Parenting Your Parents: A Growth Opportunity

Dad! Dad! I heard my seven year old son scream. I was intently involved in sermon preparation in my upstairs study. I rushed down stairs and towards the backyard as I heard him yell again, Dad! I leaped off the deck and ran between my son and my father who was chasing him with cane raised as a weapon. I grasped my father’s arm, looked him in the eye and sternly said, “You go back to your apartment and don’t let me see you chasing David again.” He stamped off cursing, not to under his breath.

I sat down on the grass and explained to David that his grandfather was losing his mind and was not entirely responsible for his behavior. “You see, David, sometimes as people get old, they go backwards in their ability to think and reason. That is what is happening to Pop and as result it is becoming my responsibility to parent him.” David seem to accept my explanation and was amenable to my instructions regarding his responsibility to think before he acted so as to not provoke Pop.
Incorporating aging parents into the nuclear family is not a smooth or easy task. The process generates strain on the marriage and the family relationships. So, we might ask, “What are God’s objectives for the family that finds themselves in this phase of life?” While we could likely cite a number of possibilities, in this blog I will suggest four.

  • The development of wisdom
  • The development of Righteousness
  • The development of a servant’s heart
  • The development of trust

Becoming a parent to your parent demands learning (or at least developing new dimensions) of wisdom. The wisdom already learned about parenting your children has to be nuanced to wisely apply it to one’s parents. So, God is up to expanding our bank of wisdom and the accompanying skill set necessary for the immediate task.

The second objective is the development of righteousness. This is not a new objective. But, the process is focused by the unique pressures of this new environment. A friend of mine finds herself experiencing this development on two levels. He father recently had open heart surgery. She has been living with her parents three to four days a week for several weeks. Her growth in righteousness has come from having to exercise patience in figuring out how to wisely encourage her mother in the development of patience in caring for her husband. God has been refining both of them by cooking out the impurities of impatience and a tendency towards resentment.

The third objective is the development of a servant’s heart. During the last year of my father’s life he became incontinent. My work at the time required some travel. This meant that my wife was home alone with Dad who needed attention several times a day. On the first day that I was out of town Pam found herself leaning against the door leading to Dad’s apartment and praying, “Lord, I have to do this. Please help me because I am dreading it.” She then proceeded to carry out the necessary service. Upon completion she leaned against the same door upon her return to our side of the house and prayed, “Ok, Lord, thank you. That was not nearly as bad as I anticipated.” She had developed a new level of a servant’s heart.

For me the development of trust had to do with my fears that my father would treat my son in the same way he had treated me and would therefore foster resentment in him as he had in me. My Dad was not a mean man. He did not abuse me. He worked hard to provide for us. He modeled integrity. But, I could never do anything well enough to earn his approbation. His attitude gave me the occasion to make wining his approval an idol. When I could not satisfy the idol I grew resentful and completely disconnected from him at about age 13. That continued until the Lord encounter me at age 17. I feared for David and had to learn to submit those fears to the Lord, pray for David and trust God to enable him to process his relationship with his grandfather differently that I had done. Years later I asked David one day what I could have done differently to make his growing up easier. He thought for awhile and then said, “Well, I know you think living with Pop was detrimental to me, but really, it was not”.

There comes a time in many families when adult children find themselves in the role of becoming parents to their parents. We can become angry, question God and get depressed. Or, we can submit to God’s timing and seek to grow through the experience. Which will you do?

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