On the day of the NFL draft, the Oakland Raiders picked Phillip Buchanon as the 17th overall pick in the first round with a multi-year 12 million dollar contract and a four million dollar signing bonus. That same day, Buchanon’s mother congratulated her son, and promptly told him that he owed her one million dollars for raising him.
This week’s Freakonomics episode explored different takes on the following question: Do children owe their parents for raising them? If so, what form would such compensation take? How formal should a child’s obligation to his parents be?
American parents spend, on average, $250,000 on raising a kid up until age 18. That number increases if the parents pay for their children’s college education or continue to support them into early adulthood. The real total number, then, is actually much higher than a quarter of a million dollars—that’s a lot of money. So why does Phillip Buchanon’s story make us cringe? Isn’t it fair that we pay back our parents for the money—and not to mention time—they spent raising us?
Viviana Zelizer, an economic sociologist at Princeton University, noted that the economic role of children in the United States has changed over time, with a particularly interesting rise of the “economically useless but priceless child” (17:24) at the turn of the 20th century. This term reflects a change in cultural attitudes toward children from one that appreciated their labor value to one defined by sentimental and emotional value. For example, people used to foster older children for their labor—this isn’t to say that they were not also loved—but now, people just want to adopt infants.
Many of us would agree that there is a sort of unspoken rule that one should take care of his or her parents when they become older and need assistance. I certainly plan on helping my parents in any way I can—not because they will demand assistance, but because I love them and genuinely want them to be comfortable, healthy, and happy in their old age.
But as Anya Dubner, Freakonomics host Stephen Dubner’s thirteen-year-old wisely points out, the sense of obligation one has to his or her parents depends on a host of different factors: the state of the parent-child relationship, the parent’s financial means, the adult child’s financial means, the parent’s needs, etc. Even a millionaire would likely not feel obliged to give large sums of money and assistance to a parent who was absent for his childhood.
Culture also plays a critical—if not the most important—role in the way we think about this exchange. As Amy Chua, Yale Law professor and author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother explains in the episode, filial piety is much more deeply ingrained in Chinese culture than in American culture.
But even Chinese societal expectations are changing in tandem with China’s growing economy and increasing modernization. As children grow up and move to big cities for work, old parents who can no longer work risk economic destitution unless their children come to their aid. In addition, China’s infamous one child policy has created a generation of couples who are burdened with caring for two sets of elderly parents on one household income, whereas in the past, the responsibility for caring for older parents would be divided among siblings. In 2013, the Chinese central government issued a policy that required adults to visit their parents on a regular basis. The law was met with an enormous amount of controversy, and for good reason. How can such a policy be enforced? Do elderly parents really want their kids to begrudgingly visit them at risk of getting sued?
As is the case with most Freakonomics episodes, I was left with more questions than answers at the end—and I think this a good thing. In an ideal world, all parents and children would have good relationships and enough financial resources to render the issue moot. But this question remains one to be carefully considered and debated.
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