardless of how I felt or what I thought about its propriety or desirability.
Over the years, this translated to pretending to be the person I thought my parents wanted me to be, even if that required swallowing my own wants or disregarding my own opinions.
It meant devaluing myself as second in importance to their wishes and submitting my life to their will and plans for me, insofar as was humanly possible. I so craved their approval. They were my demigods.
Nobody, least of all my parents, ever sat me down and told me that this is what the commandment meant. But in the absence of other input, and based on my socialization as a Chinese-American female in a fairly conservative church, this was what I internalized. It is obviously an incorrect interpretation of “Honor your father and mother.”
By this flawed childhood understanding, my husband and I have both done a pretty good job of honoring our parents. Going by standardized academic measurements such as grades, test scores, advanced degrees earned etc., we are intelligent and high-achieving. We were the first in our families to get married, which was a big deal. We attend and are active in church. We have more or less been straight arrows, so to speak, on a path that has never strayed far from our parents’ definitions of success and good personhood.
But now that we have been married for a few years, the issue of childbearing is prominently on the table—or at least on the minds of my parents and parents-in-law, who would love to have a baby (or three) to dote on. And all that smooth sailing in the kind waters of our parents’ good graces has come to screeching halt.
The truth of the matter is that I have never had an interest in raising children, but admitting as much as a Chinese-American Christian woman often feels like treason. I am having to critically rethink what it means to honor my parents and parents-in-law, as this is probably the first point in my life at which I am able but staunchly unwilling to toss aside my own thoughts and feelings for the sake of behaving in the manner they desire or expect.
Suddenly, my husband and I are not doing what our parents want. Suddenly, we have the audacity to rebel. Suddenly, we are no longer the “good” kids.
Suddenly, after years of our parents not worrying about us, but rather, becoming accustomed to us doing the right, good or acceptable thing in their eyes, we are not conforming to their hopes for us—expectations undoubtedly influenced by their own cultural experiences and the norms they’ve gleaned from their churches about what a “good” Christian couple should do.
So how do we respond in a way that is honoring and respectful to them, still true to ourselves, and above all, pleasing and obedient to Jesus?
It’d be easier to completely blow off the Fifth Commandment, as many people of my generation have, dismissing it as archaic and contrary to Western individualism. But I believe there is value in honoring our parents, not only for the sake of our relationships with them but also because such counter-cultural behavior stands out as being not of this world.
I want to honor our parents. I want to have healthy, gospel-centered relationships with them. But I don’t want to have to surrender my thoughts and feelings to be trampled on in order to be on good terms with them.
I don’t want to be a target for their criticism, judgment or disparagement. I don’t want them to think that I’m going to kowtow and do whatever they say. I don’t want strife in my life because of their nagging, questioning, pressuring or passive-aggressive disapproving comments with regard to the issue of children.
I want them to love us for who we are, not for the people they want us to be. I want them to be proud of us for serving God with our lives in a variety of ways, not strictly for having babies.
I want them to understand that we value family, but that does not mean we are going to start one unless and until we genuinely desire to do so.
I want them to appreciate the skills and strengths that God has given us and the contexts in which we are employing them, rather than clinging to the narrow-minded belief that we must be unkind, uncaring, selfish or otherwise “bad” people simply because we do not want to channel our love into children.
This continues to be an ongoing conversation (and sometimes point of conflict), and I’m not sure our parents will ever see eye-to-eye with us. But I’m thankful to have grown in my awareness of the ways I too often idolize their opinions, and figuring out how to honor them promises to be an interesting learning process.