A showbiz personality was criticized a few weeks ago for saying, during a podcast interview, that children should not be obligated to support their parents in their old age. The celebrity, herself a mother, later on had to issue a clarification in response to the fair amount of bashing she had received on social media. 

But the story is not about how so-and-so’s words were phrased or misinterpreted or how harshly people spoke about her. What the noise reveals, instead, are evolving attitudes on an issue that is extremely close to home.

It all starts out fairly easy. Two people commit to a life together and have a baby. Sometimes babies are born outside this commitment. However the children came about, they “cost” the same: they have to have milk and diapers, get vaccinated, fed, clothed, and be given a roof over their heads. When they grow up, they have to be sent to school. These are physical needs that are outside of other needs that are more difficult to measure, say emotional or mental nourishment, or the actual homey-ness of the home they live in. 

Indeed, people should not bring into the world babies they don’t have the capacity to take care of. Financially, mentally, or otherwise. Having a child is so daunting that the high cost of infant formula is the least of your concerns. How then can you parent a child well when you can’t even care for yourself, when you also need looking after, or when you cannot even get your act together? Woe to the child who gets born under these circumstances. 

Still, children do get born in less than ideal circumstances. Some of these kids are able to rise above their situation and thrive, not because of their background, but in spite of it. Some get by, living one day at a time. Some are not able to cope altogether, perpetuating a vicious cycle. 

And parents, despite their handicap, do try. 

And then the kids grow up and find jobs and start earning their keep. But while they are growing up, the parents are growing old. By the time the children settle, find a life partner, get entrenched in their work and have children of their own – such is the more conventional path even as other paths are available, too – suddenly their parents are no longer as physically strong or financially able as they used to be. Over time, they become frail and sick, and, after all those years of taking care of their children, now they are the ones who need looking after. 

What is there to do?

Perhaps it’s a distinctly Filipino, or even Asian, quality that children feel they must be there for their parents no matter what. There is a strong element of filial duty among us. Expectations and actual fulfillment of this duty however varies from family to family, or even from individual to individual. Sometimes parents are invited to live in their children’s home that the latter share with their spouses and own children. Sometimes it is the children who continue to live with their parents. Sometimes the parents remain in their own homes while the children pay for their upkeep and care, visiting them when they can. And when sickness comes, the children hit the pause button on their own personal and professional lives, or at least accommodate their parents in their day-to-day existence.

Or, some of them do.

How then does society view those who are not as dutiful? The assumption too is that the parents did their jobs the best they could back in the day – but what about those who spectacularly failed, or who were not even responsible parents to begin with? What if parent and child are estranged, or the parent did horrible things to the child that affected the latter’s growth? Could the parent then demand that, despite the estrangement, the child needs to take care of him/ her just because they have the obligation to do so? Is it also right for parents to pass on to their children the burden of providing for the rest of the family, sometimes the extended family? 

Different perspectives arise from different cultures, exposures. What may seem unacceptable to some societies is but the norm for some. Shall we judge others just because they do things differently from how we do? 

It’s a tricky issue because we were all children and at the receiving end of the care at one point, and will definitely become sickly and needy later on in our lives. All parents are responsible for their children, because it is out of their actions that the children were brought into the world. The children did not have to do anything, much less ask, to be born. 

But children being obligated to care for their parents? Not specifically. What the children are expected to do is to grow into decent, compassionate, fair, and reasonable human beings – however that is interpreted, regardless of their background or baggage. What is asked of them is that they would want to care for others, not only out of a sense of duty imposed upon them, but because they know in their gut that this is what they want to do for their elder. 

All of us should work, then, into educating and nourishing our gut – or however we call it – so that it leads us to the right places. 

The months of May and June are usually rife with tributes to mothers and fathers. This year and onward, may we do the right things because we want to do them out of our own volition, more than it being our duty. The best tribute we can give those who brought us into the world is to be kind and generous (not necessarily materially) to others, to step up when we get the chance, and seize opportunities for goodness to family, acquaintances, and the bigger community alike. – Rappler.com

Adelle Chua is assistant professor of journalism at the University of the Philippines. She was opinion editor and columnist for Manila Standard for 15 years before joining the academe. Email: [email protected].