Forward Thinking: What We Owe Our Parents

Forward Thinking is a values development project created in collaboration with Dan Fincke of Camels with Hammers. Dan is introducing our next prompt today (head on over to see it!), but in this post I will pull together some of the responses to this month’s prompt: “What do we owe our parents?” A total of five bloggers wrote posts in response.

I want to start with this succinct summary by B. of Celebration of Gaia:

We owe our parents everything. Without them, we would not exist. We wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be anywhere.

And yet, at the same time, we owe our parents nothing. We didn’t ask to be born, to be brought into this world. We didn’t ask to exist.

I remember the first time I heard that second point. I think someone introduced it to me with an analogy: A dog owner has no right to get upset about having to feed her dog, because she’s the one who chose to get a dog. When you choose to have a child, you are choosing voluntarily to take on the responsibility of feeding, clothing, and raising that child.

Perhaps the best example of this comes from Anne. Because I knew that Anne grew up in a profoundly abusive home, and because I knew that Anne was now a parent herself, I was perhaps especially interested to read her post. Here is how she thinks about the topic of obligation to one’s parents today. Anne had this to say:

There’s a saying that’s been going around for a long time, “Be nice to your kids, they’ll choose your nursing home.” I never realized until just now how absolutely true that is.

For a very, very long time I believed I owed my parents everything. This probably was due a lot to the fact that they thought my whole existence was to please them. … My dad would go on and on about how children were supposed to take care of their parents and elders and do whatever they said because of one random passage in the bible that said some grandkids of this one dude didn’t drink alcohol or build houses because their grandpa was told by god not to (Jeremiah 35).

The more I’ve thought about it though, and the more I’ve read about parenting, the more I see they had it totally backwards and the saying “be nice to your kids, they’ll choose your nursing home” is totally true. You shouldn’t raise your kids thinking they owe you their life, therefore they can be your slaves. You raise them to be human beings who will function in society and better themselves and everyone around them. You be kind, respectful, and loving, and more than likely they will be kind, respectful, and loving back. I don’t feel Ari owes me anything. It wasn’t her fault she was born, and it would be really unfair to put all that on her just because she was born. If she chooses not to help us in her old age, we are adults and we figure it out ourselves. If she does choose to help us in our old age (and hopefully we will, because we strive to teach her to be caring towards others!), it will make life great.

As far as my folks are concerned…I’m not even sure I’m going to see them before they or I die. If we do see each other, it would be on my terms, and they have a hell of a lot of apologizing to do, because if anyone owes anybody anything…THEY owe ME for a shitty, abusive childhood and a buttload of emotional baggage.

I didn’t choose to be born. Why should I owe someone else for their actions?!

While I personally agree with Anne and am taking a similar approach with my own children, I do think it’s important not to move so far in the direction of individualism as to forget the importance of relationships or the extent of our interconnectedness with others. We shouldn’t overlook or ignore the kindnesses others, whether they be parents or friends do us, and we should be ready to return the good others have done us in kind.

On the other extreme, the blogger who runs Fruits of Kamma offers a very different perspective from that outlined by Anne above:

The ancient idea of obligation was more generous and more circular. Each of us is born into obligation — obligation not only to our parents, who give us life, but obligation also to everyone in our community, who give us care and education and help when we are in need. We, in turn, are responsible for paying back, paying forward, and paying sideways by shouldering our responsibilities as members of a community. It is impossible to walk away from this sort of obligation — or perhaps not impossible, but it requires a sort of exile, a species of communal death.

This older view of obligation is, in my opinion, much more humane than the newer view. I try to cultivate a sense of gratitude to everyone and everything around me. If someone performs a service for me — let us say, they cut my hair or serve me a meal — I am grateful for that. Of course, I pay them, but that, in my view, is not simple recompense. It is a small gift I offer to them. Ideally, we are each enriched by our exchange, and instead of going our separate ways, we are bound more closely, by gratitude and by the pleasure we find in helping each other.

Matt Recla, who starts by saying that he grew up with excellent parents, discusses interconnectivity and obligation in a way that bridges the points made by Anne and the blogger above:

So how should the obligation we have to our parents be manifest? It depends. If the relationship is healthy and desirable, it can manifest in the same interactions as any other loving relationship. If unhealthy, there may not be a relationship at all, and it may be better that way. In any case, though, the idea of obligation requires a willingness to face the fact that none of us are independent. Americans enjoy the image of the self-made man or woman, and particularly in cases when individuals seem to have triumphed over difficult odds, which may have included poor familial relationships. Even these folks didn’t make it without help, and no one wins a prize for shunning relationships the most. We cannot escape the complex web of our interconnection with our environment and those within it. Rather than trying to just discharge or ignore it, we would do well to embrace our indebtedness and move forward because of or in spite of it.

Rachel Marcy argues for this same balance:

I don’t think the parent-child relationship entails an equal exchange of obligations. Parents have a basic obligation to provide for their children, at least until they reach adulthood. From there, I think everything depends on the quality of the relationship. Unfortunately, some people have terrible parents, and I would never advise them to maintain relationships with abusive or toxic relatives, especially for the sake of a vague sense of “forgiveness.” No one owes someone who mistreated them during their most vulnerable and helpless stage of life. Nor do I think that children inherently owe their parents for the fact of being born; after all, we don’t choose to be born, and we don’t choose our parents. But we do have the sort of obligations to our parents that we have to other human beings with whom we have relationships. For better or worse, the parent-child relationship is one of the closest that humans have, and the closeness of that relationship leads to a greater sense of obligation.

Kay turned the question around but also arrived at a similar conclusion:

So, let’s turn this around: when a parent honors their child? It’s most often by treating that child as an adult. As a person who is capable, mature, and trustworthy. Why shouldn’t that be turned around? Certainly, with younger children who don’t yet understand all the forces at work around them, the scales tip more towards obedience- especially in emergencies. With adults the scales tip more towards independence, and the sometimes-difficult teen years are often centered around this very balance. But if the child treats their parents (within reasonable bounds of safety according to the situation) as a capable, mature, and trustworthy adult? That sounds like honor to me.

And sometimes, when we’re interacting with capable, mature, reasonably trustworthy adults? The best way we can honor them is to share our opinions, our concerns, and to follow our own conscience, even when it does lead to disagreement, or worse. But I have to believe that sometimes, honoring one’s parents means confronting them about their lies, their bigotry, or their criminal activity- because all of those things are done by parents, somewhere, and if the alternative is ignoring or enabling it, well, those don’t sound very honorable to me.

After reading the comments on the original prompt—do take a look through it for additional perspectives!—I had a few additional thoughts.

First, I think the extent to which we assume children have default responsibilities to their parents is affected by the emphasis we place on responsibility to society as a whole versus responsibility to blood relatives. When one commenter suggested that we should instead ask what we owe the elderly, another commenter argued that this only works if we also ask what we owe all children rather than what we owe our children specifically. I think this is an interesting point. Which bears more weight? Collective social responsibility, or individual family responsibility? Depending on where you fall on this spectrum, your answer to questions about family obligations will likely differ.

Next, reader Lee left a comment I found thought provoking:

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.

I like this perspective. I don’t think we should individually go about tabulating or calculating abuses and obligations, but I think Lee accurately expresses how our obligations toward our parents generally work out in practice. Parents have the potential to invest in their children and raise them well, building strong lifelong relationships and reaping future rewards in terms of both physical and emotional support. However, parents can also squander this potential, treating their children badly and sabotaging what could have been.

Feel free to add any additional thoughts this discussion may have raised for you!

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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.

  • Sheldon

    This is really a hard one for me. I’ll be moving into another stage in my life in about a year, and I’m pretty sure I’ll end up having to cut my parents out of my life. They have the typical extreme fundamentalist mindset that your children are your property that you can control for their entire lives.

    My mom tried that with my sister, it took damn near 14 years of her pushing back after leaving home, especially against out mother, before she finally got it through her thick head that she couldn’t control her like that.

    I know that since I was closer to our parents, being the youngest, it’s going to be even harder to live independently and keep my sanity if I have them in my life to any extent. Maybe just cutting ties altogether is the only option I have.

  • luckyducky

    I have very mixed feelings about the “emotional currency” line of reasoning.

    A little bit of background: I spent 5 years observing healthy marriage/healthy relationships skills classes and the idea of an emotional bank account or something equivalent was very prevalent across the various curricula used. Most emphasized that it takes 10 or some other multiple deposits (positive, loving, affirmative action) to compensate for every withdraw (negative, hurtful/harmful action). And for a lot of people this seems to be sort of revelatory — basically I think it brought home the idea that a biological connection does not guarantee love nor give a license to treat another person like crap.

    Caveat: though there were a lot of people who attended these classes who were from well functioning homes and they came to brush up on skills. However, there were a lot of people (explicitly sought out for service) whose only exposure to family life was very dysfunctional or who were mired in highly dysfunctional familial relationships (drug treatment facilities, homeless shelter for runaway teens, battered women’s shelters, etc.)

    On the other hand, one of the few pieces of relationship advice my father (happily married for 43 years) has given me is “don’t do relationship math because you always end up coming up short.” In other words, score keeping is never going to do justice to what goes on in a relationship, good or bad, but particularly if people love each other and are genuinely trying. Because it won’t do justice, it is more likely to be a source of resentment that things are even than anything else. I am not sure how you employ the emotional bank account model without some degree of relationship math.

    I come down on the side of “what do we owe society” and to that end I think that we have a certain responsibility to “bloom where we are planted.” The emphasis is “bloom” because if you do not thrive, your responsibility to provide for others is not the primary concern. So the “where you are planted” part is secondary but not unimportant. Despite all the problems, we still depend on biological relationships for determining who is responsible by default. It isn’t immutable and responsibility is definitely on a sliding scale based on how well you are able to get your own needs met within the context of the relationship as it should be with nearly any relationship between adults.

    • Jayn

      A few other people here commented about putting obligation to parents second to obligation to self, and I rather like that framing. It doesn’t say that there’s no obligation, but that there may be other considerations that come before that. They can include dysfunctional family dynamics that mean that any fulfilled obligation is going to come at a steep cost–sometimes ‘where we’re planted’ isn’t somewhere we can thrive, so distancing ourselves from our family of origin is necessary for our own well-being.

  • Lynn

    I’m not sure this has a right answer. For me, emotions play a huge part in what I feel I owe my parents. They were very good parents, and I feel very fortunate for the secure environment they gave me and all the effort they put into parenting. When I think on that, it makes me more generous toward them. However, there have been times as an adult where I have felt taken for granted and un-cared about, and in those times I have felt completely justified in not giving back. Specifically, when I lived in a different city and was going through grad school, they almost never visited me, while expecting me to come home twice a year, and they didn’t take any interest in my life. I realized that I expected them to nurture our relationship the way any friend would, and with equal effort on both sides. When they dropped their end of the bargain in my mind, whatever generosity I felt for their raising me dwindled drastically.

    These were my natural gut reactions. I have wondered if I am still a child who expects everything of their parents with no obligations in return. And yet I think our emotions often lead us to what is natural, so long as our expectations have not been warped by outside influence.

  • Jaimie

    Strange timing. My Dad is currently in the hospital awaiting the results of a biopsy and my memory-lapsing mom is at home, unable to visit him. I took off both work and school to give time to this situation.
    What can I say? After a lifetime of head-butting, love, frustration, joy, misunderstandings, humor, anger, disrespect, respect, and all the other good, bad, and ugly times, I can honestly say with my whole heart that I accept them for who they are. Our relationship has flaws, some of them enormous.
    I am also imperfect. I have done and said things that I deeply regret. But somehow, I love them and they love me. I will do whatever it takes to help them now. I do not consider it “owed”.
    But please understand, this is my story. This is not everyone’s story.

    • Rod

      This pretty much sums up my story as well. Very well stated.
      Thank you

    • John Moriarty

      What Jamie said. Well summed up, you saved me sharpening my pen.

  • NotTheBoss

    This is an issue that is very close to me as well. I have an interesting contrast, wherein my mother was abusive and hurtful and toxic and has done an enormous amount of damage; I have actually tried to confront and discuss multiple times, and put a great deal of emotional effort into fixing things, but the only response I get is to be accused of lying, told I am the abusive one (wha–? for blocking when parent tries to hit me? am I supposed to stand still and be hit in the face?), and it’s generally awful. I have come to the conclusion that I owe her nothing. I still care about her. I would like her to be happy. The amount of effort I’m willing to put into those things is very low, because even being near her or talking on the phone is a great cost to me.

    By contrast, my Dad – while being thoroughly problematic and there are definitely issues there – is willing to talk, and put the effort in. He is caring, willing to try to make up for what looked like benign neglect to him at the time, even though he is antagonistic and occasionally a real pain. I figure the latter is just part of a kind of “normal” complicated parent-child relationship. It’s not a matter of obligation with Dad; I care about him and want him to be happy too, but it’s far more immediate to me. Helping Dad out costs me much less emotionally, because there is no history of abuse.

    It’s an awful question in many ways, because I don’t think we can come up with a general rule. I really don’t think there is a right answer at all. I honestly feel (irrational and unfair I know) hurt and angry every time anyone suggests – ever – that we owe our love and time to our parents, in any way, even in a “common humanity” way. It makes me feel malformed that I don’t have that sense of obligation towards my mother. I don’t want to think of it in terms of obligation. Either I love someone and will care for them when they need it, or I don’t, and won’t.

    Again, that’s just me. I think the fact that it’s an individual situation is going to be how most of these stories pan out.

  • somaticstrength

    My entire life, family relationships have been about money. Part of this was being poor – we all had to chip in to be able to keep the family going. But part of this is the fact that nothing, nothing my parents ever did for us kids was free. My mother calculated the time of driving me somewhere, and I had to make it up to her in chores. When I wasn’t working, she kept an ongoing tally of everything I owed her, down to a pack of gum. If she rounded and forgave some change, I was supposed to be grateful, so grateful over the whole 35 cents or so that she was “giving” to me (usually balancing out when she rounded the other way, citing times that she rounded in my favor).

    She would insist and insist and insist on doing something for me, no matter if I said I didn’t need it, and then complain with long sighs over how much she didn’t want to, but no, no, it was okay, she would do it because she’s my mother and she loved me. What I didn’t pay in money, chores, and whatever command she would give me, I paid in emotions.

    My closest friend is the first person to have ever been truly family to me, and I have brought a lot of my “if I don’t pay you as much as I owe you, you’ll leave me” mentality with me. It doesn’t work, and it falls apart a lot with her because nothing I do for her feels like it costs me anything, and she has said numerous times that she does nothing for me with the idea that I should pay her back.

    My father and brothers sexually abused me. Because their love me for also wasn’t free. When love is a debt, it gets into that scary territory of what exactly you can demand of another person as payment. I think the entire concept around “owe” is tied up in ideas of payment, obligation, and unwritten contracts, and I think it’s a flawed way to look at relationships, any relationships. Because I do, and I know how much it fucks me up.

    But I can’t very well do that with my family since it’s already set up to be about owing. But considering all that my family has demanded of me–the time, the money, my body, my sexuality, everything–all that I have had to pay them already for my existence, plus all the abuse, I’m pretty sure at this point my parents and brothers owe *me* for all that they took from me.

    My father is dead, my brothers can deal with my mother. They’re their own family now, it doesn’t include me. As hard as it still is, because I still have all those ideas of owing, all those ideas that I need to give and give and give until they have taken every last bit of me – I am done paying them anything.

  • OurSally

    Gosh, therapy day. My dad was himself the product of an abusive family. He decided to continue the tradition. My mum didn’t stop him.
    Because of him I live in another country.
    Until he died I visited them just once a year, taking care never to leave the grandchildren alone with him. Now my mum can be her own woman, and we telephone frequently. She’s actually quite nice, but I can never forget “well, you probably deserved it”. When she gets too old to look after herself I and my sisters will look after her, if she wants.

  • mary

    If the relationship is good, the relationship is good. I don’t think we owe abusive parents relational anything. I do think that, if our parents cannot provide it for themselves, we owe them assistance with end-of-life care, nursing, etc. If they were abusive jerks this is a hard question, but my personal opinion is that extremely abusive parents aren’t even owed that much. My husband and I are both blessed with good parents, so for us, and I’d say this is for non-abusive parents in general, we expect to help them as they get older, visit them when they’re lonely, and try to make sure they don’t lack anything they need. As far as love, etc goes, I don’t think we owe them that. It’s there or it’s not.