18 Nov 2015
Is it our duty to pay back our parents for raising us?
The warmth and comfort of a loving family are familiar concepts worldwide. Perpetually open arms and unconditional affection are taken for granted by many. However, numerous people all over the world navigate everyday life without the privilege of an ever present, caring family. Most people who got lucky enough to enjoy a warm upbringing would not trade it for the world and therefore claim that they would do everything within their power to return their gratitude, love and support to their caretakers if need be… Would they really?
All through high school, Philip Buchanan was the sporty kid that prioritized baseball and particularly American football over schoolwork and lazy beach days. He became a star player on the star-studded college football team while studying at the University of Miami. After his team won the national championship in 2001, he decided to quit college and enter the National Football League (NFL) draft. Soon enough, he found himself signing a multi-year contract of approximately $12 million. Buchanan, gleaming with joy, came home to find out his mom demanding he give her $1 million in return for her efforts in raising him. His state of euphoria quickly faded into astonishment, and understandably so, because the fundamental assumption of family relations, namely unconditionality, appeared to be erroneous. He refused to provide her with this huge sum of money and this, needless to say, led to a cooling of their relationship. Although this is undoubtedly be the result of a crisscross pattern of problems, it boils down to the fact that he has become estranged from his family ever since.
Just because he refused to give her $1 million at once, does not imply that he refused to support his mother financially. The practice of buying your parent(s) a house and a car is an entirely normal and most logical thing to do if you make a lot of money as a professional athlete of the NFL. Moreover, he pays her bills and transfers a monthly amount of nearly $20,000. According to Buchanan, he would have given her money either way, thus he was intrinsically motivated, but her very specific demand caused their relationship to cool off substantially.
At the heart of filial piety lies the issue of motivation. In response to a reasonable upbringing, most people are intrinsically or internally motivated to return some of the help they received from their caretakers, without any external rewards. However, when enforcement or punishment strategies occur, external reinforcement is offered for an already internally rewarding activity. A psychological phenomenon named the ‘overjustification effect’ postulates that this is actually likely to make the initial activity less intrinsically rewarding.
This discouraging effect is exactly what happened when Buchanan’s mom demanded $1 million, but is also present due to the filial responsibility laws in the US that are formally stringent but rarely effectively enforced.
Bottom line: Parental care provided by children is nor enforceable, nor should it be. Because intrinsic motivation is usually stronger than external motivation, ultimatums and laws only deteriorate the parent-child relationship in creating unnecessary incentives.
* Please comment on these posts from my microeconomics / growth & development economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.