I saw the documentary March of the Penguins more than 10 years ago, but a scene from it still comes back to me often. In the movie, pairs of emperor penguins in Antarctica endure months of staggering hardship to keep their offspring alive and growing, and then they all go down to the sea. Despite all the sacrifices the parents have made, they all dive in, parents and children apparently going on to live separate lives.
We humans aren’t like that. After we’ve been devoted parents for 20 years, our children don’t fledge and disappear. A relationship continues, however close or not close it may be. One of the roles played by parents in many cultures is to help with caring for their children’s children. In fact, some even speculate that menopause evolved because women make better grandmothers if they’re not continuing to have their own children. In any case, the parent-child relationship doesn’t come to an end once the child has matured.
Human parents typically remain in a relationship of some kind with their adult children, as a matter of fact, but what about as a matter of ethics? Assuming that we do have parental obligations to our immature and dependent children, do we also have obligations to our grownup children? For example, do mothers and fathers have an obligation to pay for college or take care of their children’s children or pay off their children’s student loans or mortgages?
I have two reasons for thinking about this question right now. One is that my own children are both 20, and I often wonder what my role should be as a parent of adult children. This is a tricky time for parents, made all the harder because parents of older children aren’t brought together in groups to discuss issues and support each other in the way they were when the kids were little.
The other reason is that I recently read a paper by the philosopher Rivka Weinberg, who makes a case for never-ending parental obligations. Weinberg claims that our obligations to our young children derive from the fact that we brought them into existence through our own actions, knowing that children come into the world vulnerable, dependent, and at risk of facing all sorts of problems. Because of our role in making them exist, we’re responsible for them and must meet some reasonable standard of care.
The upshot is not that we need to coddle our adult children. Our assessments of our parental obligations ought to be made with consideration of the fact that adults need autonomy. But there are times when Weinberg thinks we parents of adult children are not just inclined to help (because we’re humans, not penguins), but obligated to help.
So (quite possibly) she might say I didn’t just have an inclination to help my kids return to college last weekend, but an obligation. Then again, maybe 20 year olds aren’t quite “adult children,” particularly given how we raise them in this society, so let’s shift to older children. Do people have parental obligations to their 30-, 40-, and 50-year-old children?
I’m more inclined to believe that they do have obligations (for some reason or other) than to believe they have them based on having created their children. There's something very odd about a 50-year-old man claiming that his parents should help him with something because they are responsible for the fact that he exists. I have the intuition that too much time has passed for him to make such a claim, but what does time have to do with it?
Maybe this is it: as time passes, people become increasingly self-creating, to the extent that they exist (or don’t) owing largely to their own choices. They choose to eat or not, to smoke or not, to cross the street carefully or not. Innumerable other people also affect whether an adult child goes on existing or not. Thus, the parents’ share of causal responsibility becomes smaller over time. If responsibility creates obligations, a smaller share presumably does less to create obligation.
Fortunately, there’s something salutary about thinking of ourselves as self-creating. It’s the way we like to think of ourselves, and a way of thinking that encourages us to live our own lives thoughtfully. However, sometimes adult children find themselves in dire straits: the 50-year-old may have a serious health problem and his parents might be able to supply critical help. Must they? For most of us, the ethical question won’t even come up. We are people, not penguins, so remain attached to our offspring and want to help them. But if it does come up, must we help an adult child, and if so, why?
I think we do have special obligations to help our adult children, but what are they based on? Do they have a different basis than our obligations to help our spouses or our siblings? Half of philosophy is getting your hands on a good question. I think this is a good question!
Diamond, Jared. "Why Women Change: Why Are Human Females Hobbled in their Prime by Menopause?" Discover, July 1996
Weinberg, Rivka. "The Endless Umbilical Cord: Parental Obligations to Grown Children." Paper presented at Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, August 2017.
Weinberg, Rivka. The Risk of a Lifetime. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.