our debt to the future and past

What do you owe to the future and the past – if anything? Do you owe anything to your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and other people from the generations babyshoebefore you? What, if anything, do you owe to your children? Many people are in the habit of speaking of debts and dues in regards to the future and past generations of their family, but what do you really, truly owe?

I want to take a simple example. If your parents paid for your college education, do you have an obligation to pay for your children’s college education, or does the “college education obligation” reset at zero each generation? One line of thinking would be that it is a gift, given by your parents to you. You have no obligation to pass on the gift. Another line of thinking would be that you are selfishly failing to repay the assistance you received.

To complicate it even further, what if you think it’s a mistake? What if your grandparents put themselves through college, paid for your parents, who then didn’t pay for you because they thought their grandparents came out better for working their way through college? I know that may be a bit of a stretch, but it’s possible. But by increasing the “generational obligation” are you increasing expectations unreasonably?

A college education is one thing, but take material items. I was given a brand-new car as a high school graduation present. Does that mean I owe my children new cars? Should I only give it to them, if, like I did, they receive full scholarships to college (and therefore didn’t need any of the money that my grandparents and parents had thought I might for school)?

I don’t plan to buy my kids ‘fancy’ cars or send them to school. Plans change, of course, as do circumstances. But the concept of a generational contract – something that is owed – is odd when you think of it, because in a sense you have no choice in it, and due to your own circumstances you may not have the ability to live up to your obligation. Even if my parents had paid for me to go to a private college (say, $10,000 per year at the time) I am not sure I would be able to do the same for my children – if in 18 years the same school would cost $40,000 per year. Or more.

In the best circumstances, people love their families and will do anything for them. But does that mean giving up career choices? A choice of a place to live? If you have ailing parents in the future and they refused to move, would you give up following your career or even just living in a place of your choosing to stay near to them? If your parents raised you in a particular religion or ethnic culture, do you have an obligation to at least introduce it to your children?

I can imagine that some people look at the level of obligation implied by children and get a little queasy thinking about everything they will owe to them. It’s not the first thing you think about in regards to children, but it is one of the things to consider. And your parents (and other older relatives) will rely on you when they are older for support and care and even “continuing the family traditions.” In some senses, one of the hardest things may be to break these expectations – to not raise the kids Catholic, or tell your parents you are moving to California when they don’t want to leave their home in Chicago. Knowing what your choice will be in these types of situations, before you have to make it, is probably worth considering.