What do adults “owe” parents?

Recently we watched “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” The major issue in the film is interracial marriage, but that’s not what I want to discuss today (Roger Ebert has a great review of the film here.

Something that stood out to me was the speech Sidney Poitier’s character made to his father. His father is opposed to his son’s marrying a white woman, and when Poitier’s character tells his father to “shut up and let me think,” his father indignantly begins to list what he and his wife sacrificed for their son and what he owes them.

If I transcribed it correctly, the part that especially caught my ear and provided food for thought for several days was this:

I owe you nothing…You did what you were supposed to do because you brought me into this world, and from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me, just like I will owe my son if I ever have another. But you don’t own me. You can’t tell me when or where I am out of line or try to get me to live my life according to your rules….Not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs…You’ve got to get off my back.

Admittedly, both characters were having pressured-filled days, and the son later softened his tone and professed his love for his father.

I don’t want to critique this from a Christian viewpoint because I know it wasn’t written that way, and there was fault of both sides in that scene, but for now I want to take this concept of what adult children “owe” their parents out of the context of the film and just ponder it.

Truly parents shouldn’t do what they do for children for “payback,” and neither should they hold it over their offsprings’ heads as a manipulation to do things their way out of guilt, though there may be times a little adjustment in the kids’ perspective is in order. There comes a time a man has to “leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife” (Genesis 2:24; Mark 10:7; Ephesians 5:31), to step out on his own as an adult, and come to his own convictions and rules.

But there are things we do owe parents even after we’re out of the home and out from under their direct authority.


The fifth of the ten commandments was not given only to children: “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” We usually apply it to children, but children aren’t specified in that passage. Even when we’re out from under a parent’s direct authority, we’re still to honor them. Even if they’re not everything they ought to be (who among us is?), we’re still to honor them.


This is perhaps a part of honor. Leviticus 19:32 says, “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the LORD,” and Proverbs 16:31 says, “The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness.” Proverbs 23:22 says, “Hearken unto thy father that begat thee, and despise not thy mother when she is old.” I wrote some thoughts about this a while back here. Society today does not  value the elderly much, but in God’s economy we’re to greatly respect them. But the tenor of Scripture indicates respect of parents even before they get to be “elderly” — you can’t read far through Proverbs especially without picking up on that attitude.

A Hearing

The book of Proverbs is a father’s instruction to his son, except for the last chapter which is a mother’s instruction. I don’t know that all of that instruction is aimed at a minor child. Other places in the Bible, as well, urge us to listen to advice, instruction, and even rebuke from those who are wiser and more mature than we are, and parents should surely be among the first we’d listen to, because they know us best and are the most interested, usually, in our well-being and outcome. Again, not every parent’s every piece of advice is going to be on target, but it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand: it should at least be given a fair hearing and then evaluated in light of God’s Word and prayer.


Honestly, I can’t think of a Bible verse for this one, but if gratitude and appreciation for what others have done are good character traits, they should certainly be applied to parents. I’ve written before about how children don’t fully understand what’s been done for them until they’re older, usually when they have children of their own. Even now that I am in my 50s and my mother has passed away, there are new realizations sometimes of things she went through, and I can’t tell her now that I understand and appreciate it, but I hope she knows.


In I Timothy 5:1-15, Paul instructs the younger pastor Timothy in how the church should care for the widows in its number, and he says in verse 4, “But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God.” Jesus called out the Pharisees and scribes for allowing people to give to them what should have gone to care of parents.

Then of course, there are the Biblical “one anothers” that should govern Christians’ interaction with each other. Sometimes, sadly, we neglect those most with those closest to us.

Parents are fallible people. They’re not always on target; sometimes they might be a little out of touch. Sometimes they’re out and out wrong — I came from a non-Christian home and have written before about having to learn to respect my parents out of obedience to God even when they were doing things I couldn’t respect. On the other hand, sometimes teen or adult kids think a parent is a little too free with unsolicited advice when that advice is something they really need to hear. Parents shouldn’t nag and manipulate; kids shouldn’t ignore and disrespect. Sometimes parents do have to pull back and let their children make and learn from their own mistakes, but sometimes a parent’s advice will save a son or daughter from a serious problems and heartache. It’s a delicate balance. But if those involved are seeking the Lord’s best, He will help them find that balance and best way of interacting, and even if only one side is actively seeking to honor Him in their dealings, He will aid them.

11 thoughts on “What do adults “owe” parents?

  1. This is a very intriguing post for me and admittedly a hard one to swallow. We’ve had it hammered into us, as a married couple, that we “owe” our parents a great deal and should do what-e.v.e.r. it is that they want us to do. And if we hesitate or come to a different conclusion then we are accused of not being honoring. Which is really frustrating. So coming from the perspective of feeling like the verse to “honor your parents” is used as some sort of weapon makes me cringe and not want to think about it any longer. We’ve spent many, many, many hours in our pastor’s office talking through things The Parents Wanted Us to Do but that we didn’t feel like we were supposed to do. I think it CAN be abused. I also admit to not responding appropriately. There is no excuse for sin and our responses have not always been gracious. As you pointed out, there is a delicate balance.

    I like the point you make about the parents deserving a hearing. And the adult children should keep their mouths shut and hear them out. That’s something we learned the hard way. It’s been an interesting road….

    Good food for thought. Even if I didn’t necessarily want to “eat” it. =)

    • I actually had a hard time writing this because I know of abuses on both sides and felt like I needed to qualify everything I said with balance from the other side. I know some adult children who are disregarding parental advice and are heading toward grief just because they want to do things their own way, and I know some parents of adult children who are driving their kids to distraction because they can’t acknowledge that they are grown adults responsible for their own actions.

      I know there are some parents with whom it is easier to get along when there is some distance — my dad was one. He came to stay with us once and ended up getting sick and being there something like six weeks. The Lord brought good out of it — that was when he came to know the Lord — but it was one of the hardest times of our lives. We were concerned about what was going to happen if he ever couldn’t live alone — we didn’t see how we could bring him into our homes on a permanent basis. yet we did acknowledge our responsibility to care for him. As it turned out, he passed away at 68 and lived with my brother the six months before he died, so we didn’t have to work that out after all.

      I don’t think honor = obey, at least for adult children. Underage children are supposed to obey, but I don’t see that in reference to adults in the Bible, at least not that I can recall. We can honor them even if we disagree with them, but as you said, it’s not something they should use to make adult children do things their way.

      As a parent of adult children, it is hard sometimes to find the balance. We don’t want to be “nagging” parents, yet there are some times we can foresee something being a problem and want to offer “a word to the wise.” I try never to say, “You ought to…” or “You should…” but rather say, “You might want to think about….” It’s definitely not always easy to figure out, either as the child or the parent.

  2. An excellent post Barbara and definitely lots to think about in all of our varying situations. I liked your well thought out points on what we do owe parents and I have to totally agree that us parents are fallible. I totally am. And when I remember that it’s easier to watch my own reactions to some of the things parents expect of me.

  3. Excellent post, Barbara! We recently had someone ask our advice about obeying vs. honoring, and I think I’ll send her the link to this article. You give biblical and common-sense advice. Thanks!

  4. We certainly don’t always agree with the choices our children make but they are adults….I am always willing to listen and give advice if asked for it….I don’t voice my opinion about their actions even when I disagree with them. I do pray for them and love them.
    Mama Bear

  5. I really enjoyed your post! I don’t want to discuss specific details but I have struggled with this. It can be difficult to honor and respect someone who doesn’t have a moral compass or is abusive. What I’ve learned is sometimes the best way to honor that person is to distance yourself from them and pray. I don’t think that you should ever close a door on someone without opening a window. I think you should always be open to reconciliation but you can only do so much if the other person isn’t willing to do their part.

  6. Very thought provoking.

    Poitier’s speech makes me flinch, even though I can understand where he’s coming from, and I can see that the character is making his decisive break from child to adult in that speech.

    It can be difficult to be honoring and respectful and independent all at the same time, but I’m learning a lot about that these days too.

    Great post.

  7. This is such an important subject and one so often neglected. I talk often to others in my age group (50’s-60’s) who regularly are neglected or disrespected by their adult children. Were we/they perfect parents? No, none of us is. But just as a child is especially vulnerable to the neglect, indifference and disrespect of their parents when they are growing up, parents are especially vulnerable to these traits in their adult children. I wrote a devotion on this subject that might be a good supplement to yours called “Does the Fifth Command Apply to Adults?” It can be found on the archive page of http://writingontheword.com. Thank you for addressing this subject in such a kind way.

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