“Daddy, how do you honor your parents,” I asked, “if you never see them?” Sagely he responded, “I honor my parents by taking good care of your mother and you.” A quarter of a century later, his words still reverberate in my memory.
The mandate for children to honor their parents haunts children of narcissists and other abusive parents. On the one hand, a small corner of our hearts will always love them just because they’re our mother, our father and we’re hardwired to try to please them, make them proud, honor them. But on the other hand, just being in their vicinity is so painful, so jangling, so triggering that many of us have chosen to go No Contact to protect our sanity, our marriages and our own children.
The dichotomy between honoring yet avoiding and displeasing demanding narcissistic parents is a constant mental tug-of-war that becomes torture especially if we expose their abuses publicly. As the Owl in C. S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair hooted, “”No, no good. Oh, what a to-do!”
Where’s It Coming From?
Let’s take this thing straight back to the source. And the source for many of us is our Sunday School classroom where the smarmy sweet teacher cooed, “Now children, what does the Sixth Commandment say?”
The class responded in a childish falsetto, “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” (Exodus 20:12 KJV)
Even if your upbringing was not Judeo-Christian or religious at all, the mandate is always there, spoken or unspoken. It’s existed since the Dawn of Time. A pecking order that keeps society humming along smoothly. Parents are in charge and the children honor them as the heads of the home. It’s been tried the other way round and simply doesn’t work. Look at shows like Supernanny and Nanny 911. The children didn’t honor their parents, the entire household ran amok and everyone was exasperated and angry at each other.
What Exactly does “Honor” Mean?
The Hebrew word כַּבֵּ֤ד (kab·bêḏ) translated “honor” occurs four times in the Old Testament and is defined by Strong’s Concordance as meaning “to be heavy, weighty, or burdensome.”
Wait. Is that it? Apparently so.
We already do that, don’t we? Our parents’ words have great weight in our minds. We remember them verbatim, consider them carefully and have great difficulty separating the wheat of wisdom from all the chaff of criticisms, put-downs, gaslighting, projection, mind games and mind control.
Did you also notice what כָּבַד does not mean? It doesn’t mean “obey.” That comes in other verses, but not in the Ten Commandments.
Parents’ Role in Honor
While Sunday School and Church were busy driving the “honor” thing into our heads, they conveniently overlooked the verse that balances out the Sixth Commandment. In his letter to Ephesus circa A.D. 60-61, Saint Paul provided a footnote to the Commandment, a check-and-balance on the honor thing. For you Greek geeks, here’s how it appears in the original language.
καὶ οἱ πατέρες μὴ παροργίζετε τὰ τέκνα ὑμῶν, ἀλλ’ ἐκτρέφετε αὐτὰ…
(Literally) And the fathers/parents not enrage/provoke/exasperate the children (plural; direct object) of you (possessive) nourish to maturity them…
J. B. Phillips translated it from the Koine Greek like this: “Fathers, don’t overcorrect your children or make it difficult for them to obey the commandment.” (Eph 6:4 Phillips) Although I’m not sure that’s exactly correct, it sure makes sense! Most other translations and paraphrases of Eph. 6:4 say something like, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.”
Did you catch it? Parents are to make it possible to honor them without driving us to exasperation and anger.
Do narcissists do that?
Heck no! We can never please them. We are waaaaaaaaaaaay beyond exasperation with years of pent-up repressed anger. Just anger. Righteous anger.
God knows how hard we tried to honor our parents. He also knows they systematically worked to make honoring them a torture, not a pleasure, with their constant disapproval and inhumane demands.
So what’s left? How can we honor them in spite of themselves? And how have other children-of-narcissist’s made peace with this Commandment? Click here to find out!