“The commandment (Honor Thy Mother and Father) is about obedience and respect for authority; in other words it’s simply a device for controlling people. The truth is, obedience and respect should not be granted automatically. They should be earned. They should be based on the parents’ (or the authority figure’s) performance. Some parents deserve respect. Most of them don’t. Period.” –George Carlin
Had famous comedian, and social critic, George Carlin left this argument in the realm of adults conducting themselves in a manner worthy of respect and obedience, a counterargument would be impossible to make, but Carlin had to go ahead and add a pesky punctuation mark. I loathe most qualifiers almost as much as I loathe “but it’s for the children!” arguments. I prefer bold, provocative statements that shock the collective into rethinking their ideas on a given matter. My limited experience with children has informed me, however, that Carlin should’ve added an asterisk for children. Children have an almost unconditional need to respect laws and rules, and that they want to respect those who are in roles of guidance, for the structure it provides them amidst the chaos and confusion they experience while attempting to learn how they are to conduct themselves in life.
One would not use the words imposing or authoritative figure to describe me, yet when I am around a child who is lacking in the stability that decent parenting can provide, they gravitate to me. This is made most apparent when I mention to them that I am considering leaving the room. To the other kids in the room, my declaration that I have to step out of the room for a second is equivalent to a starting gun. They look forward to any adult-free moments life has to offer, and they plan to cut loose. The kids who are more accustomed to playing without much adult supervision or the degree of authority an adult may provide, worry that I may not be coming back. ‘What are you talking about,’ the more adjusted kids in the room all but scream. ‘Let him go!’
Contrary to what may be a natural instinct, this is not a moment for laughter. This is a vulnerable, revealing moment for kids without a consistent view of authority, as they seek some sort of definition for how to act. The adult in the room is left confused by this display of a child not only needing an authority figure in the room, but actually wanting it. It makes no sense to those of us who spent our childhood attempting to escape any semblance of authority. It’s sad, and it enhances the need for a qualifier to Carlin’s argument.
As much space as has been given to the respect we should give to a child’s curious mind, their limitless capacity for fantasy, and their ability to view without filters, they’re still doughy balls of clay waiting to be formed. They have individual opinions, but are those opinions worthwhile? Fully formed minds have the luxury of scrutinizing authority figures, rebelling to them, and out and out rejecting them based on their performance, because they have less need for those authority figures. A child needs a definition of respect regardless if their parents have earned it or not.
I would’ve jumped for joy, decades ago, to read a learned mind, like George Carlin, echo this sentiment of mine. The more I age, and the more I see the other side of the argument, the more I understand that respect for parents is a benefit to both parties. As a child ages, experience leads them to need authority less, and the onus falls on the parent to live a life that commands respect from their progressed mind. Parents are people too, of course, and they’re subject to the same failings, missteps, and lifestyle choices as any other adult. When that adult become a parent, and they continue to display such failings, they present a challenge to a child who wants to respect them. It’s important for parents to do whatever they can to fulfill what was once unconditional respect and make better choices. In the respect arena, children are forgiving, blessed with a short-term memory, and imbued with a desire to respect their parents for the purpose of having something to respect, and to have parents that their friends can respect. Parents can serve as a lighthouse in a dark sea of confusion and chaos, and this is made most apparent by children who have been guided through their youth by suspect parenting, but I don’t think it’s debatable that a parent, coupled with a child’s obedience and respect of that parent, will play a role in that child’s life that will last well into adulthood.
No matter what my dad did or said, during my younger years, he required me to respect him. I considered that self-serving. I, like George Carlin, thought he needed to do more to earn my respect, but like a politician that lies and later informs the public that they’ve “always been consistent on the matter”, my dad’s constant demands for near unconditional respect worked. Even though there were moments when he lost my respect, he continued to require me to respect him. He required me to overlook the fact that he didn’t earn my respect in many ways. I did use Carlin’s line that respect and obedience should be earned on my dad, in many ways, even though I didn’t know Carlin echoed my sentiments at the time. To my teenage mind, this was illogical, and my dad’s answer to that was, “I am your father, and you will respect me,” and he wouldn’t yield on this point to my questions and complaints. No matter how hard I fought him on this issue, and how hard I tried to do otherwise, my dad repetitious insistence worked. I respected him, and his authority in my life, and it ended up benefiting me by giving me a base of respect, and a foundation from which I would venture forth in the rest of my life.
Of course there are qualifiers to this qualifier, as we’ve all witnessed otherwise stable parents produce one black sheep in a family of otherwise well-adjusted children, and we’ve all witnessed well-adjusted, under-parented children display a sense of independence that they carried into adulthood. The arguments that there are exceptions to every rule shouldn’t lead us to believe that the rules need to be changed. Parents should strive to earn respect and obedience from their children, but even if some don’t succeed in this regard, I consider it irresponsible to make a blanket statement that in some ways encourages children to disrespect their parents until they earn respect and obedience. Again, if it were Carlin’s goal to encourage parents to act in a responsible manner that earns respect, I would have no problem with his statement, but he had to add that period.
The aspect of the oft repeated refutation of the commandment that confuses me, in regards to George Carlin, is that by the time he wrote this piece, in his third book, he was older and wiser, and I would assume that he had reached an age where the benefits parental respect could have on a young person were clear to him. It sounds great to repeat the line that the age-old “honor thy mother and father” line is B.S., because that speaks to that rebellious side of us who have lived a full life in direct opposition to our parents’ wishes, and perhaps we even hated our parents, but Carlin had children at the time of this writing, grown children, and his perspective on this matter either didn’t change, or it flipped back. The only light in the tunnel of my confusion is that his children have stated that they often thought they were the parents in the Carlin home, a statement that leads this reader to suspect that George Carlin was probably a poor parent and a relatively chaotic adult in private. He had to have witnessed the deleterious effects this had on his children, and it probably formed his belief that obedience and respect should be conditional and earned period. Perhaps, he wrote it with the knowledge that he failed his children in this regard.