Forward Thinking: What Do We Owe Our Parents?

I’ts that time of the month again! Head on over to Camels with Hammers to see Dan’s roundup of the posts written in response to his prompt on punishment and moral failures two weeks ago, and with that said, it’s time to turn to our next Forward Thinking prompt.

Nearly two weeks ago, an article on Slate asked an interesting question: When terrible, abusive parents come crawling back, what do their grown children owe them? This got me thinking. Given that one of the ten commandments orders children to honor their parents, Christianity seems to emphasize filial duty. Leaving Christianity means I no longer believe I have a divinely-mandated obligation to my parents. Further, my parents caused me a great deal of pain when I first started stepping out on my own and forging my own life, and that can’t help but affect our relationship. But they’re still my parents. And so, without further ado, I give you this month’s Forward Thinking discussion question:

What do we owe our parents?

I want to invite readers to discuss this question in the comment section and to invite bloggers to respond on their own blogs. At the end of two weeks I will post a round-up of links and excerpts to both blog posts elsewhere and especially insightful comments here. Bloggers should email their links to lovejoyfeminism (at) gmail (dot) com with “Forward Thinking” in the subject line if they want to be included in the round-up.

Happy thinking and discussing!


Forward Thinking: A Values Development Project is an invitation to both readers and fellow bloggers to participate in forming positive values and grappling with thorny questions. Click here to read the project introduction.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Pigtail Guy

    I don’t know that I would have enough to say about this for an entire blog post. I don’t even have a child, and may indeed never have one, but…

    By default? By law? By commandment? A child owes its parents nothing.
    If you feel you have had good parents, or great parents, there is nothing wrong with feeling indebted to them. That is part and parcel of being a social creature. And for many, the child-parent relationship is one of the strongest social bonds they experience in their life.
    But parents who choose to have a child are the ones who accept responsibility for raising, and indeed mentoring the child. The child has no choice in the matter, and is basically stuck with her parents until she comes of age, or until society deems her parents abusive and decides that they are not fit as parents.

    The child does not owe her parents merely for bringing her to life or for adopting her. The only thing she can possibly owe her parents for, is her upbringing, and the love they show her. And whether or not she owes them anything for that is entirely up to her.
    And she certainly does not have some default obligation to obey her parents.
    That, I think, is why I really like your pieces on positive parenting. It makes far more sense to me than trying to present yourself to your child as some sort of absolute authority that must always be respected.
    There is a gulf of difference between trust and obedience. And the child may come wired to trust its parents, but I think some parents mistake this trust for obedience, and thus end up squandering it much too readily.

    I think that’s all I have to say. But as I said, I have no children of my own, so while I have opinions, I don’t have much real experience on this subject. Take that as you will :P

    • The_L

      There’s also the unfortunate case of individuals who confuse fear and respect. Such people tend to be pretty rough to have as parents (I speak from experience). I have been living alone for almost 2 years now, and I still occasionally have sudden attacks of “but what will Dad do to me when he finds out I’m doing things he doesn’t like?”

      • Carys Birch

        This! My parents were never physically rough on me… ever. But I am very well programmed to wonder about their reaction and seek their approval. I am thirty years old and still find myself very reluctant to publically do things they don’t approve of because… I just… can’t. The emotional penalty I pay is still too high.

  • Mike

    I think it’s worth breaking this into two parts : 1)do we have any obligation to our parents and 2) what should that obligation entail. With regard to having an obligation at all, the first glib response that pops into my head is “nothing”, but I don’t think that is fair.
    I mean I see the argument 1) they chose to have a child and 2)the child did not choose them as parents therefore 3)the parent does all the owe-ing by default.
    That being said, most parents, even mediocre parents, sacrafice a lot for their children. Money, time, dreams, sleep, even health. Many of them do so even when they didn’t realize how much of a sacrafice that would be. Some of them didn’t even really “choose” but felt obligated for various reasons. You might say they chose to have sex, but even that is not necessarily the case.
    Every child needs help. They need food and attention, they needs them all the time, and generally without any consideration for the parent. I suppose In some facile sense you might argue the parent forced the child to need help by forcing them to be born, but if you take that argument to its logical conculsion then everything that ever goes wrong in my life is my parent’s fault:)
    Finally, I think it’s a bit naive to argue that the child had no choice so there is no obligation. Even as adults we don’t get to choose what help we need, when we need it, who will provide it, or how. As a result, however unconfortable this might be, I don’t think we get to choose our obligations either.
    So in any parent/child relationship more involved than simply giving bith or providing sperm I do think there is at least a basis for obligation.
    On the other hand, it is certainly possible a parent has abdicated all responsibility and/or behaved in ways that are deeply destructive. I would hope this is the distinct minority. In this case, does giving life and nothing or little else form a basis for obligation?
    Surprisingly I think there might be something there. As an atheist I think I have some appreciation for how immensily lucky I am to be alive, conscious, and able to consider the universe. There is value to life. On the other hand it was relatively easy to give (particularly the sperm). I initially thought that was an easy way out, but we actually tend to put a lot of emphasis on the value received.
    For instance, if someone saved your life by doing the heimlich how much of an obligation would you feel to them?
    I don’t think even thinking of it as a duty gets you out either. After all we quite rightly feel obligation towards teachers, firefighters, cops, etc. even though they are doing their jobs.
    So I think we do have some sort of obligation to our parents. Even bad parents. I’m not sure how to even start answering the question of what we owe our parents based on that obligation though. I don’t know that I could clearly answer that question for just my parents, let alone for humanity in general.

  • Amethyst

    The song “No One Is Alone” from Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods is a great reflection on moving beyond what your elders taught you and finding your own way in the world, imo. I love the juxtaposition of “You decide what’s right, you decide what’s good” with “People make mistakes…Honor their mistakes, fight for their mistakes”. Nothing’s quite so clear now.

    “Mother cannot guide you
    Now you’re on your own
    Only me beside you
    Still, you’re not alone
    No one is alone, truly
    No one is alone

    Sometimes people leave you
    Halfway through the wood
    Others may deceive you
    You decide what’s good
    You decide alone
    But no one is alone

    I wish…

    I know.
    Mother isn’t here now
    (Wrong things, right things)
    Who knows what she’d say?
    (Who can say what’s true?)
    Nothing’s quite so clear now
    (Do things, fight things)
    Feel you’ve lost your way?
    You decide, but
    You are not alone
    Believe me,
    No one is alone
    No one is alone
    Believe me

    You move just a finger
    Say the slightest word
    Something’s bound to linger
    Be heard
    No acts alone
    No one is alone

    People make mistakes
    People make mistakes
    Holding to their own
    Thinking they’re alone
    Honor their mistakes
    Fight for their mistakes
    Everybody makes
    One another’s terrible mistakes
    Witches can be right
    Giants can be good
    You decide what’s right
    You decide what’s good

    Just remember
    (Just remember)
    Someone is on your side
    (Our side, Our side)
    Someone else is not
    While we’re seeing our side
    (Our side, Our side)
    Maybe we forgot
    They are not alone
    No one is alone

    Hard to see the light now
    (Just don’t let it go)
    Things will come out right now
    (We can make it so)
    Someone is on your side
    No one is alone”

  • EmuSam

    According to my parent, I’m a luxury item, not an investment, and he brought me into the world for better or for worse with no expectations. I owe him about $600 from a separately negotiated transaction. My other parent, when she was still alive, was more or less in agreement with him, but seemed to expect a bit of obedience, too. I figure I owed her one obedience for every time obedience turned out to be a good idea, which means I probably owe her one obedience that I will never pay.

    • Rosie

      This strikes me as…beautiful. :)

  • Alexander Cherry

    Having a child is a great and deep wrong. All of us would be better off were we not born. So, parenthood is in many cases simply paying reparations. And offspring should owe NOTHING for those reparations. There is no obligation, nor should there be, apart from the obligation that we should feel towards any person (well, any person with which we have a history – there’s no escaping that).
    That said, adoptive parents, since they tend not to be in any way involved in the conception, are taking on a burden they should not owe – paying the reparations of the birth parents. This should necessitate some recognition and perhaps some obligation, though what that should be, I do not know.

    • The Other Weirdo

      In the beginning, the Universe was created. This made a lot of people very angry and was widely considered to have been a bad move.

      That’s comedy. Yours is just sad, and not in a “I feel pity for your situation” way.

      • Emmers


      • Anna

        What Alexander just said wasn’t meant to be comedy. He/she is basically stating a Negative Utilitarianist position ( You may or may not agree, it may make you sad as a philosophy, but it certainly doesn’t make his/her points invalid, as you seem to imply. Also, to some of the other posters who replied to this: suggesting that Alexander get help with mental health is both condescending and missing the point, as he/she is stating his/her philosophical position.

      • michaelbusch


        It is not at all obvious to me what Alexander meant. It could be intended as comedy, it could be a negative utilitarian philosophical statement (which I would disagree with), it could be a religious statement (e.g. something based on original sin), or it could be something else. Without an additional statement from Alexander, I will not attempt long-distance mind reading.

    • Michael Busch

      Assuming you intended ” All of us would be better off were we not born” seriously, as with your statement below that “Bringing someone into the world is a net harm. ” : on what do you base those conclusions?

      I personally like being alive, and assign considerable positive value to being so. There was a time when I did not exist and there will be a time when I will no longer exist, and those two states both have neutral value. But being alive has positive value, for many reasons.

    • Chris Algoo

      Life is terrible some times, that’s true. It also is not terrible at other times, sometimes it’s even good, or great. As one random internet commenter to another, may I suggest talking to someone, possibly a therapist, and if not that, a good and nonjudgmental friend? You can even email me, although I don’t have any training. There can be pleasure in life… well, sometimes! Good luck.

  • smrnda

    Instead of *my parents* I prefer to think of ‘what do I owe older people?’ For one, I should be willing to pay taxes so that those too old to work can get by, and perhaps enjoy a few years at the end where they no longer have to work. I strongly prefer using government welfare to take care of the elderly for several reasons.

    In my own case, I live very far from my parents, and given that they had children late, there’s no real direct assistance I can provide them. My brother doesn’t even live in the same country as our parents. So in the case of our family, us helping out our parents isn’t feasible at all, and since we can’t do it, I’d prefer to turn my money over to the government and have them do it.

    I also think it’s a solution for when parents haven’t been good to their kids. I think parents like that could very well get what they deserve, but I’d prefer that nobody do without any sort of help when they’re old, but I also can’t feel that children mistreated by their parents owe their parents anything.

    • Rosa


      I am way more able to take care with someone else’s parents, who never did anything to me, than with my parent. I am so happy there are people who are not me, who are not conflicted or stressed out in helping him, to do it (the government, in the form of Social Security, and also my stepmother).

  • TKB

    I’m inclined to agree that a child does not owe anything to their parents, not legally, morally, or any other sense of ‘duty’. Parents who have the choice to have children or not, I think, do have a legal and moral responsibility in rearing their children at least until they are of age. To what extent, that is up for debate. But the basic line is that kids don’t have a choice/no control until they are of age and after that. It starts out as a very lopsided thing and choice plays a big role in that for me.

    All the same, I have to say, I owe a lot to my parents. With them I was able to grow up in a stable home, enjoy opportunities growing up that many others didn’t, and I was fortunate enough to go to university. The last is where they went above and beyond any sense of responsibility in helping me to be able to afford the costs without the crushing debt – even as I worked through a good portion of my university career. I want to return the favor by doing well enough that I can help them achieve some of the goals that they’ve since had to put aside by my sisters and I. I know I don’t owe it to them and we certainly share very different views on a number of subjects, but I want to reciprocate. Not out of duty, but out of love — because they really took the time (and continue to take that time) to grow, work through the rough patches, and invest in our relationship. They went above and beyond basic responsibility.

    I don’t think a parent is anymore owed the love of their child than a child is owed the love of their parent — though I would presume that is the hope of most parents who want children and that is the hope of most children who have parents. One might lump parental responsibility and parental affection together — even parental affection as a part of that parental responsibility — but they don’t always occur side by side 100% of the time. Even so, is it an excuse to shirk basic parental responsibility? I don’t think so.

    After reading that Slate article, I can appreciate that other people have the best intentions in mind when they tell/pressure individuals to ‘reconcile’ with their parents, but on the flip side, I think they should account — namely, listen — for how the individual relates to their parents more than using some vague sense of moral regret to push these individuals into actions they have no wish to take. In particular, I take the approach that toxic relationships are completely valid to drop kick as far as the eye can see and then some.

    My relationship with my grandfather is one such for myself — I will not miss him when he dies because there is no real relationship to miss. To me, it’s a ‘relationship’ in blood only.

  • Basketcase

    The kinds of cases the Slate article was talking about, I sincerely believe those people do NOT owe their parents reconciliation or assistance.
    Where parents abuse their authority and make their childrens lives so difficult that the kids have no option but to cut them off for their own sanity, that continued sanity comes first, along with any additional relationships that may be impacted by strains on that sanity.

  • rizarosette

    Children owe their parents absolutely nothing. Parents become parents for their own selfish reasons (whether they see it that way or not). Respect, Love, Kindness, are all things that we EARN. If I respect and love my mother, it’s because she has qualities that I deem respectable and loveable, NOT because she was able to squeeze a baby out- anyone with the proper parts can do that.

  • Pingback: Forward Thinking: Whether or How to Punish People

  • Kristen

    I attempt to follow an ethic of care framework for most moral decisions. To me, that best acknowledges that morality isn’t set in stone or written into the universe somewhere, and it’s got to be flexible enough to account for different situations, but that it ought to be primarily about human relationships. So I believe that people do have an obligation to exercise particular care towards those who are most affected by our decisions and who are most vulnerable. I think that children under normal circumstances do have an obligation to show their parents care and love, because a parent’s love for a child is almost universal and that kind of love creates vulnerability and interdependence. An elder whose mental and/or physical health is failing becomes more vulnerable, and so I think a child’s obligations to care for that parent (if possible) become greater. However, a person’s highest obligation needs to be to herself (and her partner and children, if those exist), so I don’t think that obligation holds if showing care to a parent will cause undue harm. I also don’t think that obligation continues if a parent has made choices that make him more emotionally vulnerable–for example, by tying his emotional health to his children’s behavior or trying to make that child responsible for his happiness.

    That’s the ethic I try to follow with my parents. It’s not my obligation to follow my parents’ religion, even though not doing so causes them great pain, because I have a higher obligation to be true to myself. However, when I’m visiting, I attend church with them as an act of care, because I know it means a lot to them for me to participate in something they care deeply about and be involved in that part of their lives. I’ll continue to do that as long as they respect my religious choices and don’t start pressuring me to attend at home or trying to convert my son.

  • Rosa

    Libby Anne, in your case, with what you’ve shared – I don’t think you necessarily have an obligation, but your parents have years ahead of you to make a relationship that might lead you to want to care for them. They may or may not take advantage of that opportunity, but they have it.

  • ako

    I’m reluctant to declare a universal special obligation to parents, partly because my family situation has been so good. (And partly because I know so many people who didn’t have that.) What I owe my parents, I owe them because years of kindness and loving care, not because they created me. (And because it’s a good relationship, we all try to give generously without sitting around counting what’s owed.)

    I think there’s a certain basic level of decent treatment which every human being is entitled to, but beyond that, what children owe their parents really depends on the family situation. Life is complicated, and if someone doesn’t want to deal with an emotionally abusive parent anymore because they’re at their personal limit, I’m not going to judge them. (Similarly, if someone chooses to take the risks and extend kindness beyond what’s owed, I’m not going to judge them.)

  • AnyBeth

    [Sorry for the book. I have no blog.]

    Are we born indebted? if not by sin, then to ones who brought us into the world when we had no desire (as nothing non-existent has wants)? I should say not!

    If we are born to owe our parents, even if one decides severely abused children may be excused from the duties they would have to their parents, you have horrible calculations to do: what qualifies as abuse? How much, how bad, how often is enough to mollify the extent of their obligation to those who were charged with their care when they were helpless, to these people they might want nothing more than to escape from? If everyone owes their parents, who gets to make all these ghastly calculations? (And do not deceive yourself, saying you’re not just thinking of the most awful abuse: there is still something you wouldn’t call abuse that another will.) Surely it may not be these offspring who obviously seek nothing more than to shirk their duties!
    But that is terrible, horrific! If we had some bureaucratic ethical obligation, there would be those who just hadn’t be treated quite badly enough to have their debt excused… so that if they refuse their duties, they commit a wrong. Yes, they are judged as terrible people because their parents didn’t abuse them quite enough for it to be ok to refuse their parents.
    As horrible as it is, the situation described above is often practiced in American society. This is where we are now, and I believe the idea is deeply flawed. No one should have to recount traumatic tales or force themselves to face those who had no business baring or raising them for fear of being judged to be a horrible, uncaring person–as if it is not enough to recognize one’s first lasting obligation is to care of oneself.

    I’d imagine that most people from reasonably good homes would want to do for their parents to some degree. I would think that parents who did well might find their children’s love and assistance freely given rather than coerced by the familial obligation society may demand. Yes, I speak hypothetically: I am not one of these children.
    I was a child wanted by people who had no business having children. My existence in no way retroactively makes them people who should have had children. I recognize I never should have been born. I do not owe my parents anything for doing that which they never should have done. Not that I would owe my parents if they had excelled at child-rearing; but in that case, it would be safe to give if I should so desire.
    Free gifts, not obligations. Obligation lessens what would be freely given and dooms the abused to further hurt. It is a bad idea. Nothing is owed.

  • Lee

    I tend to think of love and respect as a form of emotional currency. Every parent starts out with a certain amount of it “in the bank”. Good parents will safeguard their balance and invest in increasing it, and will reap their reward in their children’s willingness to maintain contact and enjoyment of their company. But some parents are spendthrifts — they squander their starting balance by hurtful and abusive behavior toward their children, and it’s like any other kind of currency in that once it’s gone, it’s much harder to regain than it would have been to keep.

    You do not owe your parents love if they treat you like dirt.
    You do not owe your parents respect if they fail to respect you.
    You do not owe your parents obedience if their demands are actively harmful to you.
    You do not owe your parents gratitude for “having given you life” if they then went on to make that life a hell on earth.
    You do not owe your parents gratitude for “having kept you fed and clothed” and/or other physical care because that’s their damn JOB.
    You do not owe your parents gratitude for “having sacrificed [X] for you” and then reminding you of it every day thereafter, or whenever they want to guilt you into doing something.
    You do not, absolutely NOT, owe your parents grandchildren. Especially if you don’t think that you would be a good parent.

    When in doubt, a good question to ask yourself is, “If my teacher / boss / neighbor / friend treated me like this, how would I react?” You do not owe your parents anything extra just for having been your parents… unless you decide that you want to.

    • Rosie

      “You do not owe your parents respect if they fail to respect you.
      You do not owe your parents obedience if their demands are actively harmful to you.”

      The trouble I have with this is: who gets to decide what is harmful?

      My parents did everything they did out of love and good intentions, but what I experienced was trauma. So, do I owe them for their love and good intentions, despite their rather profound ignorance? Or not, since from my end it indeed looks to have been both disrespectful and harmful?

      • Lee

        “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” seems applicable here. I would say that you get to make that call, based on the real-world effects of their behavior on your life.

        You do not owe your parents the obligation to co-inhabit their private fantasy world.

  • kisarita

    I am shocked that so many people see children as owing nothing to their parents. Why do you think all the obligation goes only one way? Only parents are obligated towards children? Perhaps then no one is obligated to anyone?
    The minimum one owes ones parents is as follows: To see that their physical needs are met, when/if the parents become incapable of meeting them themselves. Next; respectful interpersonal behavior.

    Its great that someone transposed the question into “what do we do for the aged” but that’s exactly like transposing the question “what do we do for OUR children” into what do we do for children in general. two entirely different questions.

    Above and beyond that I would say that one owes their parent deference in manner (if desired), although not in substance- meaning as long as the said deference doesn’t mean you must agree with them all the time and always do what they say. and help with whatever they need help with.

    If a parent was abusive or derelict then I would agree the offspring does not have obligations.

    • The_L

      What about parents who aren’t abusive, but are dysfunctional? The parent who plays the martyr or otherwise does things that the law doesn’t qualify as abuse, but that harm the child psychologically just as much? The sort of parent that the child has to move away from ASAP just to preserve sanity?

      What on earth do we owe that sort of parent?

    • Kristen

      I’m shocked as well. I think the community of readers of this blog has more people who have had negative experience with parents. There’s also a difficulty of finding a bright line. What I’m seeing a lot is people say they don’t think children who have been abused or just not treated well ought to feel obligation to their parents, and they can’t find a clear line between what does and doesn’t qualify as abuse, so they default to no obligation.

      In my eyes, it’s more proportional. Parents and children have mutual obligations to care for each other, but when either party in that relationship fails to exercise care or (even worse) acts to harm the other, the obligation lessens both ways.

      • Anat

        People are answering the question ‘what do all people owe their parents, no matter what, simply for being their parents’ which is a different question than ‘what does the typical person owe their parents, for being the kind of parents they are and for all they did as parents’. Also, people would rather care for others out of choice than out of obligation.

      • Emmers

        I agree with Anat. It’s so highly specific that it’s *very* difficult to make a universal statement.

    • Alexander Cherry

      Bringing someone into the world IS A NET HARM. This is why I don’t feel children should owe anything to parents, but parents should owe to children.

      • Anat

        I don’t think it is possible to make a meaningful claim whether being born is a net gain, harm or neutral. Comparison to the non-existent state is like division by zero.

    • Lee

      People who grew up in reasonable families are always shocked at the notion that children might not owe their parents anything. This is not your fault; it’s the predictable outcome of the disconnect between people who have reasonable families and those who don’t.

      It is sometimes difficult for someone with an unreasonable family to understand the experience of living in a reasonable one. It is nearly impossible for someone with a reasonable family to understand the experience of living in an unreasonable one.

      • Emmers

        Yes, this. I have a wonderful immediate family, but learning about my friends’ families (many of which were *not* wonderful) gave me a great deal of perspective on how Not Everything Is Just Like My Situation.

    • Divizna

      Well, I’m shocked that you only think in terms of obligation. Noone ever said you shouldn’t do anything for your parents, and I’m sure most of us will, but I don’t think it’s something you have the right to require no matter what. Actually, I do think it’s something that you don’t have the right to require at all. A good thing to do, but not an obligation.

      No, I don’t believe in duties I didn’t place upon myself… myself. I don’t believe in duties someone else decided to place upon me forcibly. By marrying someone or by having a child you actively accept your duties towards these people. By passively being born, you don’t.

      And if the parents are abusive… you know, sometimes I have the feeling that what I’ll always owe them is… revenge. Revenge for crippling my development. For instilling the mindset of an abuse victim so deep inside me, and subsequently for me being bullied from kindergarten to workplace. For tying my mind up so tight in what I’m supposed to fulfill for them that I can’t even find my mind under the ropes. For all pain from the beating, fear from the blackmail, humiliation and helplessness. For ensuring I know absolutely for sure I’m worse, way worse than nothing. For me being hated and rejected while being constantly told that anyone else in my life will love me even much less. For me learning to hate myself and having to believe I’m evil. For being broken and twisted and scared of myself. For knowing I’ll never be good enough if I’m not twice more than absolutely perfect. And for still continuing to abuse me now I’m thirty.

      Yes, I’m doing anything to please them. But frankly, not taking my revenge is more than I would have to do if only I were free in the mind.

      No, I wouldn’t take revenge. I’d be satisfied by getting free. And then I’d do all they need from me. But not anything to please them. Not anymore.

      I know. I’m a bad person. Maybe they’re right that I was born that way. Maybe I got twisted by my parents’ upbringing. What if is a question noone can answer.

      And mind you. I was not starved, not locked up in dark cellar, only once hurt so it resulted in mild permanent damage, never molested, only two days homeless. Most people would say I was not an abused child at all. But I’m still so crippled in the mind I don’t think I’ll ever recover.

  • kisarita

    It’s interesting that you bring up the lack of a divine mandate with regard to parenthood. Does the lack of a divine mandate leave you stumped with regard to other social obligations?

    • Libby Anne

      I didn’t say I was stumped with regard to the obligations we have to our parents. I’m not. In this post I’m introducing a question for the Forward Thinking project so that people can hash out their thoughts on the issue. My point in mentioning the divine mandate bit was that I grew up seeing children’s obligations to their parents in those terms, in terms of obeying a command given by God. I don’t believe in God anymore, so I no longer believe there is a divine command for children to obey their parents. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still believe there is a social obligation there.

  • luckyducky

    I was going to type up something far too long about navigating a relationship with a patriarchal fundamentalist christian father-in-law… in a nut shell, in many ways he was a good father to my husband growing up and in many ways, I understand much of what he has done as his way of showing love… but he has been very hurtful and there we have managed to create only an uneasy detente because of irreconcilable expectations (he expects obedience of even adult children and we expect that as adults we get to make our own decisions, preferably given input only when sought).

    However, I thought I would get to the question Libby Anne posed, what do we owe our parents? I think what I’ve read in the comments above understanding the obligation as only between the two or three people involved in the parent-child relationship. I understand the obligation aspect of this more broadly in that caring for parents or other family members is part of a larger social contract.

    The question brought to mind, not sure why, but a theme Fred Clark addresses rather frequently – subsidiarity – the idea of overlapping spheres of responsibility. He used the example of caring for children to illustrate the point: ideally parents care for and raise a child, if not, other family members, if not friends, if not the state assigns another family (foster), finally, the state takes direct responsibility (group home). I would apply that more generally to family — we may have gotten a crappy draw with it comes to family but ours is the first or second sphere, depending on the relationship, of responsibility when it comes to caring for them.

    Part of being in a community is that we participate in a social contract. Even what we give to one person may far outweigh what they have given to us, it still may be incumbent on us to do so, not because we owe them in some sort of 1-to-1 exchange but because we have responsibility to the community.

    That being said, if the abuse or harm done is high, it may exceed the demands of the social contract. No one should be subject to abuse, particularly abuse they don’t feel they are capable of coping with. So, not everyone is called to do that caring in person and some people are free from the responsibility altogether.

    Beyond that, what do you owe your parents, abusive or not, as adults? Basic respect accorded all human beings, common courtesy… beyond that, the rest of it — affection, holiday dinners, etc. — is all a function of the trust built in that relationship and not an automatic outgrowth of a biological/legal parent-child link.

  • Christine

    I think that children have a duty to maintain a relationship with their parents, and to try to see that their parents needs are met as they get older. However, I believe that this duty comes after the duty to take care of yourself. You have toxic parents, and everytime you talk to them they make you feel like crap? Tell them it’s a problem and stop talking to them. If you feel up for it later, set firm boundaries and try again. If they violate the boundaries then go. But don’t do it if it will hurt too much.

    Currently my grandparents are living in a city without any nearby children (or grandchildren). My parents tried to suggest that they move closer to where my parents and my aunt & uncle live, but my grandparents are refusing to do so. None of us feel obligated to move to their city. We will visit a few times a year, but they are adults and have chosen to live there.

  • Rilian

    We owe our parents nothing. They chose to have children. Well, we owe them the same as any other person — just don’t attack them out of nowhere or anything. But if you want to go away and never talk to them again, no one should try to convince you otherwise.

    • Divizna

      I second that. Of course, most of us will do our best to give our parents all they need from us, material or social or whatever, the lucky children out of love, the unlucky out of Stockholm syndrome – but in tems of entitlement and obligation, we don’t have to do anything for them.

  • Carys Birch

    I think this is a very layered thing, and I’d like to peel apart my thoughts a little bit.

    At base – at root – I don’t think a child incurs any obligation for being cared for by their parents, or whoever happens to be their caregiver. Infants and small children require care, it isn’t transactional, they don’t bargain or negotiate for it, they simply require it. Someone has a responsibility to provide for that care, with no obligation owing in return.

    As kids get older, however, there’s a lot that goes on in most parent-child relationships that falls outside the realm of “what is owed to every human being with no strings attached”. But I don’t really think that the obligation owed to parents differs from the obligation we owe (as adults) to anyone who helps us. It’s just more likely to occur amongst family because of the bonds that we share. I have an obligation to support my parents where I can because they have supported me — financially at least — as an adult, when it was not their responsibility to do so. I don’t think it differs in nature from the obligation I have to my friend and her family, who allowed me to stay with them for a month rent free once when I needed it. It is the same KIND of obligation, but it differs in magnitude because my parents have supported me in that way and others many times over the years.

    I do NOT think adult children have an obligation to accept, obey, or even listen to a parents’ advice. I think people have a moral responsibility to act according to their best judgement, and to weigh advice carefully on its merits, without regard to the source.

    My parents have inflicted some trauma on me. But they’ve also come through for me at some incredibly rough moments, so I walk a bit of a tightrope between that sense of obligation (which I think is valid) and that sense of having been wronged (which is also valid).

  • kisarita

    There is also this very strange idea that social obligations are born out of choice. that’s incorrect. None of us choose the world or society we live in and we all have obligations to it.
    And I have news for you- parents who did NOT choose to have their children are just as obligated towards them, unless t hey follow the procedures approved by the law and society to transfer the obligation to someone else.
    Social obligations have nothing to do with choice.

    • BringTheNoise

      There is also this very strange idea that social obligations are born out of choice. that’s incorrect.

      Is it? Can you give an example? I can’t think of any.

      And I have news for you- parents who did NOT choose to have their children are just as obligated towards them, unless t hey follow the procedures approved by the law and society to transfer the obligation to someone else.

      In other words, unless they CHOOSE to end that obligation.

      • kisarita

        You are obligated to pay taxes in the society that you live in and follow its laws, unless they are immoral and unjust, in which case your obligation to society is to protest them in whatever capacity you are able.

        They hold that obligation ONLY once the obligation is taken over by someone else. If it is not, they are held liable for neglect. Basically, they are responsible that SOMEONE does it, if not themselves.

      • BringTheNoise

        You are obligated to pay taxes in the society that you live in and follow its laws, unless they are immoral and unjust, in which case your obligation to society is to protest them in whatever capacity you are able.

        Paying taxes is a legal obligation, not a social one. People who don’t pay their taxes are frequently lauded by large sections of society, you may have noticed.

        And what are the consequences of failing this “obligation” to protest unjust laws? Because an obligation where no one cares if you don’t do it isn’t much of an obligation.

  • kisarita

    I admit that parents is complex- because as imperfect humans beings with an exceptional amount of power, it is nearly impossible that our parents will not hurt us somehow.
    The question is a matter of degree I think, and while the extremes are apparent, there is no absolute dividing line between OK enough and Not OK enough. Carys expressed it well I think.

  • Rae

    In my experience, the only parents who try to pull that line with their children are the ones who say “Well, we fed and clothed and housed you for 18 years! It’s expensive and exhausting! You’re so ungrateful!” as if it was some kind of great, selfless sacrifice they made, instead of the bare minimum of responsibility that an adult has when they choose to bear and raise a child. I’ve never seen older parents who treated their children well, instead of as a burden, have to ask for their children’s help when they needed it.

    Maybe part of my lack of sympathy for those parents is that I had an ex-friend of mine who pretty much did the same thing with animals, over and over and over: Paint herself as a hero for adopting one, despite everyone’s warnings that she had enough, and then try to request money from everyone else because the expenses of caring for the animals were too much for her.

  • Sophie

    This is a particularly hard question, at least for me, because you can have an abusive parent or parents and still love them and not want them to suffer. I have recently made the decision to cut my mother out of my life once my youngest brother turns 18. She is emotionally abusive, manipulative and neglectful and she is never going to change. Growing up knowing that my mother’s love was entirely conditional on impossible ever changing standards has left me damaged. And if I’m honest I’ve only maintained the relationship this long because of my younger brothers, she uses my love for them to manipulate me and I know that she would stop me seeing them. But once they are 18 they’ll be free to see me whenever they want, and I won’t have to see my mother at all. Despite all this, it has not been an easy choice to make. I still love my mum and desperately want her to love me even though the logical part of me knows it’ll never happen. And I do worry about what will happen to her when she’s old, because I doubt any of my brothers will take care of her and I certainly won’t.

    On the other hand, I will be doing whatever I can to take care of my dad just as he has always done whatever he can to take care of me. He saved my life when he got me to move in with him at age 14 after my 2nd suicide attempt. He showed me unconditional love and support and I think stopped me becoming as damaged as I could have been. He certainly prevented me from being dead. He knows that I still have my issues with him but he has done his best to help me deal with them and has apologised for his poor decisions.

    So to answer the question I don’t think that we owe our parents anything except the common courtesy that we extend to other people. Love and respect are not owed, they should be earned. If you do chose to care for your parents when they are older, it should be done out of love never out of obligation. And in the case of abusive parents, we certainly do not owe them forgiveness but there is nothing wrong in forgiving them if you think it is to your own benefit. Just like there is nothing wrong with loving them as long as you are still protecting yourself from further hurt.

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