The Right Coast

June 01, 2005
Treating Your Parents Well
By Gail Heriot

Father’s Day is June 19th--seventeen shopping days away. Among other things, it is a time to ... uh ... reflect upon the parent-child relationship, especially the relationship of the adult child to the elderly infirm parent. Or at least that's how I’m going to treat it this year.

Devotion to one’s children is easy to explain in terms of fashionable theory. It has all the hallmarks of a classic Darwinian trait. The genes of parents who won’t make sacrifices for their children don’t get passed on to later generations, since neglected children don’t survive infancy, much less produce a new generation. This isn’t to say that no parent mistreats his child; some obviously do. But serious mistreatment is the exception rather than the rule.

The reverse relationship is a bit tougher. Of course, young children’s devotion (including obedience) to their parents can be explained in terms of immediate self-interest without any need to resort to a Darwinian or any other explanation. Even tiny tots intuitively know that the hand that feeds them is very, very nice hand and that biting it is an unwise policy. When they do bite it, they find that bad things sometimes happen. But what about adult children? What makes adult children make sacrifices for their elderly parents? Surely we as members of society would like adult children to make reasonable sacrifices for the benefit of their elderly parents. But neither immediate self interest nor Darwinian considerations will necessarily be at work here.. It may well be in the interest of both the adult child and his genes to tell Mom and Dad to take a hike the moment they cease to be useful to him.

I don't know if it's wise to depend too much on love here. It’s been my experience in life that when love isn’t grounded in some kind of self-interest, it's not quite as powerful a force as all that poetry suggests. And the problem that the elderly face is that often they reach a state of health in which there’s very little likelihood that they can benefit their children anymore. They are–not to put too fine a point on it–a burden.

Maybe that’s why every culture that I am aware of recognizes filial piety as a virtue. It’s a recognition that an individual’s self interest (and hence our natural predilections) may be insufficient to produce good behavior, so they have to be bolstered with a moral imperative. You must care for your elderly parents, because it’s the right thing to do, and the rest of us will think ill of you if you don’t. Both the Shinto and Confucian traditions are well-known for their emphasis on filial piety. And Christians, Jews and Muslims are taught from an early age that the need to honor one’s mother and father is among the most important of virtues. Note that there is no parallel commandment to do right by your children. There’s less need. It comes more naturally. The closest the Ten Commandments come to a requirement that children be looked after properly is the adultery ban.

But not every culture is equally devoted to the concept of filial piety and not every individual is equally willing to make sacrifices for good old mom and dad, and I find it interesting to speculate on why. Harry Chapin’s song the Cat’s in the Cradle identified a "what goes around comes around" theory. Parents who were neglectful of their children will often find their children neglectful of them. And I don’t doubt that he was right. But there are other considerations as well. And some of them have some implications for public policy.

The extent to which the particular parents control wealth that can be conferred upon whomever they please (or consumed themselves) is sure to be one of of those other considerations. If they are wealthy relative to their children, one would expect their children to be pretty solicitous of their wants and desires. That sounds dreadful doesn’t it? The notion that adult children will be kinder and more helpful to their elderly parents if those parents are sitting on piles of money is distasteful. But we all have to be realistic about human shortcomings. The civilizing effect of a prospective inheritance is one of the best arguments that I know of against onerous estate taxes(although I do not consider it an argument in favor of abolishing estate taxes altogether). It’s an ace in the hole for the elderly at least in those jurisdictions in the world where disinheriting one’s children is legally permissible.

It can be taken to extremes, of course. Remember the Dallas television series. Fabulously wealthy Jock Ewing owns Ewing Oil. His two adult sons–JR and Bobby-- live in their father’s house (along with their wives), work for Ewing Oil and (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) vie for his approval. And Jock Ewing is a tyrant who constantly uses his position to intervene in his sons’ lives too much.

Dallas, however, is hardly your typical case. Not too many families own giant oil companies. But a lot own farms. And it wouldn’t surprise me to find that filial piety is higher than average among such families (and perhaps even among rural families that don’t own farms, but are influenced by the conduct of their circle of friends, which is likely to include farm-owning families). And it also wouldn’t surprise me to find that it rarely is taken to excessive levels.

On the other hand, in families in which children receive a big transfer of wealth at ages 18-21 in the form of Harvard Law School tuition and thereafter are in a position to generate their own wealth sufficient to allow them to live at least as well as their parents, one might expect somewhat less devotion or sacrifice over the long haul. Sons and daughter in that position move away to another city and they won’t always make it back for the holidays. Or at least so run my speculations this evening.

What got me thinking about this today was actually the high price of real estate in Southern California (and elsewhere). I’m curious whether this has an effect on the parent-child relationship during the parents' middle to early old age. These days, large numbers of parents with twenty- and thirty-something children own modest, but extraordinarily expensive homes. Their children have decent jobs, but nevertheless stand little chance of saving enough for a down payment on a similar home without parental help. I wonder if that sort of arrangement tends to forge stronger than average parent-child bonds.

Oh well, I guess that’s enough musing on this topic for now ....