A good friend recently asked me: “What was the hardest part about becoming an adult?” I didn’t have to think long to answer. The hardest part about growing up wasn’t holding down a job, writing a budget, or filing my own taxes. It was learning how to keep the fifth commandment—honor your father and mother—while becoming an adult. Before I write any more, I want to say that I have wonderful parents. They’ve sacrificed so much for me, and I thank the Lord for them. All that follows is written with their permission.
What Was So Hard?
As a young teenager, I often butted heads with my parents. During this season, I learned the beloved answer to the Westminster Shorter Catechism Question, #64:“The fifth commandment requireth the preserving the honour, and performing the duties, belonging to everyone in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or equals.” As a young teenager, I knew my parents were my superiors. It was my duty to respect and obey them. Over time, God patiently taught me how to do that, even when I didn’t particularly like what I was being asked to do.
When I started college, things got a bit more complicated. The desire to honor my parents was present. Yet new freedoms and responsibilities raised a host of questions. How does my application of the fifth commandment change as I grow up? What decisions am I free to make on my own? What decisions should I make with my parents? Do I have to go home every weekend my parents request? Do my budget and calendar need to reflect the exact same priorities that my parents’ did?
There were times I didn’t get parental advice when I should have. Other times I would try to shirk responsibility by calling home and requesting that my parents “just make the decision for me.” Sometimes I carefully thought through a decision, but then felt guilty when my final choice was different from what I knew my parents would have chosen. For years, I wrestled with the question: What does it mean to grow up into maturity while respecting my parents?
A Rule of Thumb
I’m going to share a rule of thumb I started using in college. I’m not asserting this formula is lifted right out of the pages of Scripture. I realize the application of this principle may need to be worked out differently across various cultural contexts. With that said, the following mental check helped me navigate some of the tension-wrought decisions that came in the transition to adulthood.
I frequently asked myself: Does my decision-independence parallel my responsibility-independence?
Decision-independence is the degree to which I made decisions without input from my parents. Responsibility-independence is the degree to which I fulfilled personal responsibilities without assistance from my parents. I wanted my decision-independence to be in sync with my responsibility-independence. Let me share a few examples of how this played out in my own context.
In high school, I was still very dependent on my parents. I ate their food, slept under their roof, and went to them with almost any problem. While I was learning to think like an adult, I still needed to submit to what my parents wanted.
In college, I became responsible for most of my expenses. I was paying for my apartment, cooking my meals, and doing my own laundry. It was fitting for me to exercise more independent decision making. After all, it was no longer practical for me to call home with every problem. Yet my parents still paid for my health insurance, I moved home every summer, and I called home in a tizzy whenever I had any significant problem. For this reason, I needed to temper my growing independence with a willingness to hear and follow the counsel of my parents.
Shortly after college, I became financially independent of my parents. While it was tempting to ignore parental counsel, I knew this wasn’t appropriate. After all, Dad was still the first person I called when I noticed the new rattle under my car hood. Mom was still the first person I dialed after a challenging day at work. While I had attained financial independence, I maintained varying degrees of emotional and practical dependence on my parents. There were times I still deferred to the wishes of my parents even though I was a “grown adult.” At other times, it was appropriate to thank my parents for their input and communicate why I was choosing to make a different decision. I never delighted in doing this, but there were a few occasions in which doing so was fitting and good.
Even the godliest of parents and children will likely feel the tension of trying to fulfill fifth-commandment duties as the child matures. There may be certain times—like the first visit home after the child moves out—when this tension can be felt more acutely. Children, during these seasons, there may be a time sacrificially to lay down rightly “earned” decision-independence to honor the wishes of a parent. At other times, you may decide to “defend” your decision-independence through careful and respectful communication.
Young adult, as you navigate these decisions, take an accurate inventory of the responsibility- independence you’re demonstrating:
-Financial: Whose roof am I living under? Who pays the utilities, car insurance, and health insurance?
-Administrative: Who schedules dental appointments, renews the license plate, etc.?
-Practical issues: Who does the laundry and puts air in the car tires?
-Spiritual/emotional: How many times a week do I call home? Where do I go for counsel?
Let an accurate appraisal of your responsibility-independence guide your quest for decision- independence.
The goal of good parents should be producing a mature child—not just gaining control. The goal of a young adult should be growing into maturity—not just gaining freedom. For both parent and child, the pursuit of that maturity requires prayerful attention to one’s own duties and the other party’s honor. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it is doable. May God give grace to parents and children alike as they pursue this maturity.