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«‘Honour thy father and thy mother’. What do Grown Children Owe their Aged Parents? Frits de Lange1 Being raised in the roaring sixties of the ...»

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‘Honour thy father and thy mother’. What do Grown

Children Owe their Aged Parents?

Frits de Lange1

Being raised in the roaring sixties of the last century, the fifth commandment

has left me with mixed feelings. ‘Honour thy father and thy mother’ (Ex.

20:12) was used in church and at home, in and out of season, to prevent

rebellious youngsters to emerge from their parents authority. Children

should not strive for independence and autonomy, but obey their parents,

was the message, in line with the modern history of interpretation of the biblical passage. Christian ethicists supported this lecture. The fifth commandment considered as a legitimization of the contested authority of educators in the nuclear family.2 Recent exegesis clearly distances itself from this interpretation. The focus of the fifth commandment is not on parental authority but on filial duties for elderly parents. ‘The command (cf. also Lev. 19: 3a) is not about the obligation of (young) children to submit to parental authority, but is directed to adult persons, those who in the patriarchal society are family heads.

They, the (oldest) sons, when their parents have relinquished authority, and are no longer able to look after themselves, must provide them with food, clothing and shelter (...) and after their death give them an honourable burial’. (Houtman 2000: 51f.) Difficult care Ph.D., Professor of Ethics, Protestant Theological University, Kampen, Professor Extraordinary of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology, University of Stellenbosch Almost all manuals of Christian ethics concentrated in their exegesis of Ex.

20: 12 exclusively on parental authority.

The prominence of care for the elderly in the Bible indicates that in practice respect for the aged was often lacking (cf. Gen. 27:18ff.; 35: 22; 49:3f.).

Apparently, elderly abuse was such a well known phenomenon, that it only could be sanctioned with capital punishment (Ex. 21:15,17). Even within tradition oriented societies as the Hebrew, as many others still today reminiscing an ancestor cult, honouring the elderly is not an obvious daily practice.3 With the father and mother to be honoured, the fifth commandment points to the filial duties towards dependent and frail elder parents. This rupture within the interpretation history was in particular induced by increased knowledge of Umwelt texts on the relationships between parents and children, the Old Testament scholar Cees Houtman writes (2000: 52). But probably also the demographic shifts of the last century will have made the exegetes receptive for this reinterpretation. While from old Israelitic times until far into the twentieth century parents hardly survived their adult children – the average life span in biblical times was around forty-five for the

better off; for the social weak it was undoubtedly even less (Houtman 2000:

53) – nowadays it has become quite common, also within developing countries.4 ‘Oswald Loretz has argued that the commandment to ‘honor thy father and thy mother’ is an offshoot and an echo of the ancestor cult, since it links the care for the elderly with the promise of the possession of the land.’ (Van der Toorn1996: 378) Developments in demography show that the world population is rapidly

getting older. This ‘demographic transition’ is driven by two factors:

increased life expectancy and declining fertility rates. While the global population will increase from around six billion in the year 2000 to nine billion by the year 2050 - an increase of fifty percent - the world’s elderly will experience a three hundred percent increase in numbers. In developing countries where mortality rates are rising and contraception is available the increase may be as high as four hundred percent; in fact, already over sixty percent of the world’s aged population lives in developing countries, and this will increase to seventy-five percent by 2025 and eighty-five percent by 2050, according to the United Nations Population Division. The 80-plus age Reaching the age of sixty, in biblical Israel it meant being old (Houtman 2000, 53). On that age, until at least one generation ago, one slowly prepared oneself for ending one’s days in a retirement home (‘aftreehuis’).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, the sixty year old might be present in institutions of residential care, but only as... visitors of their elder, on care dependent parents. In any case, being sixty today does not mean one has grown old, though society and institutions as universities still think that on that age one has to prepare for retirement.

With the increase in life expectancy also the number of extended three (or four)-generation families increases. While in earlier centuries the care for dependent parents was rare and seldom lasted for long, a gerontologist foresaw already twenty five years ago, that ‘nowadays adult children provide more care and more difficult care to more parents over much longer periods of time than they did in the good old days.’ (Brody1985: 23) That means that many adult children are confronted with the question why and how they should care for and about their frail and dependent parents, and how far their help should go. In developing countries, it seemed for a long time that the ‘providential state’ could take away the adult children’s worries, by providing sufficient state care. But only a minority (in the Netherlands about 6%) of the elderly ever lived in residential institutions.

Neo-liberalism and the global risk society increases the states’ pressure on the elderly’s own social network to provide them with the support they need.

But – is the fearful question – in the near future, will there be caring hands enough available? Due to the ongoing decline in birth rate, only having children around in one’s old age seems to guarantee – even in so called individualized societies – a secure pension, as it was in the biblical times and still may be in non-western cultures. Needless to say, that in countries without a state pension and with a traditional family culture, the pressure on group makes up the fastest growing segment of the population; its share of the over-60 population will increase from twelve percent to nineteen percent by 2050. (Cf. De Lange 2009) children to assist their parents is much higher. Research among immigrant families in the Netherlands showed that parents consider it to be self evident that their children take them, once grown old, to live with them in their homes. A thought with which they were socialized in their country of birth. Their children however, born and raised in an individualized culture, cannot meet that expectation and feel caught in a double bind. (De Valk & Schans 2008) A feeling that probably is shared by adult children in many rapidly urbanizing and modernizing countries in the developing world.

What do grown children owe their aged parents? In the remainder of this contribution I want to describe some visions on filial obligation, current in modern ethical theory, and evaluate them from a theological perspective.

Why children should help their parents? Is it out of gratitude, love, or because they are indebted to them? Or is it simply because they are their parents? What kind of assistance parents may justly expect their children to offer them? Are children also obliged to feed, clothe, nurture their parents and to take them in home, as in biblical times (cf. also John 19: 27), or is material or financial support something the broader community or government should provide? Can children restrict themselves to social and emotional support? And how far filial care should reach? Should children allow themselves to be over burdened? In particular, the care for a parent suffering of dementia may ask much, too much from them, physically and emotionally. May children be obligated to sacrifice themselves (their time, their future) for the sake of their parents, even if these parents sacrificed themselves for these children in their childhood?


The Hebrew Bible motivates filial obligation with the argument that your father is your procreator (Prov. 23:22) and that your mother carried you and gave birth to you (Sir.7:27f.; Tob. 4:4) ‘The thought behind is that one should return some of the care and nourishment provided by the parents.

Love is not mentioned as a motive.’ (Houtman 2000:55) The Bible seems to support the so called debt theory, the first model of filial obligation I want to present here. Debt theory argues that children are in debt with their parents and that they are repaying them with their care what they owe to them. Your parents covered you with benefits when you were young and dependent on them. Now it is ‘pay back time’.

Throughout history and quasi universally, the debt theory is adhered as transparent and self evident. My own parents too, being poor in my early youth, implicitly expected at high age something ‘back’ from their two grown up children. They sacrificed themselves to let us attend the best schools available. It went without saying that the sons, highly educated and relatively well to do, did something in return for that.

The debt theory, balancing benefits and favours, has a long and popular history. Its evidence, however, is less convincing then is seems. Harry Moody retells a story about a mother bird and her little baby bird, who rides on her mother’s back while the mother forages for food. One day the mother bird says to the baby bird, "Baby bird, when you’re a big bird and I’m old an frail will you take me on your back just as I’m doing for you now?”And the baby replies, “No, mother, but when I’m a big bird, I’ll carry my little baby bird on my back just as you’re doing for me now.’ (Moody 1992: 229) The story indicates that reciprocity is not at the heart of the filial relationship.

Parents and children do not relate in terms of do ut des. They do not enter their relationship in order to obtain mutual advantage: ‘if I push your pram now, you will later push my wheelchair’. A child can justly reply that it did not ask for being born. There is a insurmountable and fundamental asymmetry in a parental relationship. From the perspective of children, families are communities of fate, not voluntary associations. Between parents and children there is mutuality, no reciprocity.

Debt theory also cannot account the open endedness and ongoing character of filial duties. A child never will be able to say (and may suffer sometimes from that…): ‘Well, now it’s enough – I paid off my debt.’ Some may call the adult son, visiting once a month his mother and claiming money for his petrol on the doorstep (a true story) a good merchant; we all will find him a bad son.

The debt theory has other flaws too. It presupposes that it is the children that owe something to their parents, and not the other way around. Even if one continues to think intergenerational relationships within the framework of the balance of justice – as the contextual therapy of Ivan BoszormenyiNagy does –, one has to admit that in the transgenerational bookkeeping of merits children come first: ‘Reciprocal equity, the traditional framework for assessing justice among adults, fails as a guideline when it comes to the balance of the parent-child relationship. Every parent finds himself in an asymmetrically obliged position toward his newborn. The child has a source of unearned rights. Society does not expect him to repay the parent in equivalent benefits.’ (Boszormenyi-Nagy 1973: 55) Not all parents are ready to redeem their debt towards their children in promoting their human flourishing. Children are abandoned, neglected, exploited, abused.

Otherwise, some parents might have been heroes in ‘their time’ of the struggle, but others were simply opportunists under, or collaborators with a wrong regime. What, then, are children supposed to pay back? According to the debt theory they would simply have to turn their back on their parents, let alone caring for them in their frail days. Within such a justice framework, there can only be talk of forgiveness and hope on reconciliation, not of retribution.

Additionally, not all children did grow up more privileged than their parents.

What can rich, well to do parents then expect from their poor, highly charged children? Within the debt paradigm parents who did not ‘deserve’ it, cannot require any assistance from their children. And how about ‘effortless’ parents, who simply enjoyed their parenthood and made only fun out of it? What are their ‘merits’ that should be paid back now?

Despite its long tradition and apparent evidence, the debt theory meets a lot of problems. The parent-child relationship is richer and more complex than within an juridical and economic language game of ‘give and take’ can be expressed. Filial obligations cannot be reduced to a bookkeeping of benefits and compensations.

Gratitude Ethicists looking for an alternative, more compatible with a thicker description of the parent-child relationship, came up with a variance of the debt theory, the model of gratitude. The warm language of intimacy, care and love probably offers a better expression of what really goes on between two generations within one family. Children do not ‘owe’ their parents anything. As Nagy rightly put it, intergenerational debts go in one direction, from the parent to the child. The latter’s care for the former is only an expression of their feeling of gratitude towards their own parents. The debts – cf. the young bird in the story – are not ‘paid back’, but ‘paid forward’ in favouring the next generation.

Good parents surround their children with love and care. They did this out of benevolence, not in order to receive something in return. Though their children do not owe them anything, they have a moral obligation to show them with gestures their feelings of gratitude and appreciation. Imagine someone who has risked his life for you. The act is beyond price, but at least it is your moral duty to demonstrate an appropriate level of gratitude, by keeping in touch with him for example, or sending him flowers or a postcard at his birthday. If you exaggerate and want to pay ‘back’ too much, he certainly will be embarrassed: that not why he saved your life!

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