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NO DEBT TO PARENTS

In the 1970s, the philosopher Jane English wrote a now-famous article arguing that children can’t be indebted to their parents for all their years of caregiving. Why not? Because while children certainly receive benefits from their parents, they don’t ask for those benefits. She offers a simple analogy. If your neighbor mows your lawn for you while you’re on vacation, that’s very nice of him, but you don’t owe him anything in return. If, on the other hand, you requested that he mow the lawn, you do wind up indebted to him if he complies. For lack of requesting the benefits they receive, children reach adulthood owing their parents nothing at all.

But fear not, English does think there’s an alternative to talk of “owing.” Adult children have "duties of friendship” to their parents. We all know what those are like; we think our friends should act in certain ways, and not act in certain ways, for the simple reason that we are friends. Parents and children are very good friends—or at least “affiliates”—and so should treat each other well.

English gives up on the “owing” talk rather quickly. We saw in the discussion of free riding in chapter 13 that it doesn’t take an explicit request to be indebted to the person who gives something to you. True, we’re not indebted to benefactors each and every time they offer us something unbidden; but we are indebted when we welcome what we are given, or when we alter our course of conduct so we deliberately become dependent on the gift, and especially when any rational person would welcome the gift. Recall the example in which elves fix your shoes, so you cancel your regular cobbler appointments. In that situation, there’s indebtedness even without an explicit request for aid, because you’re “all in” as far as the aid goes, you’re on board with it, even though you didn’t ask for it.

Children passively receive what their parents give them for many years, but as they near adulthood, it starts to be true that they have a choice whether to welcome assistance or reject it. You don’t have to let your parents buy you a car, for example. You don’t have to let them pay for four years of college. And on the other hand, much of what parents provide for their children—food, shelter, medical care, and so on—would be welcomed by any rational person. It’s fair to say that children are on board with most of what’s given to them by their parents, despite never having verbally requested their parents’ help. If a child simply walks away after that, it’s fair to say that she owed her parents better.

We can coherently speak of children owing something to their parents, but do we want to? It sounds so crass, so commercial, as if parents ran a hotel and at the end of a very long stay children must pay their bill. The language of love and friendship, recommended by English, is in some ways more appealing than that. The idea is that there are things we must do for our friends and loved ones, as long as we do consider them our friends and loved ones. For example, you visit a friend in the hospital not because you owe it to them, but simply because that person is your friend.

Thinking about children’s obligations in those terms does have advantages. If twenty years of being cared for leaves the child in a state of outright indebtedness (the view English rejects), the debt isn’t discharged until the child has given the parent a great deal— probably in the parent’s old age. The parent’s behavior in the intervening years can’t cancel the debt, which means parents are free to act like jerks toward their children, while also expecting to eventually receive what they are owed. On the friendship view, on the other hand, acting like a jerk can change the relationship so that the friendship vanishes, and all obligations with it. With that understanding of the relationship, parents and adult children certainly have a greater incentive to treat each other respectfully and kindly over the years.

The friendship view has its advantages, but is it really entirely apt? Friends and lovers pair up freely, out of an appreciation of each other’s character, talents, and appearance. If the affection and admiration wither away, the relationship may end. But parents and children are linked in a less deliberate manner, and the bond doesn’t have to be accompanied by straightforward affection. A parent-child relationship can be quite fraught, but no less committed.

 
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