On Psychology

Jewish World Review August 21, 2001 / 2 Elul, 5761

Parenting according to the Fifth Commandment

By Sarah Chana Radcliffe

G-d knew what He was doing when He gave us the Ten Commandments. As we shall see, the Fifth Commandment - the one telling us we must honor our parents - actually sets us up for a lifetime of successful relationships. Consequently, when we teach our children how to perform this commandment, we're giving them the greatest gift in the world. Those of a spiritual bent might also be interested to know that G-d Himself promises eternal rewards to those who fulfill this commandment. Therefore, in this world and the next, it's a win-win deal!

Honoring parents involves showing respect and caring to the people who brought us into this world. In Jewish law, this attitude is expressed through specific behaviours in two categories:

1) What to do to show respect and caring
2) What not to do in order to avoid showing disrespect

Two examples of behaviours in the first category would be serving or assisting parents by bringing them items or by providing financial support to them if that is needed. (The commandment actually applies to us throughout our lifetime as long as we have parents).

Some examples of behaviours in the second category, would be that we must refrain from interrupting parents when they are speaking, we should refrain from waking them if they're sleeping, we should refrain from sitting in their regular seats and we should refrain from calling them by their first names.

Some of the most interesting aspects of these directives, pertain to the manner in which a child should speak to his/her parents. Again, we can divide this issue into two main requirements:

1) We must speak to parents in a pleasant tone of voice at all times.
2) We should ask, rather than tell, a parent.

Speaking to parents pleasantly is fairly easy when parents are doing what you want them to do. If a child asks for a candy and his mother agrees to give it to her, the child won't have too much difficulty speaking pleasantly! However, what will happen if the mother refuses to give the candy? Will the child start to whine? Will she start to argue? Will she start yelling and having a complete fit? Judaism asks parents to undertake a serious, twenty-year project: teach the child how to handle frustration and disappointment without becoming verbally abusive. Of course, parents themselves will have to master this skill, if only to provide the proper model!

Further, children are taught to ask a parent, rather than tell a parent anything. For example, suppose a parent asks his child to come to the table for dinner. The child, who is busy reading a book, might answer something like "I'll be there in a minute." Most modern parents would be thrilled that their child is actually thinking of complying with the request at any time in the near future! However, Judaism has a higher standard. It requires that the child say something more like, "Would it be o.k. if I just finish this page I'm reading?" By asking rather than telling, the child maintains his proper place as the junior member of the family. His question acknowledges that his parents are his respected guides and educators. He defers to them out of trust and respect for their leadership.

Now let's project the child twenty-five years into the future. She has consistently been encouraged (through modeling and direct teaching) to show respect in word and deed. For example,he/she has learned to speak in a normal tone of voice even when disappointed or angered; he/she has learned to ask questions rather than make statements or demands. Now the child is married and learning how to communicate with a partner. Suppose the partner does something disappointing or annoying.

Our respect-trained child has the self-control, humility, and sensitivity to be able to deal with the situation respectfully rather than abusively. Moreover, when this young person has any idea to communicate (about what food to eat, what place to visit, which task to do), he or she already knows that putting the suggestion across as a tentative question works a whole lot better than just telling a partner what will be done. Note, for example, the difference between "Do you mind if I go out with my friends tomorrow night?" vs. "I'm going out with my friends tomorrow night." In marriage, asking is a way of showing respect (not seeking permission) and as such, increases harmony and prevents dispute.

Following Torah guidelines in parenting helps parents to enjoy a more peaceful family life with their children. Imagine living with teenagers who wouldn't dream of raising their voice to you (not out of fear, but out of respect and love for you!)! Imagine teenagers who wouldn't swear at you no matter how angry they were! Teaching respect in the early years leads to this outcome. And these children will be able to have peaceful marriages and peaceful homes of their own because of what you have taught them. Shalom is considered to be the ultimate blessing. Let's give it to our children!

JWR contributor Sarah Chana Radcliffe is a psychological associate in private practice in Toronto. She is a member of the College of Psychologists of Ontario. Mrs. Radcliffe is the author of five books on Jewish family life and emotional well-being, including "The Delicate Balance: Love and Authority in Torah Parenting." Send your questions by clicking here.


© 2001, Dr. Sarah Chana Radcliffe