The Fifth Commandment (March 2001)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 11:48

The Daily Mail

March 3, 2001

The Fifth Commandment

The Fifth Commandment does not simply direct us to honour our parents but contains a threat. 'Honour thy father and mother so that thy days will be long in the land.' Criticise your parents and you're dead. In an authoritarian society children had to be taught to respect a person in a position of authority because that person was in that position and irrespective of the attributes of that person. An abusive parent merited the same respect as a kind, loving parent.

The Fifth Commandment has made a major contribution to human misery. If you believe that to review critically and dispassionately certain events in your childhood which involved your parents you prevent yourself from discovering that some of the conclusions you drew from those events were wrong. When your mother told you that fire would burn you, you soon discovered that she was right. When she told you that you were wicked and useless, you decided that this must also be true, and so you grew up believing that you were intrinsically bad and unacceptable. In adult life you cannot enjoy good relationships with other people because you fear that they will discover just how bad and unacceptable you are.

Most parents want to do the best for their children, but they might not understand that what determines a child's behaviour is not what parents do, but how the child interprets what they do. Thus the parents do not achieve what they wished to achieve. Some parents see their children not individuals in their own right but as objects which they own and which they can use and abuse. A man in his forties told me that it was only recently that he had realised how he was ruining his relationships by the way he responded to another person's ill-temper. He said, 'If anyone was angry I always thought it was my fault.' His mother, as I knew personally, had never accepted responsibility for anything she did. If life was not what she wanted it to be, her son was to blame, even when he was a little boy.

As a therapist I found that many people felt that uttering anything remotely critical of their parents would bring death and damnation. They would say nothing about their parents, or they would construct a form of words to ward off the danger. Often my clients would preface any remark about a parent with, 'Don't get me wrong, Dorothy, my mother's a wonderful woman.'

Human suffering would have been much diminished had the Fifth Commandment been:

Value your parents for their virtues and pity them for their vices for they are like all of us, fallible human beings.'

Dorothy Rowe

Dorothy Rowe Friends and Enemies HarperCollins