The 11th Commandment

by Mark Edinberg, Ph.D., Contributing Editor
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Did you know there were really eleven commandments? Most people who are familiar with the Judeo-Christian worldview recognize the first ten commandments, but not everyone has as much knowledge about the eleventh one, which has become more important as our society has aged. As many of you readers know, the original tem commandments are divided into the 5 shalts and the 5 shalt nots. One of them is clearly related to caregiving: Honor they father and mother. However, there seems to be considerable psychological confusion about how to do this, which has led to lots of articles and even a few books about a term that brings fear into the hearts of many caregivers: "Parenting your parent."

I’m here today to offer a very different approach that starts with a statement of the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt NOT parent thy parent.

That’s right, don’t do it, don’t even consider it, don’t go there.

Let me tell you what I mean by this last statement. I am not supporting the idea of abandoning your parents, I am not in favor of not caring about them, I am actually IN favor of doing a lot to support your elders and yourselves at the same time. However, I am not in favor of thinking that you "have to be the parent", that is, be a harsh and unhappy martyr who only feels burden and burnout. First of all, it is biologically impossible to be your parent’s parent, even if you were a test tube baby! Second, when people think about parenting their parents, it makes no sense in that if were parenting them, we would NOT be "raising" them as we would raise children. Rather, we may have to set limits for parents, we may even have to feed them or diaper them or bathe them, but we are not raising them for the future, training them to eventually be on their own as independently functioning adults. No, the goals are very different and the person being "parented" (I would prefer "being taken care of") is different from a child. Trust me, from my personal experience of having two children, a 3 or 4 year old has a mind very different from a 90 year old, no matter what frame of mind the 90 year old is in.

Even in the case of dementia, we are faced with a different situation involving an adult than with a healthy and normal child. Specifically, with dementia, there is an individual who is losing functioning, who may have some mental abilities and not have others. The individual may be desperately trying to maintain dignity, identity or make sense out of an increasingly confusing world. And, even if the individual is acting "child-like" NO one knows for sure that a person "acting like a child" is "going back to their childhood" or simply acting in a simple child-like manner. What is important when dealing with a dementia in a loved one is to make sure the communication and limits fit the needs and dignity of the person rather than be harsh and punitive or an indirect expression of our own frustration, loss, and even grief.

Furthermore, even if we were "parenting" our parents, I think too often people unconsciously refer to all the awful things that were done to them by their own parents (if you happen to be a parent and are reading this article, trust me, even if you did not do anything bad to your children, the odds are very good that they think that something you did along the way wasn’t so great…I will include baby talk or acting as if the "child" has no IQ in this category). Who would want anyone to do things like that to them?

Actually, if we took all of the wonderful things parents do for children, such as: being nurturing, being understanding, guiding rather than pushing them, talking with them, sharing feelings, parenting your parents wouldn’t be such a bad deal after all. But when people talk about parenting their parents, they invariably are not talking about the good stuff, it’s the stuff that feels wrong or difficult that is being alluded to.

Role Reversal vs. Change in Roles and Responsibilities

A related phrase to the 11th commandment is: "Now I’m the parent and they’re the child." From what I said earlier, we know that this is actually not true, it is not really a "role reversal" but rather a change (which can be quite drastic) in the roles and responsibilities of both parties. It is true we may be in charge of decisions more (or completely) or that we become the source of strength for our parents. However, again, there is not a strict reversal of roles, but more a change in the roles that are played. Also, this change in roles and responsibilities can be difficult to take on, particularly if there were difficulties or unresolved issues in the past (and there usually are some difficulties in the past. After all, we’re all members of families.)

I actually think that the difficulty people experience when they THINK they are "parenting their parent" comes in part from knowing at some level that the caregiver is NOT the parent and the parent is NOT the child. Underneath that awareness can well be some difficulty dealing with the fact that your parent is no longer the parent they were (or you wish they were) and that some of the possibilities or experiences you had are lost to you forever. Coping with and handling the sadness associated with these losses is important to consider and face directly rather than put it onto the misnomer of "Now I am parenting my parent."

A second consideration is the realization that as parents need increased support from children that they appear less immortal than they seemed to be before. You may begin to realize they won’t live forever, and along with that is the beginning of anticipation of their deaths. It has been said in many places that we, as a culture, tend to deny death, to put it off in the corner and pretend it isn’t there. So, when our parents become a reminder that death happens, this gets turned into despair and anxiety.

Now you may think me to be harsh or inconsiderate, but I have no doubt that confronting our own mortality and learning to live with it being part of life actually makes each day a better one. Consider for a moment the vast number of people who have had a brush with death and claim it makes them cherish life even more. Similarly, there is the same hope for dealing with increased needs of our parents, rather than being a source of depression or a "burden" expressed by "parenting our parents" it becomes a reminder that each day we live we can live well. I think this is true, and is best followed by following the 11th commandment.

What You Mean When You Say...

So how do you know if you are parenting your parent or thinking along these lines? One of the best way is to identify some of the things people say that, in my humble opinion, reflect a violation of the 11th commandment (but you can rejoice in the fact that, as far as I can figure out, there is no secular or biblical law proscribing a specific punishment for breaking the commandment):

  • "Now I’m the parent, they’re the child"
  • "Mother, please, I’d rather do it myself" (an old advertisement for the over 40 crowd)
  • "Now what, mom?"
  • "Dad, you just don’t get it" (also said by teenagers, but that’s a different story)
  • "My mother is always calling me up and asking for advice, can’t she make up her own mind?"
  • "Mom, it’s three o’clock in the morning, I don’t know where you put your hairdryer."
  • "Dad, I can’t take you to the doctor’s next week, I told you that three times today."

It obviously isn’t just saying these sentences or ones like them that indicates you are "parenting your parent", it’s saying these with a sigh in the beginning, a sense of hopelessness expressed by rolling one’s eyes (particularly if on the telephone where they can’t see you doing this), or a kind of dirge-like quality to your phrasing and tempo of speech.

Let me give you some alternatives to each of the above statements that get you out of the psychologically damaging position of "parenting your parent".

  • "Now I’m the parent, they’re the child" - becomes: My parents need increasing help from me. It’s hard, I may not like it, but I will face it and respect all of us.
  • "Mother, please, I’d rather do it myself" (an old advertisement for the over 40 crowd) - becomes: Mother, it’s time for me to be an adult and deal with you as an adult, I hope you can do the same.
  • "Now what, mom?" - becomes: Just a minute (or I need to talk with you a little later, I cannot concentrate on your needs right now)
  • "Dad, you just don’t get it" (also said by teenagers, but that’s a different story) - becomes: Dad, I don’t think we’re on the same page. We need to talk more
  • "My mother is always calling me up and asking for advice, can’t she make up her own mind?" - becomes: Mom, you sound like you don’t trust yourself. What’s going on?
  • "Mom, it’s three o’clock in the morning, I don’t know where you put your hairdryer." - becomes: Mom, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. I will call you when it gets light out (but do check on her mental status, day night confusion and possibly having anxiety that can be treated with medication!!!)
  • "Dad, I can’t take you to the doctor’s next week, I told you that three times today." - becomes Dad, we need to get you a note in writing so you know what is going on (and possibly taking some action to limit when calls can be made.)

Resouce List

Some recently published books on this topic are:

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to be considered as counseling, psychotherapy, or specific advice to be followed. It is not meant to take the place of consulting with appropriate professionals for medical, legal, or psychological information or strategies. Rather, readers should take the points of the article and make their own personal judgments as to how and when to apply them if at all.

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