What Grown Children Owe Their Parents

What do grown children owe their parents? Do adult children owe their parents for what they’ve done while growing up? What does honor thy father and honor thy mother really mean? What are the duties and responsibilities towards elderly parents by their children, and how do these responsibilities relate to the scriptural requirement to cleave in a marriage relationship?

The challenges of parenting parents in their advanced years can often cause personal and financial problems in marriages and families, but it’s a shame when grown children use the word “owe” when discussing how or IF they will provide care for their aging parents, as if what parents do for their children while raising them is somehow a debt that must be repaid in full.

Some children have grown up in abusive or neglectful homes, using those past experiences and memories as an excuse not to help or assist in providing needed care and attention to their elderly parents, with the selfish attitude of “I didn’t ask to be born” or, “I don’t have to take care of my parents because of x, y, z done to me while growing up”.

Caring For Elderly Parents

Getting along with aging parents can be a challenge, and you don’t have to be part of the Sandwich Generation to appreciate the difficulties and conflicts that sometimes arise in marriages and families while taking care of mom and/or dad. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. Throughout our own lives and the lives of parents, genuine forgiveness for past hurts and misdeeds is a sign of maturity and good character as opposed to holding onto a lifelong grudge that hurts no one but you.

Jane English, a philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina, was asked the question “What do grown children owe their parents?” English’s response was “nothing”, arguing that “grown children have no filial obligations to their parents, but that there are things that children ought to do for their parents, but they do not owe them things”.

Caring for aging or elderly parents is not so much a question of whether the aged generation should be taken care of, but more of a question of who should take care of them. Isn’t caring for elderly parents just the right and moral thing for their children and families to do?

Don’t we all hope that when we are old and needing help of some kind that our children would without question or a moments hesitation be willing to come to our aid, rather than having the attitude of “owing” such help? Or worse, completely ignore the parent’s plea for help or need of help, and simply decide to let the state or society handle their care.

Honor Thy Father and Mother

The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults says “children owe their parents respect, gratitude, just obedience and assistance” as part of the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament. The commandment says to “Honor thy father and mother…that thou mayest live long on the earth.” Nowhere in the text does it say “Honor thy father and mother” IF:

  1. If they are good parents…
  2. If they stay together in marriage until death do them part…or
  3. If they did everything right as parents or as individuals, etc.

Nor does it say that children owe their parents love, which is another common excuse used by adult children not wishing to provide care for their parents saying, “I don’t love my parents so I don’t need to do anything for them”. The scriptural text simply and clearly states that children are to honor their parents. To Honor means “to dignify; to raise to distinction or notice; to bestow honor upon; to elevate in rank or station; to ennoble; to exalt; to glorify; hence, to do something to honor; to treat in a complimentary manner or with civility”.

Taking care of elderly parents is primarily the responsibility and moral obligation of families and the individual needing care, and the state can assist as needed. There are state programs available that may be able to provide financial assistance by paying caregivers or family members that are having difficulty in dealing with elderly parents and the increasing need for care that can become quite costly.


The definition of cleave is “to adhere closely; to stick; to hold fast; to cling” and, “to unite or be united closely in interest or affection; to adhere with strong attachment”. So, how do you balance “leave and cleave” with honoring your parents at the same time? “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24)

The parent-child relationship is the temporary one…there will be a “leaving.” The husband-wife relationship is the permanent one (let not man put asunder-Matthew 19:6). When an adult child has gotten married and the parent/child relationship remains primary or the first priority, the newly formed marital union is seriously threatened.

Cleaving indicates such intimate closeness that there is to be no closer relationship than that between the two spouses, not with any former friend or with any parent. They are to become “one flesh”. When a parent deliberately or unknowingly violates the biblical principles found in Genesis 2:24, they should be respectfully disobeyed. It is necessary to distinguish real physical and emotional needs from the “felt needs” of an overbearing, meddling, controlling and demanding parent.

Whether or not there is good relationship between grown children and their parents, there is still the need to provide care for elderly parents in order to lead a truly peaceful, happy and contented life, but also because St. Peter may call your name one day as well as mine, and the choices we all make in life will determine if we’re on St. Peter’s list or not.

Related Posts:

Caring For Our Elderly Parents
One Flesh in Marriage
What Parents Owe Their Children
Taking Care of Aging Parents as a Family
Can I Get Paid to Care for a Family Member: Mother or Father?
What Does it Mean to Leave and Cleave in Traditional Wedding Vows?
Taking a Bite Out of the Sandwich Generation

Be Sociable, Share!

21 Responses to “What Grown Children Owe Their Parents”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Sam Vander says:

    Hi Lin
    I agree with most of the comment posted on your site.

    I believe in family values and think it is our responsibility to look after the elders or even help strangers who are unable to help them self.

    We all will get old some day and can only hope someone will look after us as we did to others.

  2. Lin says:

    Hi Sam, I also believe in “do unto others as we would have done to us” and I think it aptly applies to what we do to take care of the elderly and the infirm.

  3. renita says:

    Hi Lin,

    I completely agree with you on taking care of your elderly parents.

    No matter what your relationship was, except if they physcially, sexually, or mentally abused you, your parents did the best they could.

    I think it’s really sad when personal issues and selfishness get in the way of doing what is right.

  4. Lin says:

    Hi Renita, I’ve personally seen people who choose to ignore the needs of their elderly parent(s) for the most trivial “reasons” imaginable and it’s so incredibly sad.

  5. I think the best reason for taking care of your parents or grandparents is a perfectly logical one. The elders in your family or community have the most accumulated experience (on average), and has the most potential to spread the wisdom for a healthy society. The elderly are less likely to be looking out for themselves only, and are finally at a point where they are more likely to contribute and want to leave a larger legacy when they have gone.

  6. Lin says:

    Herb, taking care of elderly parents is an important and necessary responsibility for grown children as well as the entire family, including teenagers and grandchildren. No one in the family is exempt from doing what is necessary in taking care of mom, dad, grandma or grandpa. There is much everyone in the family can do to share the duties and responsibilities, rather than the majority falling on just one person in the family.

  7. Carol Christoffel says:

    What Do People Owe thier Parents? To try to treat them with respect and dignity and kindness. Caregiveing IF POSSIBLE. Let’s be real here. It is not always possible to give care if the Elder is rejecting and abusive and prefers others to do it. Setting reasonable limits to behavour is admirable but not always possible with some Elders. I have a friend whose family believes whole heartedly in “incest is best”. When she refused to join in and told someone, she was branded the snitch who was “destroying” the family. She was raised by others and returned to her family when 16. Througout her childhood and into her adulthood, her family sees her as the family slave and scapegoat, made to do all the chores and delibertly left out or marginalized at all holidays…as punishement for refusing incest.
    Her family fraudelently stole an inhertance for her, routinely attempst to borrow money from her, despite the fact that they have a fair amount of money and she is dirt poor. They have attempted to have her killed(she was beaten and raped and left for dead by someone whom her brother had hired) and made numerouse attempts to THIS DAY to recruit her only child into the incest.
    Most of her siblings have had thier own children removed to foster care for incest related matters. She reports nieghborhood “girlfriends” in thier thirties sitting in her father’s lap and making suggestive remarks(as though they also were recruited). On several occasions in her youth, her father attempted to “set her up” to date adult men who lent him money or could advance his career and likewise “overnights” with his children being lent out to his business partners was not uncommen.
    Not only does she need not caretake them but to do so endangers both her life and the life of her child, as they continue to exhibit bizarre behaviours and make not very skillfull attempts to seduce her child. Because she is human and deep down would really like to belong to a family Holidays are especially hard on her. She maintians some contact with a sister but doesn’t want the parents to know her exact wereabouts as they demand money from her and make trouble for her. They see her as existing to forfill thier needs.
    I have repeatedly advised her NOT TO VISIT THEM ALONE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES as the psycho brother may pop in, and the sexual business is ONGOING.
    This holiday season they tried to hit her up to pay off her brother and sister’s credit card debt, they incurred with Switzeraland holidays. They are asking someone who has worked hard and has a disabled child, and who lives on beans and rice.
    I spent a lot of time explaining to her that the family is locked into a destructive and abusive pattern with her and that her first responsibility is to care for herself(as in finishing her education for a better job) and her child(as in seeing that she gets a healthy diet and not a subsistance diet). Her parents and siblings can easly care for themselves and pose both a physical and psychological threat to her.
    Although she has been told the same by couselours it is still difficult for her to walk away from her family, who want to keep thier slave.
    Intellectually she knows this, but at holidays will slip into “pleasing and placating” the abusing family as she deep down would like thier love and approval. Does she owe them? Not in my book.

  8. Lin says:

    Hi Carol,

    The situation you describe is disgusting to say the least, and it is absolutely true that she needs to protect herself and her children from any such abusive behaviors by the parents/grandparents and accomplices. Absolutely, without a doubt.

    Have the authorities been notified? Any charges pending?

    When I talk about “abusive behaviors” by elderly parents, I’m referring to how SOME elderly parents may be verbally abusive or combative with caretakers, NOT abusive in ways that you describe.

    Some illnesses predominant in the elderly can make caring for elderly parents extremely stressful, Alzheimer’s comes to mind, which caretakers have to adjust to and find meaningful ways to help take care of the elderly parents.

    Carol, in the case you describe, I agree that she does not “owe” her parents care, and that word “owe” is often overused by both the young and elderly in today’s society which is why I used the term.

  9. Patricia Fountain says:

    I hope your article could open the eyes of many immature adults.

    Those who raised us as parents as well should be treated as such, a grandparent, and uncle etc.

    Love and regards.

  10. Jerica says:

    “No matter what your relationship was, except if they physcially, sexually, or mentally abused you, your parents did the best they could.”

    It’s not just about parents who may have been abusive to their children in childhood, but parents who are still abusive to their grown children. Parents who gossip and try to destroy relations between family members, who threaten when they don’t get what they want, who play the martyr and never empathize with another human being. I don’t feel those people are owed anything by their grown children. Sometimes it takes years for a child to get away from that parent only to find do-gooder know it alls telling them “You better take care of your elderly parent or you will regret it” as if that person needs more threats. Especially using religion to try and control. It is a wonder why the church (which has way more money than I do) won’t help these parents at all, even after they tithed thousands.

    • Lin says:

      Hi Jerica,

      The kind of parents you are describing here sounds like what is referred to as toxic family members, and I invite you to read that article. Parents who are abusive their grown children for one reason or another (or excuse) should never be ignored. I’ve read numerous times that some elderly parents develop age-related illnesses that cause them to behave in toxic ways even without complete knowledge that they’re doing it. Like, Alzheimer’s if I remember right. I don’t remember what other mental problems were included in the information I read on that subject, but taking care of elderly parents is a moral responsibility for all of us. Speaking personally, and being someone who does NOT attend church at all anymore and having experienced an abusive childhood, if/when my parents need anything as far as care or financial help, I will do everything I can to help them until their death.