Parental Obligations

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Parents of grown children can find themselves in ambiguous situations in our highly technical society. Young adults need many years of education to find good jobs that provide financial independence. Consequently, adult children today take longer to marry and often return home to live with their parents. How much should their parents help them? The moral dilemmas become more complicated if young adults have children of their own, and have difficulties carrying out their parental duties successfully. Do grandchildren have a claim upon their grandparents' resources?

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 contractunless 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?

An argument for the extended moral obligation to adult children and grandchildren

Older parents can have moral obligations to their adult children and their grandchildren that brook few exceptions or limitations. Some argue that if all goes well with adult children and they are raising their children successfully, grandparents still have an obligation to encourage and morally support their adult children and grandchildren. They should show interest, give attention, and supply as much supplementary help as will contribute to the family's flourishing. Nurturing attentions that help, but do not spoil or distort, a grandchild's development should be given. In emergencies the grandparents have a moral responsibility to give more financial and emotional support, and in cases or real crises, they have a duty to provide back-up surrogate parenting and childcare, if they can. These moral claims of families in crises are grounded upon a more capacious, richer ethic of moral responsibility than a highly individual morality limited to fulfilling contracts.

An adequate morality of family obligations affirms the principle that as human beings we have moral obligations and responsibilities for which we do not individually contract. It is not enough to require only that human beings operate as detached selves pursuing self-interests. As human beings we are moral agents who exist in embedded networks of attachment that make valid moral claims upon us. No child contracts to be born a member of a family or of the human community. No one gives informed consent to be a member of earth's ecosystem. Yet we have moral obligations to our families, to our communities, and to protect the earth's environment for future generations. We live in time and will always face unforeseen events and challenges. We could not function outside of interdependent communities' relationships, so we have corresponding moral obligations that transcend individual projects and choices. Modern moral perspectives have overemphasized individual liberty, abstract ethical principles, and the idea that moral obligation is limited to formal legal agreements freely assumed.

Such a truncated moral vision cannot adequately respond to the demands and realities of communal living, especially life in families. For one thing, it assumes that individuals experience goods and duties alone, and ignores the "together goods" that can only arise in interactions and relationships with others. Yes, we have a moral duty to do no harm, and fulfill individual promises and contracts, but we also have an obligation to further the common good.

In an adequate morality, individuals are bound to respect and care for other human beings because they possess intrinsic value and worth as ends in themselves. The moral claims of others must be recognized as equal to one's own. The United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights expresses the ethical obligation of individuals to treat each other in "a spirit of brotherhood" that entails respecting and responding to their needs and moral claims. In the teachings of the great world religions the demand is also made that persons treat each other with care and compassion. Those in need have a moral claim upon those with resources. A morally mature person must be ready to respond to unexpected events and the unforeseen needs of his neighbors. The Good Samaritan happened to be passing by on the road. In families, the members are always traveling on the road together. Parents are their adult children's keepers and have obligations to grandchildren.

We have special duties to those who are near (and dear) to us. Our duties arise from our state in life, that is, where we live and with whom we are interconnected. Those whom we know and with whom we have emotional ties can be helped most effectively by us. Our families, our neighbors, our fellow workers, our countrymen have stronger claims on our care than others, because they are near at hand and can benefit from our care. The more emotionally intimate and long-standing the relationship, the greater the moral weight of our obligation.

Older parents have moral obligations to their adult children and grandchildren because they can play a special role in supporting them, a role that exists because of a unique irreversible connection between the generations. The biological (or adoptive) relationship links individuals to the past and has consequences for the future. Kinship ties carry responsibilities for support that strengthen the common good in the present and for the future. I was given life by my parents, the argument goes, and my adult children and their children would not exist if not for me. Older generations pass on the culture to the young. Grandparents can intervene if need be on the behalf of grandchildren, with their parents, with other family members, and with outside individuals and institutions. When in cases of need grandparents do not have the means or capacity to support adult children or grandchildren at home, they can still serve as loving advocates within the social service system by maintaining close contact. If there is some bitter family conflict and divisiveness, older parents are morally obligated to work to heal the breach.

Civil society and healthy communities depend upon strong and healthy family commitments. Without experiencing socialization within the family none of the public virtues can be acquired easily. An adequately functioning family engenders bonds of love, altruism, and mutually cooperative behavior. We respect and love those outside of the family, those recognized as the larger human family, because we first learned to feel respect, moral obligation, empathy, and love in the family setting. Families are one place in our society where it is possible to completely follow the altruistic ideal of "from each according to their means, to each according to their needs." The positive emotions of love and joy that arise from giving have been as important to human flourishing as other drives for survival. The altruism of grandparents to their adult children and grandchildren is also supported by an evolutionary analysis of human nature.

Evolutionary perspectives on family altruism

Kinship obligations to progeny and their offspring are primary features of human societies. The human species is highly social, and each adult that reaches reproductive age is the product of years of family and group nurture. No pair of procreative parents springs full grown into the world or can survive alone. In an evolutionary perspective, the primary human drive is to perpetuate one's own genes through successful mating and reproduction. But without a third generation the parental genes die. The innate drive for successful descendants motivates the many family systems that formally emphasize extended family responsibilities. New evolutionary analyses of the helping behavior of grandparents focuses upon the ways that greater help is given to those grandchildren whose genetic relationship to the grandparents is certain, that is, a daughter's offspring over a daughter-in-law's. In new studies of surviving Stone Age tribes anthropologists have discerned a grandmother effect. Those children of a woman whose mother actively forages roots and foodstuffs to supplement their diet, weigh more than other children. Speculation then arises that the helping role of grandmothers may provide an evolutionary explanation of why women live beyond their reproductive years and experience menopause. Their care for their grandchildren provides a selective advantage. Perhaps it will soon be discovered that the help and investment of both grandparents in their adult children's nurturing of grandchildren provide advantages. Human beings, however, do not live by evolutionary mechanisms alone, so moral obligations within families do not depend upon unconscious innate drives to selectively reproduce genes. The argument for the obligation of parents to their adult children and their grandchildren is a moral one that morally convinces. It is also important that it is in accord with innate tendencies of the human species for group survival.


As life expectancies increase families live together for many more decades than ever before. There are new problems and challenges that arise from a complex, highly technological, individualistic society. But there is also more time for families to enjoy each other's company, give mutual support, mend broken ties, and express love and gratitude. Within families the grandparent-adult child-grandchild relationship is unique. As more attention is focused on the ethics of family relationships, the moral obligations of older parents to help adult children rear grandchildren will be affirmed and appreciated. Many grandparents make sacrifices for their extended families and grandchildren; the nurturing influence of grandparents operates as a hidden force for human survival.

Sidney Callahan

See also Filial Obligations; Grandparenthood; Intergenerational Exchanges; Intergenerational Justice; Parent-Child Relationship.


Blustein, J. Parents and Children: The Ethics of the Family. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Callahan, S. Parents Forever: You and Your Adult Children. New York: Crossroad, 1996.

O'Neil, O., and Ruddick, W., eds. Having Children: Philosophical and Legal Reflections on Parenthood. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.