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.

10 comments

  • The way I see it is this: When people make a baby, it is THEIR choice, not the child's. They made it; they need to take care of it. If they are great parents, maybe the child will want to return the favor; if they are terrible and provide their child a miserable life, why on earth would that child owe them anything??

    My parents are awesome. I would love to be able to pay them back in kind, though it's unlikely I will ever be able to provide them anything they can't provide themselves. If I were going to have kids I would want to do for them just like my parents did for me. (I am not my parents, one of the many reasons I won't be having kids.) But to owe somebody for “giving you life” is ridiculous. I have a pretty decent life but I still don't think it's some great gift I should owe someone for. Life by itself is not enough; it's all the other stuff that parents do that is a gift, or a curse.
    You don't have to pay for college or buy cars or anything. You do have to raise your child with the skills to succeed in life, and the ability to choose to use them. That is the very least you owe your child; if you can't provide that, all you've done is create another miserable, helpless, and hopeless human being.

  • It will be interesting to see whether cultural background affects the responses to this post. My parents immigrated from China to the US, and I'm expected to support them in their old age. This affected the career I was allowed to have (doctor or engineer) because I was expected to have a job that was financially stable and secure. Plus, since I'm an only child, there's no one else to help support them, so I live close to them. I guess I've never really known any other options because I grew up with these expectations ingrained in me. I didn't even know that parents let their kids choose their own college majors until I was in my 20's!

    • What would your parents have done if you were born disabled, or lacked the aptitude for a high paying career? Thrown you out? Do they also get to say who you marry, and how many kids you can have? If it works for you, that's great, but what if it doesn't? Not everyone can be a doctor or an engineer, or marry one; I guess it's a good thing not everyone has Chinese parents.

  • Zach @College for 10k

    Really quite an interesting post. As someone who is paying his own way through college, I firmly believe that you should not pay for your child's education.

    I respect my education much more, since I am paying for it. While I do have fun, I believe I spend more time on my studies than those that are having their education paid for.

  • Interesting post… My parents never paid for anything for me really and I have been pretty self sufficient since 16…. Due to this if I ever have kids I want to be able to provide them with their first car and their college education etc etc.

    I don't want to spoil kids but I want to provide for them…as for them passing this behavior onto their children I really hope they do….

  • I think that parents should only owe a child what they think the child should have. If a parent doesn't agree with giving a child a new car because they want to show their kid the value of working hard to buy their own car, then obligation wouldn't really fit. It's nice to get things, but by giving kids too much it might turn them into a spoiled brat. I guess the long and the short of it is, it depends, but when I have kids in the future I'll be cautious to give them too much.

  • What an interesting question.

    As the mother of a grown man, I don't feel he owes me anything. Having brought him into this world, his father and I owed him decent housing, food, clothing, loving care, and the best education we could afford. He got those things (and more). He's now his own man and he gets to make his own way in the world, without feeling any obligation to us just because we did what any normal parent should do.

    My parents' parents did not live into old age; my mother was killed by the nicotine pushers before she could collect Medicare, and my widowed father prematurely checked himself into a lifecare community, thereby freeing me of all responsibility for taking care of him in his old age. So, in my family there's really no tradition of the younger generation caring for the seniors. With no role models for caring, I would be very surprised if my son ever felt any obligation for either his father or me in our old age.

    I'm awed by people who have the strength and moral courage to take on the long-term care of aging, sick parents. One of my friends indeed did truncate a promising career as an investigative journalist when his father developed an acute case of Parkinson's Disease. Instead of moving upward in the AP to New York, as he was slated to do at the time, he took a job for a metropolitan paper in Phoenix, Arizona. He and his wife bought a house and built a separate guest house on the property, into which they moved his mother and father. The parents lived in the backyard for 11 years, while the father wasted away and then finally died. It was all in all a difficult experience that undoubtedly contributed to the dissolution of my friend's marriage and to the mental problems of a now middle-aged daughter.

    They did the right thing, IMHO, but in a culture where that's the exception rather than the rule, it's very hard.

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  • Interesting topic! What are your thoughts on life insurance? Do you owe that to your family? I know a lot of people include college expenses for their children in their policies. Most calculators I've seen also includes it, for example: http://www.wholesaleinsurance.net/life-insuranc…. Should the be a default policy expense? Should you be obligated to pay after you've passed on?

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