Is parenting a virtuous, selfless process? Or do we sneak a quid pro quo clause into it?
Recently, I read of China coming up with a law that says adult children must visit their aged parents. Apparently, parents who feel neglected by their children can take them to court (Give me a minute, I'll call my mother and be right back although she is not what I would describe aged and is more active than I am).
The report says that Chinese state media have been carrying stories of many elderly people being abandoned or neglected. So, it is now a legal obligation for adult children to visit their parents often, although there is no clear indication of the frequency. In the context of this development, my thoughts have gone on a particular tangent. While debate on legal and moral obligations toward parents (and the role of the state in managing them) is an area worthy of multiple viewpoints and interesting discussion, I've been thinking about the nature and functions of parenting itself. And the cultural associations that go with parenthood.
Parenting is often considered the ultimate selfless task that we would take up in this world. Sacrificing needs for the sake of children is considered noble and virtuous. Most parents put in at least 18 years, if not more, in getting their children ready for the world of adulthood, careers and living independently. On film, television, books and billboards, parenthood is wrapped in a warm glow of virtue.
But is there an unwritten contract of parenthood? When we become parents, is there some fine print where we tell our children "I'm doing all this so that when I'm old and feeble, you will take care of me"? Are we unconsciously telling our toddlers - handholding them as they take their first steps - "I'm doing this for you now so that you'll do this for me one day"? Even as we pack school lunches, attend PTA meetings or take the kids to a doctor for a flu shot, are we doing that as a quid pro quo for the future?
Might it be possible that if we could take a peek into the future where we find ourselves neglected by one of our children, we might decide to not take out a big education loan for his or her fancy degree?
The answers could be varied, but they would probably fall into two broad categories. The first category of answers may fall under the theme of "No, the joy of parenting is its own reward" and the second under the theme "Yes, surely there's nothing wrong with expecting my children to take care of me because I've put in so much effort into raising them". If the answer falls into the second category, then, we're clear - our children and the process of raising them is much like taking out an insurance policy for old age. If the answer falls in the first category, I would still think the expectation remains buried. Scratch the surface, go a little deeper and there it might be.
I'm wondering if the reciprocity argument is valid in filial duties, especially if we were to consider that children don't ask to be born and hence cannot be expected to assume the duty of caring for us. There are quite a few scholars who've put forth some controversial theories. Normal Daniels (1988) in his work "Am I my parents' keeper?" talks of parental responsibilities being self-imposed and that it does not naturally follow that children must take care of them in return. Jane English (1993) in "What do grown children owe their parents?" says that children don't owe parents something because the parent - child relationship is not a debt repayment one; she compares the relationship to more of a friendship rather than an obligatory one.
But in citing these thinkers, I have departed from my core question. Should parenting be glorified as a selfless and virtuous process? I would tend to think that most of us sneak a clause into parenting. That we would be able to, only at a very philosophical level, agree with Kahlil Gibran's lines: Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
But then, reader, what about you? What do you think about the nature of parenting? Would you be angry or bitter if your child did not take care of you when you are old and need help? Would you be comfortable with equating the idea of parenting to paying EMIs toward a house you would secure in the future?