18 November 2015

Is it our duty to pay back our parents for raising us?

Anna-Maria writes:*

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.

Whether he would or would not have donated her the money, parental respect and care is valued in most societal frameworks. The virtue of respecting, honoring and helping one’s parents and ancestors is referred to as filial piety in Confucian philosophy. According to government estimates, American parents spend on average a quarter million dollars per child on upbringing. In past centuries, getting children could be beneficial for parents in the sense that children could perform child labor and were expected to take care of their parents in the future. Considering the increasing (opportunity) costs, sociologist Zelizer described having children nowadays as economically useless, but priceless (Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children). This can be attributed to the emotional or social utility that parents obtain from having offspring.

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.


  1. Leanne Zeppenfeldt25 November, 2015 17:28

    Hi Anna-Maria, a very interesting analysis of this specific case. However, I am wondering whether there is a lot of this "intrinsic motivation" in less extreme situations (when the child doesn't become a professional athlete, but a "simple 9-5'er"). Or, at the other extreme where the parents bring up an unsuccessful, unemployed 30-year-old. Do you think that in these cases there is also a "duty" to pay back your parents? If not, is the duty to pay back the costs of your upbringing then related to the "quality" of your upbringing, or how successful you've become, despite the fact that your parents might have invested as much in your upbringing as Buchanan’s mother? These are of course normative discussions as well, but I do think the answers will have some interesting implications.

    1. Hey, thanks, good questions :). Yes, what I meant is that intrinsic is synonymous to internal, so my post is built on the assumption that most beings are internally motivated to reciprocate favors to those who have helped us in any sense of the word. The notion of a duty to actually repay our parents is a highly debatable one, and one that is imposed by the state in implementing the filial responsibility laws. My issue with the implications would be that those who would be willing to help their parents in any case might change this willingness due to external driving forces. Laws want to quantify that willingness that might otherwise be indeterminate and unconditional. And of course, glad you brought that up, there must be countless measurement problems in trying to express quality and family relations in monetary values, so that would be another major issue with such laws.


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