Q of the Week: Abusive Parents

My friend Juniper posted a very interesting question to her blog recently:

Is a person obligated to care for an aging parent who had been abusive and/or neglectful to them, and what if they continue to be at least verbally abusive?

Read the whole thing here.

Here are a few of my own thoughts: but I invite you to contribute yours too.

As I see it, the moral purpose of everything you do, directly or indirectly, should be to find and to create a worthwhile and meaningful life, a life of integrity and humanity and wonder, for yourself and all your relations.

I’m convinced that our relationships are part of that pursuit; it’s impossible to live well without involving ourselves in healthy relationships, be they social, material, environmental, or spiritual. No one is so totally self-reliant that he can live in the bush for 50 years, living off the land, without ever needing any kind of human companionship. Even Thoreau, the great champion of the goodness of simple natural living, loved his family.

Yet so many people in our society have profoundly disordered relationships with everything around them. Indeed many people are utterly unable to relate to other people except through abuse. They simply don’t know any other way to communicate.

Our family relationships are among the most intimate and important of all. Families, whatever else they may be, are complicated webs of loyalty and history and love between people.

Religious literature from all around the world describes the importance of family bonds. The fourth of the Ten Commandments affirms family values by calling for parents to be respected by their children. The Koran has a similar requirement for kindness to parents: “Whether one or both of them attain old age in thy life, say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honour.” (The Night Journey, 17:23). In Confucian society, filial piety, that is the near-worshipful respect paid by children to parents, is perhaps the most important of values. But to the best of my knowledge, these sources say rather little about what parents owe children, and nothing about whether filial piety is still owed to parents who abuse and neglect their children.

It’s difficult for me to know how to answer a question like this. The relation of parent to child is so sacred to us that any attempt to put it under philosophical scrutiny might seem like a kind of blasphemy.

My own childhood was in many ways idyllic. My parents were stern and disciplinarian, but they were loving and generous. They are still so, now that I’m in my mid 30’s. If I was ever punished for something as a child, still I was never abused or traumatised. My respect for my own parents is grounded only partially in the fact that they conceived me. It is also grounded in the fact that they are good people. Many of my friends have experienced trauma at the hands of their parents; but I have not.

Had my parents been abusive to me or my siblings, I might think differently of them. My moral obligation to respect them would be grounded in the accidental fact of having inherited their genes and their names, and in nothing else.

But I’m not sure that that’s a good enough reason to merit the special quality of respect designated by the name of ‘parent’. For a parent who abuses and traumatises his children perhaps renders himself no longer a parent in the fullest sense of the word. Anyone who is not infertile can bear a child – but a parent is not just a sperm donor and an egg incubator. A parent is also a teacher, a security guard, a nurse, a chef, a playmate, a guide, and so many other things!

A bad parent who insists on being respected by a child who he abused, might be employing a rhetorical deception: he thinks that the mere fact of having conceived a child is enough to earn respect from the child as if he was also all the other things that a parent must be. I wonder if there are respectful and loving ways to expose this deception, and in so doing, motivate the parent to do better.

A parent who didn’t sacrifice herself for his children perhaps does not deserve to have his children sacrifice themselves for her, when he attains old age. But at the same time I worry about putting a moral stamp of approval on abandoning anyone, whether family or not, whether a bad person or not. No one, or perhaps very very few, are so thoroughly corrupt that they deserve to be thrown into the street. Moreover I’m strongly influenced by the Aboriginal idea that all people posses a spirit, and thus all people deserve respect. The aging parent who hurt her children is still a human being, still deserves still to be spoken to with respect, for instance, and to be visited, and to not be denied occasional reasonable requests for help. Such is part of what I think we all owe each other anyway – even strangers. But perhaps the child should not feel herself obliged to sacrifice herself for someone who, but for the fact of being one’s parent, doesn’t reciprocate. Indeed I think no one should feel obliged to compromise her own happiness for the sake of a poisoned relationship.

I think that no one heals herself, nor does anyone heal anyone else. Rather, people of good heart and clear mind heal each other. But I also think that each person in need of healing must also make her own decision to pursue healing.

If a parent is, or was, an abusive parent, she needs healing. If the parent declines that healing, for instance if she believes she doesn’t need it, then what her children can do is live their own lives in the best possible way they can. A consistent and heroic demonstration of the goodness and beauty of life is often a powerful catalyst in an abusive person’s process of healing and change. For it demonstrates that there are alternative ways of being in the world, and that those alternatives work.

Any thoughts?

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