I only listen to podcasts while on road trips, but I love catching up on Freakanomics when I’m traveling. A few years back they had a great episode called Should Kids Pay Back Their Parents for Raising Them? The introduction dealt with a football player who got an NFL contract and, at the party to celebrate, surrounded by friends and family, his mother took him aside and told him that he owes her $1 million for raising him. Most people living in Western countries would be taken aback by a mother making this request, but this episode examines whether or not it is reasonable.
Two friends of mine married Chinese women (one guy was Canadian and the other was also Chinese). Both of them encountered a tradition where the groom is expected to give money to the bride’s parents. Apparently, this is intended as a “thank you” from the bride to her parents for raising her. I don’t totally understand why the groom pays it, and neither did my friends as neither of them did this.
I briefly dated a woman whose family was Kenyan and she told me that her parents would regularly announce that they wanted something, like a new deck on their house, and all their children were expected to chip in to help pay for it.
Historically having children was, in large part, a financial decision. Farmers would expect their children to help them run the family farm. Parents everywhere expected their children to take care of them in their old age. There was a social contract.
In modern times, children are viewed as the ultimate consumer good – you pour time and resources into them for the pleasure of raising them, not for any expected monetary return. Sociologist Viviana Zelizer has a great line that children “became economically ‘worthless’ but emotionally ‘priceless.’”
I can’t find the quote, but I believe Vince Vaughn had a joke that went along the lines that he wanted to adopt a 17-year-old, bond with him for a year, send him off to college, then he’ll have someone to take care of him in his old age.
Filial responsibility laws are on the books in many countries, however, they are seldom enforced – making the news when they are. The idea behind these is that adult children have a legal obligation to financially support their parents, which can be forced on them. I read about a mother who was suing her adult children for support years ago and found the whole situation bizarre and perplexing. It seems these laws are more often used by nursing homes to try to collect unpaid fees – which seems like a misuse of the law’s intention to me. They should be to ensure parents aren’t left destitute, not to provide a collection recourse for people who own debt.
In my opinion, which I acknowledge is very rooted in the culture and time I was raised in, this shouldn’t be a legal issue. I would certainly provide financial support for my wife, parents, or brother and his family if any of them needed it. I’d do this because I love them, not out of a legal obligation. There are a number of close friends I’d help out too.
I *HOPE* that if I fell on hard times some of the people who know me would be willing to help me. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be looking to legally force them to.
Needs vs. Wants
In situations like the NFL player, it goes beyond need and is more the expectation that a family member will share their good fortune with you. Whenever someone wins a lottery, many of their friends and family will stick out their hands.
In this case, I think that people shouldn’t be asking for this – and the person who has come into money should decline. It’s like asking someone for a gift which seems unbelievably tacky to me.
What do you think? Do children have a financial obligation to their parents? How should this be expressed?