The Responsibility of Dependency
Years ago, my wife and I were out to dinner in a Chinese restaurant. The subject of senior discounts must have come up, because I was boring her with one of my rants on the fiscal responsibility—or rather, irresponsibility—of the older generation. I was, and remain, disgusted with the senior discount, which allows that generation, which has had a lifetime to become established financially, to eat at a reduced rate, while forcing young families, still raising children and trying to get a leg up in the world, to pick up the tab. (Many probably don’t realize this, but someone has to pay for that discount—obviously, everyone not receiving it.) Included in my discourse was my abhorrence of the bumper sticker frequently seen on RVs shamelessly proclaiming, “I’m spending my children’s inheritance” as though it’s a great joke. At the end of the meal, we opened our fortune cookies. Mine said, “Frugality is a virtue, especially in ancestors.” I continue to savor that moment, and love repeating the story to the weary ears of friends and family.
This subject was again brought to mind as I read Tim Challies’ recent post on the obligations of adult children toward aging parents. I agree unequivocally with every word Tim wrote, so don’t take this as any kind of rebuttal. However, as I see it, his post is the reverse side of the coin. I simply want to flip that coin and expose the obverse. Just as I appreciate hearing of the responsibility of the young from a younger voice, I think it is appropriate to hear someone a little closer to the other end of life—just a little, mind you—on the responsibility of parents.
My philosophy on parental responsibilities can be expressed in three words: “Water runs downstream.” Creeks (that’s “cricks,” for those of you south of the Mason-Dixon) feed rivers, and rivers feed oceans. Only then can the water be taken up into the clouds and dispersed back onto the land, flowing once again through waterways back into the ocean. In case this is unclear (as my allegories often are) the ocean is the younger generation. What would happen if the rivers and lakes were somehow able to absorb and consume all or most of the water that flowed into them, and did so? You know the answer. The hydrological system would break down, and eventually, they would run dry. Now, imagine the Mississippi, reduced to a trickle, crying out to the Gulf of Mexico for water.
That is exactly what I see happening in many cases.
Parents who can’t wait to get shed of the burden of parenting finally get the last of their 1.87 children—a number which renders the whole scheme all the more problematic—out of the house, retire, buy an RV or a condo in Florida, and head south for the winter (I don’t know what the folks in Florida do). They begin doing all the things they couldn’t do with those pesky kids hanging around. After all, this is what they’ve worked all their lives for. Slap the bumper sticker on the RV, and off we go. Hey, we deserve it!
Indeed, you deserve something.
Independence brings with it responsibility. What many don’t seem to understand is dependency comes with responsibility, as well. We have tried to teach this to our children. Each of them has held a job from the earliest age possible. They have mowed lawns (our oldest son bought our old lawn mower for that purpose), had paper routes, worked in restaurants, fast food, and grocery stores. We have taught them to save money, and they have mostly done well. We have also tried to teach them the responsibility of dependency.
We consider it our responsibility, as parents, to prepare them for life as adults and, as much as we are able, to help them get started. That includes, if they choose, continuing education. When they go off to college, they draw from their savings, but their savings is never enough, so we help them as much as we can. This brings us to the responsibility of dependency: The more they spend, the less they save; the less they save, the sooner it runs out; the sooner it runs out, the sooner they come with their hands out. All this means that every penny they spend frivolously ultimately comes out of our pockets. While we don’t begrudge them a little spending money, we do hope they will bear that in mind and be frugal.
Now reverse that principle: If we reach a point at which we need our children to look after us, and we have lived extravagantly, spending our resources frivolously, we will be placing a greater-than-necessary burden on them. We owe it to them, just as they owed it to us, to be frugal. If we are not, we cannot be surprised if the ocean has no water to yield for the refreshing of the rivers.
We are not wealthy people. We don’t expect to live luxuriously in our old age, and our children have little hope of any inheritance to speak of. But we should at least do what little we can to make our “golden years” require as little of their gold as possible. That is the responsibility of dependency.
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