Ask Dr. Merry: How to Honour Your Parents

» Posted in Ask Dr. Lin, Family Life, Personal Growth | 2 comments

Hi. I’m a middle aged adult with my own spouse and children now. I’m wondering what responsibility I have to my parents at this life stage. They are living about 45 min away and are busy and relatively healthy and independent. We get together for holidays but have little in common. I don’t feel a need or time in my life to include them more in my life. I think they feel the same because they don’t initiate additional contact either. I do feel some guilt though because I wonder if I am honouring them in this limited relationship. Do you have any thoughts in this matter? Who’s responsible in an adult parent child relationship to keep things going? I feel like it’s supposed to be me somehow and I’m dropping the ball.

I hear your desire to do the right thing, and in my opinion, that in itself is part of the definition of the word honour.  I believe that honouring your parents is being respectful towards them in word and action, with an attitude of esteem for their position as your parents, regardless of whether or not they “deserve” that esteem.  However, I did a search on-line and couldn’t find a clear definition anywhere of what this means in terms of the amount of time we’re to spend with our parents, and who actually has the responsibility to initiate contact and interactions with each other, especially once we are adults.  I wasn’t able to find anything in the Bible that really defines that for us either, although perhaps someone who is a more learned Biblical scholar than I am can comment on this!

I think that sometimes people get embroiled in family obligations and are in bondage to unspoken rules or expectations of what they “should” do, without a genuine enjoyment of each other or true relationship and emotional connections.  I have a feeling that this isn’t what God intended when he designed families.  I have always said that things done out of a “should” don’t count for much in God’s Kingdom as he’s much more interested in our hearts than in our outward behaviour, no matter how “righteous”.

The old adage is true in that we don’t get to choose our family members, so as we grow into adulthood, we sometimes find that our family members aren’t necessarily people we would want to hang out with, because — as you’re experiencing — we have little in common with them.  And sometimes being with family members trigger so many of those old, negative feelings of powerless, resentment or guilt – or we fall into old relational patterns where we feel controlled, criticized or judged by our parents — that we naturally avoid spending time with them.  Some parents can’t seem to stop parenting and telling their adult children what to do or giving them unsolicited advice, and for a middle-aged adult who is used to making their own decisions, that can be wearying.  And then there are those parents who regularly ignore their kids’ boundaries because they feel entitled to do or say whatever they want as their parents.

When parents haven’t invested the time to build into their children’s lives or develop personal relationships that are supportive, encouraging and loving when their offspring were young, there really aren’t any emotional ties that naturally draw them back to their parents when these children grow into adulthood.  And once you become an adult, for a genuine and healthy relationship to develop and be maintained, both sides (parents and adult child) need to initiate and play their part in nurturing the relationship, much like you would in any adult to adult friendship.  If it’s always one-sided, that relationship isn’t balanced and the person who’s doing all the work will eventually resent the other and feel taken for granted.

I believe that you can honour someone for the position they hold, even if you don’t agree with their actions or even necessarily like and respect them as a person, especially if your values are very different or they are difficult people for you to be with.  Having worked with many families, I’m well aware of the myriad of difficult family dynamics and some pretty unhealthy personalities and patterns that can be quite entrenched in family interactions.  I’m not sure how it is in your case, but I also want to mention there are sometimes familial patterns that are quite toxic and even abusive, and in those cases, strong boundaries need to be established and maintained, including physical distance if warranted.  I don’t believe honouring our parents mean tolerating abusive behaviour or demands.

Here’s a simple way to help you manage your relationships:

You have your A relationships – ones that are fully reciprocal so that both parties are equally invested and working hard at developing and protecting the relationship.  These are the ones in your life that are intimate, loving and truly supportive, with balanced give-and-take.  There will only be a very small number in this group and these will be the relationships YOU choose (no automatic “membership” in this group by virtue of someone’s status) – that means that spouses, parents and family members aren’t automatically in this group if there’s anything unbalanced or unhealthy about your relationship with them.

Then you have your B relationships – the bulk of the people you know – these are friendly and enjoyable (or functional if you work or serve together), where you are pleasant and respectful of each other.  You can even have a lot of fun together but there really aren’t any expectations that you have towards each other, and you aren’t necessarily sharing your deepest secrets with this group.

Then finally, your C relationships – again a small, select group – of people you CHOOSE to minister to with absolutely no expectation of any return on the investment you make in their lives.  The giving is one-sided – from you to them – but it’s done intentionally as part of what you feel called to do.  This protects you from any hurt or anger, and prevents you from feeling “used” when the giving is one-sided.  With these people, you hold careful boundaries and you set in your mind how much time and energy you are willing and able to invest into their lives.

In your case, you may choose to put your parents in the B group – having a pleasant time together and enjoying each other whenever you are together but without a lot of expectations for each other; or you may place them in the C group – as people you chose to minister to within clearly established boundaries.  If you choose to put them in your C group, then decide in advance how often you want to see them and for how long.  And then go ahead and release any feelings of guilt.


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  1. Thank you so much for addressing this challenging topic, and thanks SO much to the poster of this question. I appreciated this so much from a personal perspective.

    I have a very awkward, strained and often challenging relationship with my dad and my stepmom and have often felt challenged as a Christian how to honor them, but also keep myself from having boundaries broken. I’m actually reading a book on this very subject right now by a Christian author named Allison Bottke called “Setting Boundaries with Your Aging Parents – Finding Balance Between Burnout and Respect”.

    I realized a while ago that honor and respect for my parents does not mean that I have to allow them to violate boundaries, demand too much from me. I also realized that it meant I did not have to “force” more of a relationship that simply was not there.

    I also, with difficulty that was heart wrenching, began to realize (at least for myself), that in some ways, not doing these things with my parents was in fact sin in some cases on my part. What I “thought” I “should” do and allow, after a very thorough conversation and heart search between myself and God, He actually gently confronted me with the fact that I was actually committing sin against myself, my parents and Him. It was a real shock for me, but also an eye opener.

    This response was so timely and helpful in my own journey to honor and respect both my parents, myself and God.

    • Thanks, Julia, for sharing some of your own personal journey in how to honour your parents while still maintaining healthy boundaries. And I really appreciate your perspective in how choosing to honour YOURSELF in having those boundaries is actually something that is important for us to do. So many Christians take the command to, “die to yourself” to mean sacrifice to the point of having no boundaries and putting up with abuse from others. Thanks again for sharing what you’re learning!

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