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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