A Grown Child's Attitude toward Parental Authority

There comes a time in every child's life when he or she crosses the threshold into adulthood. In some ways this moment is culturally defined. In the Jewish tradition, for instance, a boy is considered a man at age 13. In contemporary America a young person comes of age and is empowered to vote at 18. The precise line of demarcation differs from society to society, and obviously an individual's level of maturity plays an important role in this journey. But the basic idea remains the same, and in every case the principle involved is fundamentally biblical (see 1 Corinthians 13:11).

Once this goal is attained, the parent-child relationship is supposed to change in some basic ways. You are on the road to becoming your parents' peer and equal rather than a dependent minor. In practical terms this means you will be transitioning into a position of self-responsibility, in which you become accountable to a higher authority - the authority of God Himself. In His eyes and under His jurisdiction, you will be a separate and self-determining entity. Whether or not you take immediate advantage of the opportunity, you will have the right to leave home and make your own way in the world.

As a result, you will no longer make personal decisions strictly in submission to Mom's and Dad's injunctions. Instead, you will choose to act on the basis of the wisdom they have instilled in you over the years and out of an awareness of your personal responsibility toward your Creator. If you attend church, it's because you have a heartfelt desire to serve Christ and connect with His people - not because your parents "make you go." If you avoid drugs and alcohol, it's because you understand the negative consequences of substance abuse and wish to honor your body as the temple of the Holy Spirit - not because you're trying to "obey" your parents' commands. If you make a point of getting to bed at a decent hour on weeknights, it's because you want to be at the top of your form at school or work the next morning - not because you're adhering to a curfew.

Does this mean that you will have the prerogative to adopt a dismissive attitude toward your parents, totally disregard their wishes, or disparage their values and opinions? Absolutely not. If you are a Christian, you already know that there is never any justification for treating another person with disrespect. What's more, as your mother's and father's peer and equal, you remain under an obligation to "submit" to them not as your parents but as fellow human beings and as your brother and sister in Christ (Ephesians 5:21; Philippians 2:3; 1 Peter 5:5) - an obligation that stays valid for the rest of your life.

To these thoughts we should add the observation that there is no time- or age-limit attached to the biblical command to honor your parents; as Paul writes (quoting Exodus 20:12), "'Honor your father and mother,' which is the first commandment with a promise: 'that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth'" (Ephesians 6:2). Honor implies choosing to give respect and care to another person - not grudgingly, but from a principle of love and out of a genuine desire to do what's right in the sight of God. True honor is placing the highest value on our loved ones regardless of whether we agree with them or not. It also means giving them the benefit of the doubt wherever possible. Conflict is inevitable, but in most cases you can be pretty sure that your parents are only trying to serve your best interests.

On the other hand, "honoring" your parents does not imply that even after you have achieved independence, you must do whatever they want you to do. For instance, a parent may wish that an adult child would accept every piece of advice the parent offers - plainly an unrealistic desire. He or she may also ask the adult child to behave in ways that are unhealthy, inadvisable, or downright damaging - for example, by requiring the child to have Sunday dinner at the parents' house every week in spite of potential conflict with the child's spouse. In cases like these, it's important to learn how to assert yourself and stand your ground firmly but lovingly.

One last thought before closing. It strikes us as significant that you chose to frame your question (at least in part) in terms of control. Where there's a struggle for control between parents and adult children, there are usually deeper issues lurking beneath the surface - issues having to do with respect and personal boundaries. Naturally, we'd be in a much better position to comment if we had some more detailed information about you; for instance, we'd like to know how far "past 18" you are and whether you are actually capable of surviving "independently" in the practical sense of the term. Do you still live at home with your parents? Are you relying on them for any of your financial support? Are you single or married? For obvious reasons, your answers to these questions would color our perception of your situation in some important ways.

If you think it might be helpful to discuss these details at greater length with a member of our staff, we'd like to invite you to call Focus on the Family's Counseling Department. Our counselors are available to speak with you at this number. They'd be happy to come alongside you in any way they can. They can also provide referrals to Christian family counselors practicing in your local area.

In the meantime, if you believe that our observations on the subject of control may be relevant to your situation, it might be worth your while to procure a copy of the book Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Ken Sande's book The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict also offers a great deal of useful advice in the area of maintaining healthy relationships. Both of these resources can be ordered by calling our offices or visiting our Online Store.

Resources
Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life (book)

The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (book)

Peacemaking for Families (book)

Life on the Edge: The Next Generation's Guide to a Meaningful Future (book)

Copyright © 2010, Focus on the Family. Used by permission.