Your Authentic Life: Do My Grown Children Owe Me Anything?

Check out this post by Marlena Fiol author of Nothing Bad Between Us

Me as a Single Mom with my Two Children

My husband and I are blessed to have four grown children, two each from a prior marriage. This week’s podcast interview with Harriet Brown caused me to reflect on a question that I had until now not given much thought: If I need financial help — which fortunately I do not at this moment — do my children have any obligation to assist me? Do they even owe me their love?

Harriet’s answer is clear: “Kids do not owe their parents love or respect if the parents haven’t earned it.”

Almost everyone agrees that parents are obligated to take care of their children. In fact, it’s the law in the U.S. And from a philosophical perspective, I believe the reverse is just as clearly not true: Children have no obligation to take care of their parents as payback for the care they received. If I think that my grown children owe me something because I fed, clothed and sheltered them, then I’m assuming they should repay me for things that were legally and morally required of me.

That doesn’t make sense to me.

But in reality, there’s a general lack of clarity and a whole lot of discomfort around the question of children’s responsibility vis-à-vis their parents. All you have to do is Google the topic to know that it is far from clear cut, and even though most come down on the side of children not being responsible for their parents, this is not always the case. In fact, 30 U.S. states actually have laws on the books that pass the obligation of paying for the basic care and needs of an aging parent to their adult children. Some state laws even allow parents in need to sue their own kids for support. Enforcement of these laws has been rare to date, but this may soon change, since around one-third of seniors in the U.S. have no money left over each month or are in debt after meeting essential expenses, leading to an almost impossible burden on aid programs.

The whole question of what my adult children owe me, emotionally or financially, is a very modern issue. Historically — and not that long ago — children typically worked the family farm, picked up odd jobs to help out, or at the very least, helped to raise their siblings. Those days are mostly gone.

According to Dr. Joshua Coleman, one of my guests on a prior podcast, “In prior generations, it used to be the child’s job to earn the parents’ love and respect. These days, it’s the parents’ job to earn the child’s love and respect. And a lot of parents don’t assume that they’re going to have it. They’re terrified of making mistakes, of screwing up their children, of creating an estrangement.”

My take on this?

I believe we’re using the wrong language if we talk about “debts” or “obligations.”

I am grateful for the many things my children do for me that are both loving and honorable. But I think it’s inappropriate for me to argue that these are things they “owe” me. I hope that my voluntary sacrifices as a single mom of my two children, rather than creating debts to be repaid, have created ties of love and friendship. And as in any true friendship, I will not expect help, but I will be grateful if they grant it if some day I am truly in need.

Let’s look at what actually seems to be happening. A recent study found that less than 10% of parents in the U.S. expect any kind of financial support from their children. Despite making tremendous financial sacrifices for their children, most expect to receive nothing in return. The same study found that even though most parents don’t expect their kids to help them, 63 percent of children said they plan to provide some level of financial support for their parents when they retire.

This is as it should be, isn’t it? I expect nothing from my best friends, and yet isn’t it wonderful that they step up if or when I need them?

During the 2018 holiday season, a viral video brought the issue to the forefront in ways that probably made some people very uncomfortable. An American professional baseball pitcher drafted by the Kansas City Royals, Brady Singer, paid off his parents’ significant debt after receiving his signing bonus. The video shows his parents crying as they read a letter in which he writes, “I want you both to know how much I appreciate you and how none of this would be possible without you.”

Singer’s letter frames his actions within the language of love and appreciation, rather than the language of debt or obligation. He acknowledges that he alone was not responsible for his accomplishments, but that his family worked as a team to create them together. Singer’s actions may seem extreme within the perspective of a child’s obligation.

They seem completely natural within the perspective of love and appreciation.

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