Robert Nozick On The Relationship Between Parents and Children

December 1, 2018

The late and great philosopher Robert Nozick published The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations in 1989.  The book is full great philosophical meditations and took four years to write. The chapter that resonated most with me is the chapter titled Parents and Children. In the chapter, Nozick lamented on the relationship between the two. The part that really hit home for me was when he wrote about the changing dynamic of the relationship when children grow older. I’ve always intuitively known what he wrote but was never able to put into words nearly as well as Nozick did. He wrote the following:

Being a parent [to one’s parents] helps one become a better child, a more forgiving grown-up child of one’s parents, whom one now must act the parent to. One part of the transition to becoming a parent to one’s parents is obvious: taking care of them when they are no longer able to cope fully for themselves. Another part is taking responsibility for the state of the relationship. When children are young, it is the task of the parents to manage the relationship, to monitor it and keep it continuing on somewhat an even keel. During some brief period, perhaps, that responsibility becomes more equal, and then, before one has had time to notice it, it becomes the now-grown-up child’s task to maintain the relationship, sometimes to pamper parents, to humor them, to avoid subjects that upset them, and to comfort the surviving one. If adolescence is sometimes marked by rebelling against one’s parents and adulthood by becoming independent of them, what marks maturity is becoming a parent to them.

This really home for me as my parents are getting older and I can see them getting weaker with every passing year. In eastern culture, there is this feeling of great indebtedness to parents that I don’t see so much in the West. So it is really nice to see something written so eloquently by a Western philosopher on the topic of filial piety.

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