What Do You Owe Your Parents?


Several months ago I polled a number of parents about their feelings of obligation to their grown offspring for What Do You Owe Your Adult Child? Their answers ranged from “24/7 support’ to “zilch.” I thought it would be interesting to similarly poll the younger generation, so I devised a questionnaire that Professor Susan Lang distributed to 25 undergraduate students at Antioch University. Theories of Personality and Child Development and Education. Aged 21 to 43, male and female, many with foreign-born parents—and one foreign-born himself—the respondents were by no means a statistically valid group. However, I think their responses are a window into the younger generation’s soul. Here are some representative quotes:

 What do you feel is your obligation to your parents now?

This group stays in touch. Self-reported daily and certainly weekly phone calls and texts, some of which they initiated.
“We speak 3-4 times a week. I initiate most of the calls. They don’t want to “bother” me because I am so busy.”
“Handle my responsibilities and take care of myself.”
“To give back a little of what they gave me.”
“I feel obligated to have regular contact with my mother and check in with her first about holiday plans.”
“My obligation is to take care of myself.”
“Complete college and get a job.”
“I feel I need to get to know them better and make sure they’re taking care of their health.”
“To be patient and accepting, to provide support emotionally, to be present and available.”
“Stay in school and be responsible.”
“I try to visit at Christmas and talk to them at least once a month.”
“Call, give money, buy stuff, listen to all their complaints.”
“Check on their well-being regularly. Help them avoid stress ad be more comfortable financially. Listen to their complaints about each other without taking sides. Provide counsel.”
“Helping them out when possible. Inviting them to join on outings with my son. I spend holidays and birthdays with them.”
“Showing them honor by being the man they raised me to be.”
“I’m a single mom and my mother lives in town,” so I have an obligation to her everyday and on special occasions.”
“I feel an obligation to text them weekly and see them every couple of weeks, and see or call them on special occasions.”
“My obligation is to take care of them when they can’t take care of themselves.”
“Helping out at home, helping with my younger siblings, making sure to celebrate them and give them time off for their own dates.”
“Keep them updated on what’s going on, help them with favors when needed, respectful, love.”
“No obligations, just genuine caring.”
“To help my family with any technical issues they have and make sure they aren’t paying for stuff they don’t have to.”
“To respect them, talk/visit as much as possible. Love.”
“For holidays we arrange a gathering or dinner together. Now, I hope to keep a good relationship with both my parents. Not too much of a burden, but they still give me money.”

What will be your obligations to your parents in the future?


Of the 25 students polled, 18 expected to provide care for their parents, perhaps in their own home. Four didn’t and three were unsure.
As one student said, “Never in my home, but I’m sure I’ll end up paying for their care.”
“I expect to take care of my grandparents, but not so much my parents.”
“Most likely I would relocate to care for them at their home.”
“I am willing to give them as much care as they need or want as they have done for me.”
As the foreign-born student said, “My home country has an amazing care for elders, but I will of course be their caretaker if needed.” (She finished the sentence by drawing a heart)
“My parents have been there for me and I’d love to be there for them.”

Do you feel you could be doing more?

Sixteen students said yes and nine said no. Among those who said didn’t feel like could be doing more, “I already do too much.”

If so, does it make you feel guilty?”

The answers to this question were nuanced. Even the 11 students who said they did feel guilty modified it with “a little,” “sometimes,” and “somewhat.” The five who said they could be doing more but don’t feel guilty about it added, “not really,” and “no, but I could feel better about it.”
“Felt like I could have done more but didn’t have time. Some guilt associated with that.”
“I probably could be doing more, but I don’t really feel guilty. My parents weren’t there for me much when I was little.”
“No, because they won’t let me.”
“A little because I’m not yet financially stale to e able to help them financially as much as I would like.”
“Sometimes I feel as they get older I should help more around their house.”

Do you know your parents’ expectations of you? If so, do you feel obligated to fulfill them?

Sixteen acknowledged their parents’ expectations and most felt obligated to meet those expectations, although the answers were anything but clear-cut.
“I have those expectations for myself, too.”
“Not really. They have stated that they just want me to be happy.”
“My parents expect me to graduate college and get a good job. I feel obligated to do this but not for them, for me.
“Yes, nothing too intense, though.”
“Yes, but sometimes I can’t meet them.

Is it your job to make your parents happy by having a successful career or giving them grandchildren?

The results were so ambivalent here that I hesitate to put a number on it. They were not unaware of their parents’ dreams. Only four said yes unequivocally. The rest said no with a lot of qualifiers. As one twenty-something woman responded, “No, but also yes.”
“It’s not my job, but I know it would make them happy.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a juob, but they want me to be successful.”
“They will be happy/love me regardless, but I know they definitely want those things for me.”
“I would like to show them that I can reach a better education, job, etc. I want to show them I can do it.”
“It’s not my job. They have their own pursuits and my mom is happy with my stepfather and her friends. She is very happy that I had a child, though!”
“No, but it feels like it sometimes.”
“It’s not my job, but it’s what they are expecting.”
“No, but I want to make them happy and proud and avoid stress.”
“It’s too late for me to give them grandchildren and it’s not my “job” to do so. Still, I’d like to add to their happiness as much as possible.”
“No, they let me do what I dream of.”
A 40-something said, “It used to be. Now I couldn’t care less.”

In general, what do you feel you owe your parents?

A lot said respect. Appreciation. Love. Communications. Time. Talk once a month and visit at Christmas. Courtesy.
To be patient and accepting, to provide support emotionally, to be present and available.”
“Handle my responsibilities. Stay in school.”
One student whose parents were not born in this country wrote, “I owe my parents my life, and I would be willing to give them anything I can.”
“I’d put my whole life on hold if they needed me.”
“I owe them time to get to know them better and mend any wounds in our relationship.”
“To be present and available.”
“Never felt like I owed them anything.”
“Courtesy. Time with practicalities.”
“I get along well with my parents, but they didn’t raise me. I feel that all I owe them is what I would owe a friend. My grandparents, who did raise me, are another story. I would do anything for them.”
I don’t feel I owe them. I do feel appreciative for everything they have done for me throughout my life and I want to do the same for them. They deserve that; but I don’t feel obligated.”
“Everything. They have endlessly helped me and I owe them the same in return when that time comes.”
“I owe my parents everything . . .they have sacrificed so much for me to be where I am now and where I will end up.”
“I feel like the only thing I “owe” them is to be happy. I would likely go out of my way for them if they needed me, but I don’t feel like it’s an obligation.”

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