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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8 Responses to Q of the Week: Abusive Parents

  1. pombagira says:

    well that is a curley one.. my first instinct is to answer with a Hell no, thats why we have resthomes !! however i do know that here in new zealand things are different and state homes, or government funding for such things is very easy……

    also i grew up around geriatrics who had been put in homes by their relatives, and looking back some of them were there because they did not care for their children, gawd knows a few of them were very very nasty… but having watch so many of these elderly men and women pine for the family’s who never visited has meant that i will not be looking at that option when my mother becomes of an age where she needs care.. i just couldn’t.. no matter how many books she filled with porridge.. (a long standing habit of Masie, one of my favourite residents, at breakfast time)

    at the end of the day i believe that it will be a case by case thing where there is no wrong or write answers… just some grey stuff in between…

    *ponders over this some more*

  2. wildwolflupa says:

    Abusive Parents

    As you stated above, genetics does not a parent make. I have born witness to the abusive parent/child relationship. I have also seen what it can do the the children once they are grown and have children of their own. My grandfather, my father’s father, was a verbally abusive man. When my grandmother died, they moved him in to my parents home, for he could not care for himself. He had little or no use for women other than to feed and clean up after him. He turned that venom onto my mother. My father repeatedly said that they could not put him in a home, it wasn’t right, it was his father and he must care for him. As he grew older, he became physically abusive, so much so that when I arrived one day for a visit I found him trying to throw my mother down the stairs. The two of us struggled to get him into his room and it took all the strength I had to hold the door closed while my mother called my father for help.

    That was the final straw, and my father finally agreed that he needed to be in a place with people who were trained to deal with him. He didn’t have any other disease other than he was a mean miserable old man. Putting him in a home weighed heavily on my father. He felt he had dishonoured him, and shirked his obligation to care for him in his later years.

    In my opinion my grandfather neither deserved or earned half the respect that my father paid him. I do have to give my father credit though, he could have gone a very different route with his children. Although he was often closed off, and wasn’t very good with emotions, he tried very hard never to say an abusive or demeaning word to us. That itself, above anything else, earned my respect for him. He took what he had been taught, what he had endured his whole childhood, changed it, and did the best he could by his children.

    My mothers parents were strict, and were believers in spare the rod spoil the child, but they also reared with love, kindness, and showed respect to their children. Which in turn, gained respect from them. Now my mother is living with them, caring for them as they are both failing in health. She does it out of love, not out of some obligation. I have a great respect for my mother’s parents, and none for my Dad’s father.

    In my opinion you can not respect a bully, no matter what the genetic connection is. Respect is something earned, not given.

  3. hel_ana says:

    That’s a fascinating question and one that I’m grateful to have the luxury to consider as an academic exercise. Like you, my family was loving and nurturing; though I believe that I probably had and have it easier than you, knowing our respective parents – mine were strict-ish, rather than strict.

    I think there are two aspects to the question that I find interesting. (I’ll leave aside the question of what weight having come from an abusive vs a nurturing family might have, since I don’t think I’m qualified to comment on all of it.)

    The first thing that occurs to me is that the answer a given individual provides is likely, I suspect, to depend on what kind of family model he or she works from, inherited obligation or negotiated commitment.

    A person who views family ties from the inherited obligation model is likely to argue that the abuse is not important; the obligation to care for the parent is paramount. Someone working from the negotiated commitment model is probably going to give a more nuanced answer, that it depends on what obligations the parent and child have agreed between them, or perhaps that the child owes the parent exactly what the child owes any human being, no more, no less.

    Personally, I fall towards the negotiated commitment side of the scale in my beliefs. OTOH, my lived experience, when it comes to my family, probably looks a lot more like the inherited obligation model; given that I’ve been given every reason to love and respect my parents, that dichotomy probably isn’t surprising.

    The second question your thoughts raised was whether we can actually talk about the Biblical/Koranic/Confucian/etc demands for parental respect in terms of morality. Really, I’d argue, they’re more about societal control/engineering than they are morality. They all come from time periods and cultures where group loyalty and discipline was critically important to the survival of the group. Elderly people who have no-one to look after them are, no matter how valuable they might be in terms of knowledge/skills, a drain on the group as a whole, and therefore placing the responsibility on their children becomes necessary. The easiest way to place obligations on people is to label it a moral imperative.

    Further to this, you raised the imbalance of obligations in those sources between parents and children. In contrast to our parents, small children have natural protection in the form of our powerful hormonal and emotional compulsions to look after them (and believe me, at six months pregnant, I’m definitely learning how real those compulsions are).

    Good topic, Bren. It gave me a lot to think about.

    As an aside, I suspect that one of the reasons that so much of our received religious moral strictures are so easily dismissed as not relevant to the modern age is because they aren’t moral teachings but social engineering in morality’s clothing.

  4. hel_ana says:

    On a much less academic note:

    The Paramour has a very complex, uneasy relationship with his surviving parent. I don’t think it was abusive, but profoundly absent, perhaps neglectful, certainly fits as a description. I’m going to avoid details, since they aren’t mine to share. I will say that she’s from a culture that views family obligations as paramount, which can be interesting since neither he nor I are.

    I really don’t have any wisdom to offer him; I can only support the decisions he makes regarding her. And I guess my ultimate answer to the question, based on my support of him and the way I regard him and her, is that I think it’s ultimately up to the child to decide what obligations he or she will accept. Partially that’s because I don’t feel that I have any standing to judge him, sitting as I am in a place of privilege when it comes to family. Partially it’s that, as someone who takes issue with the idea of inherited obligation, I find her demands for respect and obedience noxious, especially in the light of her own very profound failures.

  5. Anonymous says:

    The question is one hubby and I worry about. We have 7 parents from all the step parents and they dont have kids of their own. Its like sorry hunny but we cant afford to have kids because of all the parents we have to take care of. Like my Dad married his wife when I was 23 but Im supposed to take care of her? They didnt save up any money and now we have to pay for them?

    And hubbys Dad was a total drunk who was never around and never paid child support or anything but now he is old and has liver problems from all the booze we are just supposed to take him in and love him?

    I dont want someone like him near the kids I cant have cause we have to pay to take care of him!

  6. Anonymous says:

    And more on step-parents as well:

    At what point are we responsible for our parents spouse? Certainty if they had a hand in raising us we should honor that by caring for them.

    But what about step-parents who came into our lives when we are adults? Would it be fair to expect you child to care for your spouse, who had nothing to do with your life until your child was grown?

    I myself have 3 parents who are getting on in the years. Never mind the fact that I couldn’t have my Dad and step-dad under the same roof! Never mind that my Mother was abusive to me and is still is.
    I’m wondering how could I possibly afford to have 3 elderly parents to care for and still have my own family?

    Something tells me my parents generation did not think of such things as they married for the 2nd, 3rd or 4th time.

    • hel_ana says:

      I’m going to concatenate the two posts.

      Its like sorry hunny but we cant afford to have kids because of all the parents we have to take care of.

      Frankly, we all each only get one life to live, our own. As someone who’s pregnant, I’m acutely aware that my job as a parent will be to raise this person, whoever she’s going to be, to be an independent human being and then back the hell off while she lives her life. I have no right to live her life for her. By the same token, I have no right to ask her to give up her life in order to live solely for mine. Your parents don’t have an automatic right to your life. They do have responsibility to their own lives, however, which it sounds like they may have completely abdicated.

      But then, I’m not big on inherited obligation, as I said before.

      But what about step-parents who came into our lives when we are adults? Would it be fair to expect you child to care for your spouse, who had nothing to do with your life until your child was grown?

      As a former step-parent (albeit to a younger child), hell no. In fact, if I’d remained a step-parent, I wouldn’t have expected the step-son I helped raise to sacrifice his life (and not having kids if you want them is a huge sacrifice) to look after me, let alone his teenage sister and certainly not an adult child if my ex had had one. That expectation on my part would have been completely unreasonable.

  7. “Sow the Wind, Reap the Whirlwind.”

    I believe that parents can expect to get back what they put in.

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