Obedience to (Bad) Parents


Our scriptures state that we must respect our parents and be obedient to them failing which, we are committing a sin. What do we do when we have bad parents who have never really cared for our well being but have always been selfish and look at their children only as a means of earning money? What do we do when some of the elders in the family use the children only as a means to boost their egos? What if we can no longer stand their tyranny, disrespect, and abuse?

—Sudha, India


Dear Sudha,

I think the “answer” to your question is revealed in the question itself! What scripture says “obedience” must be blind (or stupid)! Virtually all parents are less than perfect and have expectations of their children. Our response to and respect for our parents and elders must also employ common sense not just general scriptural injunctions.

“When a higher duty conflicts with a lower duty, the lower duty ceases to be a duty.” This too is from scripture (Upanishads, I believe).

To act with respect does not suggest accepting verbal or other abuse, nor does acting with respect require one to fulfil another’s expectations, especially when those expectations are rooted in selfishness.

But even a “bad” parent may be in need, from time to time, of financial assistance or help with lodging or health. Under most circumstances, one can be a dutiful child without accepting abuse or unreasonable and selfish demands.

You may have to learn patience; keep your distance as best you can; learn to be silent (but inwardly strong); to state your own views and needs calmly but with firmness; to refuse to accept verbal abuse, perhaps by leaving the room (calmly); and, many other forms of appropriate behavior designed both to protect one’s own dignity and respect, but also to curb the tendency of another person to behave badly.

Your calm resistance can reflect back to your parent(s) the inappropriate nature of their attitudes, words, and behavior. It is not good for them to be allowed to act in certain ways. Respectfully but firmly resisting can help them to change (in their own way and own time, even if a future lifetime).

Remaining calmly centered in yourself and relaxing away from anger or emotional reactions is the best course of action. In extreme circumstances, you may need to move to another place or even city; to refuse to have interactions with them for at least a period of time to show them you are independent. You may have to be willing to forgo any inheritance by taking a stand against their behavior and demands.

In short, this is about YOU! About YOUR courage, calmness, deeper than surface respect and love for your parents (a love that doesn’t want to allow them to act badly), your faith in God and your efforts to realize unconditional love and forgiveness. It is never our “job” to change other people. God gives us each free will to work out our karma over countless lifetimes.

What I describe above is the “middle path” of not accepting abuse but also not fighting or hating. “Turning the other cheek” is more like a martial art that takes the negative energy coming at you and turning it away from you. Even boomeranging it back with the transforming power of love. “Turning the other cheek” means not to be emotionally reactive to anger coming at you but accepting it calmly, with even-mindedness and wisdom.

Perhaps you can view your parents as you would view your own child who is a toddler having a tantrum. A parent doesn’t “hate” a toddler who acts like one but instead finds positive ways to re-direct the toddler’s upset or destructive behavior into new and positive directions.

With the teaching of reincarnation, there are many parents and children who exchange roles from one lifetime to another. You might even view yourself as their teacher in the “martial arts” of “how-to-live!” and treat others with respect for their right to be who they are.

To quote Jesus Christ: “Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves!” Be the wise child who seeks to respond to and even help naughty parents.

Joy to You!
Nayaswami Hriman
Seattle WA USA