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What Do Adult Children Really Owe Their Parents?

A debt of gratitude can't be allowed to become a burden.

Key points

  • Many mothers and fathers do not know how to parent adult children.  
  • Some parents can make their grown-up sons and daughters feel almost guilty for growing up. 
  • The cost of paying a debt of gratitude must not be a burden that makes the other wish you’d never done anything for them to begin with. 

The mother of a woman I know once said to her, “The years when children are small are the best years in the life of both children and parents, but children do not realize this at the time.”

“Were the years when you were a small child the best in your life?” the daughter responded. The mother became confused. She had always seen the period when she, the mother, was young and her children small as the best time in her life, and she had—with the almost innocently unthinking selfishness we sometimes show to each other—assumed that what was best for her must have been best for her children as well.

The response of the daughter gave the mother pause. She could well see that if she herself did not want to go back to being a child, then probably, neither did her adult children. She had just never thought of it that way.

She should have. While we often look with nostalgia back on childhood, the first years are rarely the best in anyone’s life. In fact, if that were the case for someone, it would likely be a sign that the person’s life did not go well. Many dream of being young again, but few wish they were 5 once more, or 7, much as we may romanticize our preschool years. Children know that they can develop into adults free to arrange their lives as they see fit, and they look forward to that.

The effect of the insight on the behavior of the mother I describe was temporary. She was one of those parents for whom the past looms so large that they make their now-grown-up sons and daughters feel almost guilty for having grown up.

Clinging to Youth

Part of the reason parents of now-adult children may live in memories, of course, is that typically, people have children at an age many would choose to be if they could choose: young adulthood. It could be difficult to tell whether it is having small children or simply being young that people enjoyed. (I would conjecture that those who first had children in their early 40s have less nostalgia looking back on their children’s early years since part of them wishes to be the childless 27-year-old they once were rather than the 41-year-old parent of toddlers.)

Others simply want to keep their children close and live vicariously through them. In an essay called “How to Grow Old,” philosopher Bertrand Russell—who lived to the age of 98—observes similarly that some cling to youth “in the hope of sucking vigour from its vitality.” Russell goes on:

When your children are grown up they want to live their own lives, and if you continue to be as interested in them as you were when they were young, you are likely to become a burden to them … I do not mean that one should be without interest in them, but one’s interest should be contemplative and, if possible, philanthropic, but not unduly emotional. Animals become indifferent to their young as soon as their young can look after themselves, but human beings, owing to the length of infancy, find this difficult.

Russell’s sensible advice for old age is that people maintain “strong impersonal interests involving appropriate activities.” And a little later:

But if you are one of those who are incapable of impersonal interests, you may find that your life will be empty unless you concern yourself with your children and grandchildren. In that case you must realise that while you can still render them material services, such as making them an allowance or knitting them jumpers, you must not expect that they will enjoy your company.

Russell is probably too pessimistic here. We can certainly enjoy—and indeed, enjoy greatly—the company of our parents as adults. Some parents become good friends with their grown-up children. (Though one must be careful here too: in one case I know of, a mother so bound her adult son to herself that he did not marry until the mother had passed away—at which point he was in his mid-40s—since he could not feel as close to any woman as he did to his mom.)

I suspect it is easier to become friends with your adult children if you talk to them about your own interests, dreams, and early years, not the child’s, so the two of you can relate as two autonomous adults. Constantly reminding adult sons and daughters that they were once children—your children—is hardly a way to build a friendship.

In any event, it is usually counterproductive to focus obsessively on one’s children and grandchildren. Parents who make their children feel as though the children’s visits are the only thing left for them to look forward to can no more be good friends than any other person who exhibits what is sometimes called “clingy” behavior. Parents who undertake, rather, to learn a new language, join a bridge club, go on vacation, or otherwise find sources of joy and fulfillment unrelated to their sons and daughters tend to be much better liked.

Is There a Debt of Gratitude?

Several years ago, a woman in China successfully persuaded a court to legally compel her adult daughter to “compensate her financially and also visit her once every two months (and at least two public holidays per year).” Most parents would not resort to the legal system even if they could, but some insist that children owe them visits or even a say in the child’s major decisions. They believe a good child fulfills the filial duty of gratitude.

What, if anything, do children owe parents?

The issue of gratitude is a delicate one, here and elsewhere. When both benefactor and beneficiary are virtuous people, the benefactor acts without expectation of gain while the beneficiary is appreciative and behaves accordingly. Sometimes, however, this is not what happens either generally or in the case of parents and their adult children.

For one thing, parents may have failed in the fulfillment of their parental duties, and if so, an adult child may be justified in cutting off contact altogether. But a minority of cases fall into this category. Most parents do reasonably well when their children are young. It is just that many don’t know how to parent adult children.

More importantly for present purposes, parents sometimes expect a particular kind of gratitude: gratitude that hurts the child’s interests. George Eliot describes a case of this type in the novel The Mill on the Floss. In that novel, a character named Philip Wakem, a sensitive young man with a physical deformity, tells his father, a famous lawyer, that he wants to propose marriage to a young woman named Maggie Tulliver. Philip’s father has always been supportive of his son and made accommodations so Philip could pursue his artistic interests. However, he has had a series of altercations with Maggie’s father and is enraged at the prospect of a union between his son and Maggie. He exclaims, “And this is the return you make me for all the indulgences I have heaped on you?” Philip replies:

“No, father”… “I don't regard it as a return. You have been an indulgent father to me; but I have always felt that it was because you had an affectionate wish to give me as much happiness as my unfortunate lot would admit, not that it was a debt you expected me to pay by sacrificing all my chances of happiness to satisfy feelings of yours which I can never share.”

The lawyer Wakem insists that most sons would share their fathers’ feelings in a case like this, but Philip demurs.

Behavior such as that of Philip’s father casts a shadow over everything that may have gone on previously. This is the point I wish to emphasize. By standing between your children and what they see as essential to their happiness, you risk undoing the good you may have done and been doing for years. George Eliot’s Philip, who needs the father’s blessing as he is unable to provide for a family on his own due to his deformity, says to his father, similarly:

"If it will be a satisfaction to you to annihilate the very object of everything you’ve done for me…you can completely deprive me of the only thing that would make my life worth living."

The cost of paying a debt of gratitude must not be a burden that makes the other wish you’d never done anything for them to begin with. There are cases, then, in which the very act of insistence on gratitude—or a particular kind of gratitude—may deprive one of the right to expect any by undoing the good done previously and thus, canceling the earlier debt.

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