What do we owe our parents? A values question…

I like the latest values question from Libby Anne at LoveJoyFeminism. Between she and Daniel Fincke at Camels with Hammers, there have already been questions on civic responsibility, teaching children about sexuality, and the obligation to punish for moral failure. For this question, she refers to a recent article in Slate that documents the difficulties and complexities of attempting reconciliation with difficult parents, parents who may have been abusive or neglectful. In those cases, the question of what is owed may seem misplaced. I think it is a good question, though, because it addresses the attempt to qualify or quantify a felt connection between parents and children, a connection that is present in its presence or its absence. Why is it that, good relationship or bad, we feel obliged to “deal” with the relationship with our parents? Is it an unspoken social mandate to have a good relationship? Is there a biological connection that we must nurture?

In my personal experience, I feel particularly indebted to my parents, in the way of a wholly positive gratitude. In comparison to the stories in the Slate article and my perception of the family relationships of those around me, I have felt very lucky indeed. In the past, I would have attributed their good job to a Christian influence; now I think they deserve more of the credit. As I’ve mentioned in analogous situations, it does them more credit to isolate the unique variables of their parenting, their care and concern for my upbringing and general well-being, encouragement of my strengths and support of my weaknesses, rather than the degree to which they followed Christian principles. Others have tried to follow a religious model and come up short, at least in the eyes of their offspring. I know that my parents likely sought to ground their parenting in a Christian model, just as I did when my son was younger. Yet I know from my own parenting experience that I feel a sense of obligation to him as well, often in spite of his actions. I want him to value our relationship not by the extent to which I adhered to a universal set of rules, but the way that I attempted to seek the best for him, in spite of not knowing exactly what that is.

I owe my parents a debt that will not be able to repay. There are several reasons for this. One is that to attempt to quantify it would cheapen it. More than that, though, and despite my particularly fortunate circumstances, the sense of obligation to parents is a microcosm of our response to being in the world. This sense of obligation is one we are uncomfortable with; modeling our existential lives after our economic ones, we would prefer to have our debts paid. Obligations to others are treated the same way. We are uncomfortable with debt and often see remaining obligated as a weakness. Yet simply our being born into the world entails a whole set of debts that we have incurred before we have the ability to choose otherwise. Of course, those are not unique debts, in the sense that they are common to humanity. This does not lessen the significance of the debt taking its unique form in the individual.

That debt takes its first and most concrete form in the parent, the one charged biologically and socially with enabling a child to survive, and hopefully, to thrive. Most of us can claim the first, though not all the second. What I am saying, though, is that we ought to face our sense of indebtedness in spite of its particular contours in our own lives. We deny this fundamental relationship to the world, obligation, at our own peril. I imagine that many feel that they owe their parents nothing for the poor treatment they themselves received. In terms of financial, emotional, or physical support, that might be accurate. However, I would argue it does not work to discharge a debt simply on those terms. In fact, frustration over a failed relationship with one’s parents is perhaps a greater lesson that obligation is not part of a transaction, but a part of our being. We are thrust into circumstances and situations in which we can neither control the manifold variables or the outcome. We bear the consequences of the decisions of others, just as others bear the consequences of ours. The point is not to neutralize our own position in the game, to pay all our debts and not make anyone indebted to us, but to enter into relationships with a full awareness of the responsibility that just being alive implies, a responsibility that, if avoided, manifests in a repetition of the same patterns we regret in others.

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.

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  1. Pingback: Forward Thinking: What We Owe Our Parents

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