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Parental Obligations - An Argument Against Unlimited Support

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 3Parental Obligations - An Argument Against Unlimited Support, An Argument For The Extended Moral Obligation To Adult Children And Grandchildren

An argument against unlimited support

The argument is made by many that there is a limit to parental obligations to support adult children. If parents have spent arduous decades caring for their offspring, paying tuition for colleges, and perhaps helping with graduate education, they can conclude that they have fulfilled their moral duty. It is not fair to expect older parents to support their adult children indefinitely, or to raise their grandchildren as surrogate parents. As persons live longer, older parents can have many post-childrearing years to engage in life projects that need not include helping their children forever, much less caring for grandchildren. To support an adult child well beyond the age of legal maturity, or to actively care for a grandchild, should be seen as optional, a matter of preference but not a moral requirement. If there are family emergencies it is argued, then outside familial social services can be engaged to solve the problem.

The argument against giving unlimited support is based upon the principle that an individual's moral obligations are limited to fulfilling promises and contracts that he or she has explicitly incurred. Marital partners, for example, have moral obligations to one another because of the marital contract—unless a divorce takes place. Adults who consent to sexual intercourse should foresee the reproductive consequences; they incur obligations to the children that they conceive and bring to birth. Persons who legally adopt children also have obligations to them. Parents have contractual obligations to protect, nurture, and adequately educate their dependent children until they enter adulthood and can support themselves.

The law recognizes these parental obligations and provides penalties when they are not met. Inheritance rights and other legal protections and privileges are accorded to legitimate children. But in writing a will, parents can leave their money to whomever they please. Parents are not morally or legally obligated to help with the financial burdens of their children's marriages and formation of households, although they may follow the cultural norms and do so.

But giving the next generation a good start is different from giving lifetime support. In some unfortunate situations adult children are mentally or physically handicapped or emotionally impaired. Parents should respond to emergencies but are justified in arranging solutions that do not include having the adult child live at home. In other cases the presence of ideological conflict or moral delinquency justifies a parent's withdrawing support that would encourage antisocial behavior. Parents fear becoming "enablers," that is, inadvertently giving aid to their adult children that permits immature, manipulative, or self-destructive conduct. Making decisions about when, and how much, to help before withdrawing is extremely difficult, especially if parents possess adequate resources, but are not wealthy enough to guarantee lifetime support.

When adult children have their own children, the situation becomes more problematic. What do grandparents owe their grandchildren? Here again the argument can be made that grandparents have no moral responsibility to their grandchildren because they had no control over the sexual and reproductive behavior of adult children. Adults, it is said, are independent individual moral agents and their parents cannot be held morally responsible for the consequences of what they do. Parents do not give consent to the birth of grandchildren. Older parents have completed their own moral responsibilities for child care. They can invoke a kind of statue of limitations and the right to divorce themselves from the next generations' needs. The fact that many grandparents regularly take care of their grandchildren and transfer resources to them is a matter of preference and discretionary choice. A grandparent who refuses to help an adult child or a grandchild should not be judged to be morally remiss, in the way that a parent would be if he or she refuses to support a child. A Supreme Court decision recognizes this moral principle by giving sole control and responsibility to a child's parents, and refusing grandparents any rights of visitation, if parents object.

Nonetheless, in 2001 four million American children resided in households headed by their grandparents as their chief caretakers. Drugs, mental dysfunction, economic problems, divorces, illness, death, incarceration, and other family emergencies are given as reasons. A few ethnic subgroups in America still follow patterns of patriarchal, extended family residence, but this is not the society's norm. When adult children are residing in their parents' home, along with their children, it is usually because of some need that older parents are responding to. In millions of other families, grandparents are also investing time and money to help care for their grandchildren. Is there an argument to be made that grandparents do have extended moral obligations to both their adult children and grandchildren?

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