Parental Prerogative – Should parents decide for grown kids?

Q. You write that outsiders shouldn’t upstage parents. Can I help my niece through college if the parents prefer she go to work?

A. In a recent column we discussed a concerned relative who knew of bad news about a young man. The situation was where the father was already on his way to visit and would discover the news by himself when he arrived, when he would be in a position to do something to help the lad. Given the fact that informing the father in advance would not have any practical advantage, we advised against doing so. One reason is that the father will find out soon enough, so why should we rush his sorrow?

The other reason is that revealing the news by its nature reveals the efforts the relative had been investing in monitoring the son’s situation. We wrote, “If the father learns that someone else has as it were been paying more attention to the son’s welfare than he has, it may undermine his sense of achievement in his role as parent. He may even view your involvement as a kind of subtle criticism of the way he is raising his son.”

A number of readers wondered about this conclusion, or asked further questions like yours. It is important to clarify that the advice given did not in any way criticize the relative’s involvement, or his efforts to help the youngster and to obtain information. The question related solely to disclosinghis involvement. In the situation discussed, disclosure had no practical benefit for the unfortunate young man. The relative was already doing everything he could to help, and the father would find out the information he needed as soon as he was in a position to have an impact. Given that there was nothing to be gained, the sentiments of the father constituted a decisive consideration.

However, parents’ sentiments shouldn’t deter us altogether from helping others. Jewish law is extremely strict about honoring parents; this honor is one of the Ten Commandments, and the Talmud teaches that their honor can be compared to the honor due God Himself! (1) But Jewish law also gives very specific definition to this obligation. Honor of parents is divided into two distinct mandates: to honor them and to revere them. Both are basically defined as obligations towards the parent. The obligation of “honor” includes helping a parent with his or her personal needs, such as feeding, dressing, or getting around. The obligation of reverence obligates the child to always speak respectfully of and to the parent, and to defer to the parent when possible. (2)

Obedience to parents is not an inherent part of this obligation. (3) Clearly, if we truly revere our parents we will esteem their judgment, and if we want to make them happy we should try to respect their wishes even with regard to our own actions. So your niece should carefully consider the parents reasons for favoring finding a job, and if she decides they are not persuasive she should express her disagreement respectfully. And she should also consider the direct impact on the parents’ happiness and well being. But if after carefully considering her own interest she is convinced that going to college is the best option for her, it would not be considered disrespectful for her to take you up on your generous offer, so it would not be improper for you to help her along.

Even though the consideration of upstaging the parents doesn’t outweigh the child’s own interest, it doesn’t just disappear. Given her decision to go to college and accept your help, both your niece and you should go out of your way to express and carry out your plans in a way which demonstrates respect for the parents special status, and gratitude for their sincere concern.

(1) Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 30b. (2) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 240. (3) Ibid, section 25.