How can adults behave like good children?
As youngsters, we are taught that kibud av va’eim (honoring parents) is all about cleaning up the toys when asked, not arguing at bedtime, and saying “thank you” for a ride to the mall. In other words, it is a mitzvah primarily for little kids who need to respect those who provide everything for them. There is certainly a key theme of hakaras ha’tov underlying this commandment (Sefer HaChinuch, mitzvah 33), and young children are expected to respond accordingly, as long as they are entirely reliant on the support of their parents.
However, a much different conceptualization of this mitzvah emerges once we take a look at how the Torah describes this value. Parshas K’doshim teaches us how to be holy people, and honoring parents is the very first directive on the list. “Every man shall revere his mother and his father” (VaYikra 19:3). Notice that the verse makes no mention of small children. In fact, the pasuk explicitly directs this commandment toward a “man,” i.e., an adult (K’sav Sofer, though he offers a different approach from the one that follows). This highlights that a critical time to be concerned with kibud av va’eim is when one is already mature and self-sufficient.
Indeed, Chazal’s model of kibud horim looks very different from the kiddie examples mentioned earlier. “What does ‘kibud’ entail? Feeding parents, dressing them, and helping them go in and out” (Kiddushin 31b). The nature of these examples clearly indicates that the quintessential mitzvah is to provide for older parents who require daily assistance in order to function.
If so, the hakaras ha’tov at the core of kibud av va’eim is not only for a child to appreciate his parents while they are caring for him; it is to reciprocate the love and support later in life when the tables are turned, and the parents are the ones in need of care. In fact, the duties typically performed for aging parents are strikingly similar to the ones that young parents provide for their own children: feeding, dressing, cleaning, scheduling appointments, providing transportation, answering questions repeatedly, providing reassurance, etc. Incredibly, the trajectory of human life is like a bell-shaped curve, where the same needs required at the beginning reappear in the later stages. When considering these parallel sets of responsibilities, it is easy to understand the expectation that a child should repay to a parent the same loving care that was received decades earlier.
Even after one’s parents have passed away (R”l), a child still has the opportunity to bring merit to their neshamos through the performance of mitzvos in their honor. In this way, one continues to provide them with (spiritual) sustenance at a time when they cannot do so for themselves.
In between the stages of childhood and caring for elderly parents, young adults are often in a unique position when it comes to kibud av va’eim. In many cases, they are busy caring for their own children, while their parents are still capable and independent. As their priorities shift to caring for their own households, they become less cognizant of their parents. While the Torah approves of this shift in allegiance (B’reishis 2:24), it is important to not become ungrateful in the process. The burdens of family and working life are no excuses to take one’s own parents for granted – be it their time, money, or resources. If anything, the rigors of parenthood provide a critical opportunity for reflection, as one can finally begin to understand just how much they truly owe their own parents. When parents invariably feel frustrated that their young children have no consideration or appreciation for all their time and efforts, it is a moment for these parents to stop and ask themselves if they, as adult children, are any better in this area.
As we have seen, respecting and caring for parents is applicable at every stage of life. Kibud av va’eim can be a challenging mitzvah, and it is certainly not child’s play. May Hashem grant us the long life He promised for this special commandment (Sh’mos 20:12) as we fulfill it across the entire lifespan.