Our Parents, Ourselves

Our Parents, Ourselves

World life expectancy is rising. According to the United Nations, ten percent of the global population is age sixty or older. In 2050, that percentage will more than double. The shift towards an older population portends that today’s teenagers will have to deal not only with the practical demands of work and home, but also with the by-no-means-small responsibility of caring for their aging parents. It remains to be seen to what extent the wave of aging will alter the parent-child relationship.

In 1892, William DeWitt Hyde, president of Bowdoin College, wrote, “Children owe to their parents obedience and such service as they are able to render. Parents owe to children support, training and an education sufficient to give them a fair start in life.” Most of us acknowledge that grown children should care for their parents, minister to their needs and provide them succor in old age, but do most of us also use such terms as “debt” and “owe” when discussing parent-child relationships? Do we, in fact, owe anything to our parents?

Gratitude and Filial Piety

In the Confucian tradition, the relationship between parent and child was more important than that between friends, husbands and wives and even between ruler and subject. Children, who were considered physical extensions of their parents, incurred an enormous “debt” due to the notion that they “owed” their existence to their parents. To repay their parents for their zi, or nurture, children were expected to practice xiao, or filial piety. They had an obligation to obey their parents, respect them, look after them in old age and perform elaborate rites of ancestor worship after their deaths. In The Analects, Confucius even condoned law-breaking if such a transgression was necessitated by filial obligations.

I do not believe, however, that children owe their parents filial love simply because they are the fruit of their parents’ loins. Nancy Jecker, Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, rejects what she terms the “Law of Athens,” which establishes a debt of gratitude on the part of children to their parents for begetting them. Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas supported such a view of filial obligation, but Jecker claims that children should treat their parents with filial piety only as a token of gratitude for the beneficial acts that their parents performed out of love—and beyond duty—rather than for the mere act of begetting. Jecker’s refutation of the “Law of Athens” is sound and sensible, given that the “Law” is oblique shorthand at best and sophistry at worst.

Illustrated by Naomi Roochnik

Suppose, for instance, that parents have babies for the sole purpose of eating them (as in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world) or selling them to others as food (as in Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”). Doesn’t it then make sense for such children to loathe their parents instead of being grateful to them for the “gift of life”? The “gift of life” is not enough to warrant the gratitude of children. A parent’s continued nurturing of, and love for, his or her child is the only solid basis for filial piety; after all, it is not uncommon for adopted children to express filial piety to their adoptive parents despite the absence of a biological bond.

Friends Don’t Owe Friends

So what exactly does one make of parent-child relationships? Why are certain terms not appropriate in describing such relationships? Philosopher Nicholas Dixon contends that a parent-child relationship should be based on the friendship model, which seeks to emphasize the voluntary and loving aspects of the parent-child bond.

Unlike the word “duty,” the word “debt” is annexed to the notion of a burden that can undermine parent-child relationships. In J. M. Coetzee’s fictionalized memoir, Boyhood, the author ruefully recounts, “The thought of a lifetime bowed under a debt of love baffles and infuriates him to the point where he will not kiss [his mother], refuses to be touched by her.” It would seem perverse to describe an invidious parent-child relationship using positive words, but if a child has a loving rapport with his parents, words with negative connotations should be omitted from rather than carelessly shoehorned into discussions. Otherwise, one does injustice to one’s parents and to oneself by implying mendacious permutations of the truth.

Confucians perceive filial piety as the wellspring of other virtues. Building upon this idea, academic Philip Ivanhoe urges us to view filial piety as a “cultivated disposition,” an irreducible virtue distinct from gratitude and duty. In her seminal essay “What Do Grown Children Owe Their Parents?” philosopher Jane English argues that one should avoid using words like “debt,” “favors,” “investment” and “owing” when talking about a parent-child relationship. Such a relationship should be viewed as a friendship that is founded on love instead of the exchange of favors that occurs between people who are not friends. English supports her revisionist position by stating that strangers, not friends, exchange favors, which engender debts that can be repaid, canceled or discharged. Once a friendship ends, the demands of mutuality end as well. Sacrifices are vital to sustaining friendships, but the root of filial obligations is friendship itself rather than any sacrifices made. Friends perform voluntary acts of kindness for their friends out of the kindness of their hearts, rather than being motivated by “mutual gain” or the promise of return on “investments.”

To love one’s parents is not necessarily to follow all their advice. If my parents pushed me to become a professional pianist or artist, I could oppose their demand without eroding our friendship, by claiming that I would be happy with neither vocation. A child’s love for his parents naturally grows in accordance with the amount of love bestowed upon him. The “amount of love” is, of course, unquantifiable, but the full weight of its import impresses itself upon the subject through the power of memory. Recalling the attentive care he received as a child, the grown adult seeks to care for his parents out of love, friendship, gratitude and the cardinal virtue of filial piety.

Lessons in Love

Asserting the role of fiction in instilling moral virtue, Thomas Jefferson once remarked: “A lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics and divinity that ever were written.” The filial love and respect Cordelia feels for Lear stems from all the love, education, care and nurturing he has given her. Her recalcitrance to her father’s love contest is more poignant than any ingratiating answer could ever be. She proclaims, “You have begot me, bred me, loved me / I return those duties back as are right fit / Obey you, love you, and most honor you.”

When I was younger, I believed that my parents’ prudential wisdom was all the reason I needed to blindly follow their advice. With the recognition that friendship, love and gratitude form the actual bedrock of my relationship with my parents, I have become more appreciative of all they have done to raise me. And so, I welcome the upcoming years of personal growth and continued devotion to my parents.

One comment

  1. Juliet Smail

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