What Are Parents Owed?

In the ancient world, most relationships were seen as asymmetric in terms of dominance, and both sides had obligations to each other. This included parent-child, husband-wife, boss-worker, landlord-tenant, king-subject, god-mortal, and professional-client relations. Some of these obligations were enforced strongly by law, while others were enforced more weakly via social norms. 

In the modern world we continue with most of these relations, but because our newly-encouraged forager-selves resent dominance, we have tended to adjust these obligations, adding them on the more dominant side, and taking them away on the less dominant side. So our political leaders have more obligations to us, while we have fewer to them. Our bosses have more obligations to us, such as to pay for our healthcare, and we have fewer to them, such as to work overtime or treat them respectfully. (And UBI advocates seek to move that further.)

This change is especially dramatic regarding the parent-child relation. Children were once obligated not only to treat parents respectfully, but to obey them on many topics, including on who to marry and what jobs to take. And kids had to take care of parents when they were old. But today we face far weaker pressures to care for older parents, or to take their advice on dating or work. And to many it is now okay to publicly criticize their parents, re how they were raised or even for being born at all. 

Yet parental obligations have increased. Not only are corporal punishment and child labor now disapproved, but many consider parents to be bad if they do not arrange for kids to attend an expensive college, or host their 30 year old kids at home when out of work or pursuing a music career. When kids are young, parents are expected to spend far more time interacting with them and shuttling them around to activities. 

Many were quite indignant that in my last post I suggested overcoming inefficient abortion by paying women to instead have kids, and then later taxing those kids to pay for it. These indignant folks see any debt that a child might owe their parents as literal “slavery”. (Somehow pushed by capitalists as a way to immiserate workers.) Nevermind that they are fine with our collectively endowing kids with debt via national (and state and city) debt. [$345K per US taxpayer at fed level alone.] To them it is the worse possible moral outrage for kids to ever individually owe anything to their parents. No matter how much they also get, they may never owe. Not even gratitude.

Over this same period of time when we’ve been adding to parent obligations and cutting child obligations, we’ve seen a huge reduction in fertility. More people choose to delay being parents, and more end up having fewer kids. Many explicitly say it doesn’t look like they’d get as much pleasure in life out of parenting, compared to their alternatives. 

Which may well be true, given our current set of parent-child obligations. But consider that these obligations are a choice we’ve made; they weren’t imposed on us from above. Maybe if parents were owed more by kids, there’d be more parents, and more kids, to everyone’s benefit.

By the way, notice an interesting exception: we have not much increased the obligations of professionals relative to those of clients, or intellectuals and journalists relative to readers, or of artists and entertainers relative to fans. As those are framed more in terms of prestige than dominance, they’ve escaped the anti-dominance trends.

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