What Do I Owe My Adult Children?

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There is a story about a group of mothers sitting in a pediatrician's office complaining about their children. "My infant is up several times all night; she won't stop crying." "My two year old is driving me crazy with his temper." "Wait until they are nine, and start talking back." "Wait until they are teenagers, and rebel against everything." One gray haired woman after listening to all the complaints, finally speaks out: "You think that you have problems? Wait until they're forty three."

Relations between parents and their adult children are always delicate. Jewish parents dream of the vision articulated in the book of Psalms: "Your wife shall be as a fruitful vine in the innermost parts of the house, Your children like olive plants around the table ... And you shall see your childrens' children, Peace be upon Israel" (Psalms 128: 3,6). We dream of naches (a good Yiddish word meaning vicarious joy) from our children, seeing them grow up successful and happy, marrying within the faith and blessing us with grandchildren. As a rabbi, I see no greater joy than that of a parent walking a child under the huppah, that of a grandparent at a grandchild's bris or naming, Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I love it when my members speak with pride of their children's professional and personal accomplishments. Adult children can give a great deal of naches.

Most parents are thrilled with their adult children. They can finally be friends instead of disciplinarians, chaperons, and teachers. Nonetheless, there is an old Yiddish saying - "Small children small problems, big children big problems." Adult children often mean tsures. Probably my largest area of family counseling as a rabbi involves parents and their adult children. Usually it is parents who are disappointed with choices their children have made - choices in marriage partners, career paths, life style, religion, or personal values. Sometimes parents are not reasonable in their disappointment. I met with a man who was extremely bitter because his son refused to go into the family business, but was seeking a different career in another state. I tried to explain the fundamental Biblical insight of growing up - "a man shall leave his father and mother..." Abraham began the Jewish religion only when he left his home and his birthplace.

It is only natural that parents demand obedience and children demand independence. In my counseling, I encourage adult children to listen to their parents with respect, carefully consider their words, but ultimately make their own decisions. They must do it in a way that does not detract from their parent's dignity. The practical question is how to find this balance between honoring parents and asserting independence.

Children often make choices or live life styles that parents find disappointing. I have heard the words over and over again - "My child has married out of the faith." "My son is gay." "My daughter refuses to give me grandchildren." "My son will not get a job and settle down." "My daughter does not share my values." "My children have cut off contact and refuse to speak with me." What kind of advice can I give these parents?

Naches and Tsures are not new; even the Bible speaks of Sarah's frustration with her son Ishmael, and Isaac's consternation over his son Esau's marriage out of the faith. In the Talmud, R. Hamnuna speaks of the importance of having children even if they grow up less than virtuous. "You should do what you are commanded and let the Holy One, blessed is He, do that which pleases him." (Berachot 10b) Whenever parents raise these issues, I always quote from the book of Malachi a verse chanted in synagogues throughout the world on the Shabbat morning before Passover. "Behold I will send you Elijah the Prophet Before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. He shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, And the heart of the children to their fathers."(Malachi 3:23-24)

Malachi spoke of the coming of the Messiah. Only then would the hearts of the parents turn to the children and vice versa; only in messianic times will parents and children get along. Until the time that the world is redeemed, we must expect tension in the parent-child relationship.

I also tell parents that they are not responsible for their child's behavior. Their child is an adult, and has the right to make decisions about his or her life. There is a brilliant insight from Orthodox Jewish practice. When a boy becomes a Bar Mitzvah at the age of thirteen, the father stands next to him and declares: "blessed be He who freed me from punishment for this one's sins." Non-orthodox synagogues usually omit this practice because a thirteen year old is still under his parents' authority. Nonetheless, the idea is a powerful one - upon reaching the age of adulthood, parents are no longer responsible for their child's action.

This relieves parents of some of the guilt and feeling that they are at fault when their adult child does not succeed in life. It also places the responsibility where it belongs - on the child himself or herself. They are responsible for their own actions. I recently read a news story of a young man who ruined had his life and then sought to blame his parents. He brought a malpractice suit against his parents. I never heard the result but I hope that the judge threw it out of court.

Parents may not be responsible for a child's actions, but they do have a right to communicate their feelings. If a child is wise he or she will listen. "Ask your father, he will inform you; your elders, they will tell you." (Deuteronomy 32:7) The Torah teaches that we must respect our parents feelings even if we need not necessarily obey their wishes. Most parents care about their children, want the best for them, and have wisdom to share with them. Children, in their quest for independence, often do not listen. But a child should never say, "Mom and dad, I did not know it was so important to you."

Parents also do not need to compromise their own values in their relationships with their children. Children cannot blackmail their parents into participating in something they do not believe in. I remember a daughter coming home from college with her boyfriend and telling her parents, "We sleep together in school; we want to share a bedroom at home. It would be hypocritical to have separate rooms." I advised the parents to tell their daughter, "In our home we set the rules. I will not allow sleeping arrangements that violate our values."

Perhaps most important, parents can always disapprove of what a child does. Nonetheless, they must separate the action from the individual. Parents should not disapprove of what the child is. Love must be unconditional. Communication must never be cut off. No matter how far a child strays from his or her parents values, there is always a chance that there will be teshuva, usually translated repentance but literally meaning "return." There is a hasidic story about a man who went to his rabbi frustrated with his son's difficult and uncooperative behavior. The rabbi answered, "love him more." We may not always

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