Family Affairs

What Do Grown Children Really Owe Their Loving Parents?

Children once owed parents labor and a legacy. Today, intergenerational debt is harder (and more emotionally taxing) to calculate.

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Photo of a large family at a barbecue

Wondering what we owe our parents, whether emotionally or financially, is a modern philosophical luxury. Historically, children provided an early return on investment, working family farms, picking up industrial jobs, or, at the minimum, helping to raise other children. But much is given and little is expected from most children raised in 21st-century America. For the most part, we do not ask kids to marry into alliances or assume titles or even, sadly, take over family businesses. This likely constitutes progress, but it confuses the ledger. Where the calculation of what was owed used to be a fairly simple, pay-it-forward list of social norms, modern arithmetic has become complicated, specifically for grown children, who are expected to live independent lives but also to demonstrate some fealty to their forebears.

With more independence and fewer expectations, what we owe our parents or our children’s grandparents is now calculated in man-hours and long-term investments. Do we owe them a call? Do we owe them Thanksgiving? Do we owe them weekends? Do we owe them end of life care? Do we owe them financial support? Do we owe them grandchildren?

Or do we owe them nothing?

The answers to this endless litany of questions seem to arise ad hoc, influenced by different ethnic, economic, and interpersonal experiences. We all find our own way. But, now, researchers and psychologists seem to have found some consistency in how people arrive at their answers that speak to a broader, emerging understanding of what is owed. Americans seem to believe that parents, by dint of being parents, deserve a relationship.

The question often becomes what kind of relationship. Modern philosophers have attempted to solve the conundrum by classifying four theories of what they call filial obligation: Debt Theory, Friendship Theory, Gratitude Theory and Special Goods Theory. Debt Theory posits a simple if sometimes emotionally fraught transaction where children provide caring for parents only to the extent that they were cared for as a child. Friendship Theory suggests adult children only owe parents the same amount of care that they would owe a very good and close friend. Gratitude Theory suggests that children care for parents because they are motivated by gratitude for selfless and benevolent child-rearing. Finally, Special Goods Theory suggests that children are obligated to offer only what they can uniquely offer — love or specific care in most cases — in direct exchange for what the parent has or currently offers (think: inheritance), but unlike in Debt Theory, this transaction is constant and open-ended.

Modern arithmetic has become complicated, specifically for grown children, who are expected to live independent lives but also to demonstrate some fealty to their forebears.

At the heart of all of these theories of familial obligation is some kind of emotional relationship. Whether it’s a feeling of closeness or obligation, this implies that these are not straight economic transactions. Transactions and economic reasoning may underpin parent-child relationships, but logic doesn’t crowd out emotion.

An interesting way to consider how emotional and economic reason can tangle is provided by the empirical economists Gary Becker and Nigel Tomes who created an economic model of wealth transmission based on the idea of capital investment. The duo found that when parents decide between human capital investments and financial investments, they tend to favor human capital investments, a decision that is both sentimental and profoundly logical. High human capital investments led to higher earnings and more net family consumption (a slightly stronger metric than earnings for analyzing collective rewards and welfare).

Hannah Perry for Fatherly

Interestingly, Becker and Tomes found that investments in human capital tended to end when diminishing returns brought them in line with financial investments. Mom and dad are not, in short, eager to pay for the second PhD. But the first one makes a sort of emotional, economic, and, yes, social sense.

The cold logic underpinning the decision to invest in children makes the following statement of fact slightly easier to stomach for parents: Any conclusion about what we owe our fathers and mothers is ultimately personal. But it turns out that calculation, which tends to occur well into adulthood and evolve well past middle age, isn’t. Not entirely. Intergenerational deals are not just a product of children’s noblesse oblige. What parents want is also critical.

As more democratic forms of modern parenting have facilitated the creation of relatively egalitarian relationships, parents have looked more and more to their kids for companionship. In surveys of parents of emerging adults, Dr. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Senior Research Scholar at Clark University and author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties has found the greatest desire parents have is a friendship with their adult child.

“What parents are really looking for is the payoff,” Arnett explains. “And that’s a relationship for them — a transition to something less hierarchical. It’s even more important than graduating from college and getting a prestigious job. What they are really looking for, above all, is the feeling that their kids love them, and are grateful to them, and enjoy being with them.”

Any conclusion about what we owe our fathers and mothers is ultimately personal. But it turns out that calculation isn’t.

And if an adult child hasn’t worked on becoming a good and decent person that kind of relationship becomes harder to achieve. If they haven’t moved towards self-sufficiency and squandered their parent’s investment, a move past the hierarchical relationship becomes an incredibly tough ask. This is how relationships fall apart. But, and it’s important to remember this, most don’t, which is arguably part of why it still makes sense to have children in the context of a modern society that dumps extreme costs on parents left largely to their own devices (unless Grandma and Grandpa are around).

“The love, the relationship is what makes it gratifying on both sides,” Arnett explains. This would seem to make a striking case for the friendship theory of familial obligation. If parents want a friendship and if children feel the kind of closeness to their parents that they would feel for an incredibly close friend, then both are motivated to continue loving and caring for one another.

At the same time, this also explains why the danger of a grown child-parent relationship souring is such a looming threat in modern American society. Without the growth of a meaningful long-term relationship, parents are likely to feel like they got the raw end of the deal. And, in a sense, they would be right — depending on what sort of childhood they created for their offspring.

A rocky upbringing can profoundly color what children feel they owe their parents, according to social psychologist Dr. Susan Newman, author of Under One Roof Again: All Grown Up and (Re)learning to Live Together Happily. “As an adult child, how much you feel you owe your parents depends on how you were raised,” she explains. “If you had an absent dad, you’re going to feel quite differently and may be reluctant to feel you owe him anything, versus a mom who was always there.”

This would support the special good theory of parenting which suggests reciprocity. If a parent is a bad parent, they’re no longer contributing their special goods to the relationship. That means a child would no longer have to reciprocate. But it would seem that the parent-child relationship is pretty resilient. Considering the survey on emerging adults, a full 76 percent suggest they get along better with their parents when they reach their early twenties than they did in their teens. That suggests despite the rocky, emotional turmoil and limit testing common to the teen years, an adult child still feels they owe a parent contact and a relationship even if they were once considered incompetent jerks.

But it’s important to remember that children will often grow to have children of their own. That means any emotional or economic transaction that once operated in a dyad, essentially between parent and child, now occur in a triad: parent, child, and grandchild. Suddenly, these calculations become even more difficult. Parents are now grandparents and expect adult children to facilitate a relationship with their grandkids. This sparks a whole new cost and benefits analysis.

A modern parent-child relationship is unique. It’s an amalgam of benevolence, love, trust, admiration, financial transactions and hopes that the next generation represents a better future.

If you look at this new kind of relationship through the lens of debt theory. There is a new potential to accrue more debt from parents who’ve become grandparents, considering how much they can give. It seems like a cruel kind of calculus, in a way. But it’s an ongoing emotional task with huge repercussions. “When you do the calculus, thinking about your own children, grandparents suddenly become very important,” Newman says. “They hold the family history. They can step in to cover for you. They project a form of stability to kids a sense of security that there is someone to turn to other than their parents.”

But maybe, also, grandparents are owed contact with grandchildren because of their part raising an adult to be a parent. This is a very debt theory-oriented view of things. After all, many adult children feel that at most, what is owed, is returning the care that they received as a child. And that ledger can be filled up quickly considering elder care costs. The national average for non-medical, in-home care in 2017 was $21 per hour, while assisted living averaged $3,750 per month, and nursing homes averaged a cost of $227 a day.

“I think most children understand that as their parents get older they will in some way need to be available for care, whether it’s monetary or physical,” Newman says. “There’s all kinds of complicated ways that that happens. Most of us feel we owe our parents that even if they were horrible.”

It’s a very emotional but also logical transaction for the most part. Although it does pay dividends for adult children. For one thing, Newman explains, it helps relieve any guilt a child might have at the end of a parent’s life. If nothing else they returned the physical care — they were “there for them” at the end. But more importantly, Newman points out, “Your children, their grandchildren, are watching you. It’s very likely that how you treat your parents is exactly how they will treat you.”

The trends in how children calculate what they owe parents is constantly in flux. Consider the fact that post-Great Recession the care children received from parents had a tendency to be drawn out as children retreated back to their homes for lack of employment or tapped mom and dad for monetary assistance to survive during the lean time. Because of that, Dr.Arnetts’ research shows the very idea of owing parents isn’t a consideration for young adults.

“Most emerging adults aren’t thinking about what they owe their parents,” Jensen says. “Emerging adults are very focused on making a life for themselves and building a foundation of adult life.”

For many of these young adults, parents are still very much of a support system. There’s just not enough autonomy or distance. The debt in the relationship is still actively accruing. And for their part, parents don’t mind continuing their investment.

“Parents want to see their kids succeed, and they want to see their kids be happy,” says Jensen. “If that means giving them extra assistance in their twenties, parents are willing to do that … As long as there is a plan with a capital P.”

When a child isn’t following a stringent plan or showing signs of self-sufficiency, parents begin to feel frustrated. Tensions rise. In a way, the emotional and financial transaction that was once unspoken can become suddenly very apparent and spark friction in a relationship.

But as complicated as it is to understand what we owe our parents, one thing remains clear. The need for an ongoing emotional relationship of some kind is acute and is recognized by both parents and children. But that relationship might not exist in any tidy philosophical theory.

Debt theory might work, but accruing emotional and monetary debt from parents doesn’t end at the age of 21. Not in the current economy and certainly not after a parent becomes a grandparent and resumes offering help and care. Gratitude theory is great for understanding motivation, but gratitude could be shown through a heartfelt letter or by paying for a nursing home. It’s too broad to be helpful. And while friendship is great, they can end as people grow apart.

A modern parent-child relationship is unique. It’s an amalgam of benevolence, love, trust, admiration, financial transactions and hopes that the next generation represents a better future. So yes, what we owe parents is a relationship. One that is mutually beneficial. If not financially then at least emotionally, for ourselves our parents and our children.

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