Meditations for Layfolk - Duties of Children

The first duty of a child is to obey God through its father and mother. For that we have Divine warrant, and in the Old Testament we find that this is insisted on under the extreme penalty of death. The only limits put to this obedience on the part of children are the limits of wrong-doing: "To love, reverence, and obey our parents in all that is not sin." This strait subjection of the child to the parent, since it is the result of the natural bond between them, should, be a subjection which is softened and made easy by love. That is to say, the mere physical strength of the parent is neither the origin nor the measure of that obedience, but both are based upon a definite relationship which is absolutely different in kind to the mere relationship of guardian and ward. Consequently the sense of ungrudging allegiance must enter in as an essential constituent. The feeling is to be deeper than mere juxtaposition or dependence, and to be derived from an almost instinctive appreciation of each other's affection. Whether or not this affection exists emotionally should not make an appreciable difference to the duty. It is, unfortunately, a possibility to find parents and children sometimes at open war, due, apparently, as much to incompatibility of temper as to anything else an incompatibility arising often from sheer family likeness. But even so the child has duties of obedience to its parents, precisely because they are parents.

It is needful to notice that the child has these duties, for the law of obedience affects the child only while it is a child. No one has said that a man or woman is bound to obey their parents. Obedience in the direct meaning of the word ceases when the age of childhood ceases; for as children their lives seem, by a law of nature, to be not altogether severable from the family life. The dependence is so great (greater far and longer than the dependence that exists in the animal kingdom between cub and mother) that physically the whole group can be considered as one. So, too, in the moral view of the family the effect of elder upon younger is so intimate and so intense that, again, for practical purposes, the child is sanctified in the faith of the father. But later, when the child has become old enough to determine itself fully as a separate existence, it must for itself settle the details and main movements of its own life. Obedience has ceased to be a necessity and would become a hindrance. Reverence and respect remain always; influence may survive, but authority has departed. In matters of religion they can no longer dictate to me; they have no longer on them the charge of my soul. For myself and by myself I sink or swim. It is I who choose my partner in life, not they for me. They can, and should, no doubt, offer me advice. It is advice and nothing more, to be listened to with attention, the more because they are my parents, but not for that implicitly obeyed.

So long, then, as obedience claims me in childhood, let me look to it that this obedience is given ungrudgingly, that it is not spoilt by incessant grumbling. The weariness of life, springing at times from the very closeness between me and my parents (for this mere physical approximation, while it usually stimulates the emotions of love, may at times cause an increase of irritation), must never force me to renounce that duty of obedience which the commandments of God ordained and the life of my Master preached. But when I have outgrown the dependence of childhood and am of sufficient age to think and act for myself, in the interests of my own soul, then obedience may have a cramping effect upon my character. The very purpose for which I was created was to serve God with all the individual faculties - such as they are - with which He endowed me. Now if I allow myself to be overridden by any other, I may do more work in the world, but not such as I alone can contribute. My personality has been lost, and the account I render is not for my talent, but for another's. The intelligence, experience, richer nature, greater moderation of my parents must be to the end of my life a law, "not a force, but a perfect guidance with perfect love"; but my life is always my own and God's. Hence to their warnings and promptings, I must show ever patience, respect, consideration, gratitude; but I cannot hope to plead their commands as an excuse for my actions to the judge, any more than I could the orders of the State or the counsel of the priest. The ultimate responsibility of a man must lie always with himself.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.