Parents: Beware the Ultimate Guilt Trip for Your Kids

I grew up in the house of altruism. My mother made it very clear that as a single mother she had sacrificed her life for her children; that she had given up her own happiness, cashed in her entire retirement so that they could have the best education and, a fortiori, the best life possible in this world. If that was not enough, when I and my brother decided at the ages of 20 and 19, respectively, that we wanted to live in America, my altruistic mother gave up her entire career in banking, and, deciding that we were too young, came with us to make the journey easier.

Indeed, if we grant that the educational beginnings of a child’s life are at least partially instrumental in providing a foundation for the rudimentary skills required for future success, then, I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to my mother, who financed a first-class education in the Caribbean’s top private school for me and my brother.

But this constant referral to sacrifice; this reminder to her children that she had given up everything for their sake; this implicit demand for recognition of this heroic gift on her part from us left an indelible wound in my soul. It made me feel that I had to pay her back, to pay for the sins of my worthless schizophrenic father who had never, could never and would never once contribute to the financial maintenance of his children. The virtue of sacrifice was a constant theme in the household of my mother and grandmother. Life was about sacrifice — giving up something of who you are or might want to be for a greater good. I remember thinking after having read [Ayn] Rand on the theme of sacrifice that since children never asked to be born and never brought themselves into this world that one of the moral tasks of parents was to subordinate their needs and desires to the welfare of their children. Since you brought them into the world if you were conscientious (which my mother certainly was!) it was your responsibility to provide them with the best means to survive independently of you and to give them skills that would make them flourish. The cincher was when I heard my mother once say to a group of friends : “If after all I have sacrificed for my children at least one of them cannot retire me by the time I reach the age of fifty-two, then I have not done something right.” [“Jamaican, gay and Ayn Rand made it OK: My amazing “Atlas Shrugged” love story” by Jason D. Hill, professor of philosophy at De Paul University, 4/25/14]

There’s a point here for anyone who is, or who wants to be, a parent.

There’s also a profound point here for anyone who has ever been someone’s child.

Does a parent have a child as an act of self-sacrifice? Or does a parent have children for the sake of rational accomplishment?

If you have a child out of self-sacrifice, then it logically (as well as psychologically) follows that your child owes something to you.

Children are vulnerable. They take things personally, and they lack the intellectual capacity to reason abstractly about higher-level subjects.

When you convey to a child that, “I did all this for you,” it sends that child a number of contradictory messages.

For one thing, “I’m doing all this for you” means that I – the parent – am doing this for your sake, not for mine. But why?

The mother in this example scraped and struggled for years, as a single parent in a third world country (Jamaica) to ensure that her kids were educated well.

If she did all this so that her children should have happy, functional and flourishing lives, then what does this convey to the child?

On the one hand, the mother is a self-sacrificer and this is supposed to be a good thing, something to cause admiration or pity for her (or both).

At the same time, the mother is obliged to live a life of self-sacrifice, while the sons are (hopefully) free to grow up and be all they can be, to live self-interested lives of personal fulfillment.

Why does the mother live by one moral standard, while the sons a different one?

In essence, a parent who conveys such a message tells a growing child, “I have given everything up for you.” That’s quite a load to place on someone; most especially, an emotionally and intellectually developing child.

We wonder why kids rebel. In fact, we take it as a natural and inevitable stage of human development. “All teens rebel.”

But what exactly is a teen rebelling against? In most cases, in some form, they’re rebelling against this idea. Whether the idea is labeled “altruism,” self-sacrifice or anything else, the general unspoken (or spoken) idea is, “I did all this for you; now you owe me.”

But “owing” implies submission to a contract, knowingly and willingly. There’s nothing knowing or willing on the part of the fetus and the later fully born infant. It was all the parents’ doing, whether on a drunken and accidental whim, or a years-long drawn out process of family planning.

I’m not implying that a grown adult owes his parents nothing. That would be irrational, cruel and unjust. Yet the happy, productive and self-responsible adult will want to help out his parents in matters or difficulties (such as aging) which are not under their control to change. At a minimum, your parent deserves credit (if it’s the truth) for bringing you into the world and taking full responsibility for raising you, to the best of their ability. You do not owe them anything more than this, and you do not owe them anything less than this.

But if your parent chose to treat and/or view you as an act of self-sacrifice, that’s on the parent – not on you, the child.

It’s possible that the mother of the philosopher who wrote this piece would have done everything the same, even if she did not view  raising her sons as a sacrifice. It might be that she took her commitment and responsibility seriously, she actually loved them and it brought her a sense of personal accomplishment, pride and control over her destiny to bring them into adulthood as she did.

Yet it could be argued that none of these motivations are selfless or self-sacrificial. On the contrary, these are emotions which foster and generate a sense of self-worth, self-esteem and accomplishment.

I recognize that only conscientious parents themselves fully appreciate how challenging and intense, to say the least, raising children can be. I will not minimize or disregard that for a moment. But if you’re to view all of this challenging work as an act of torture, which is what self-sacrifice is, then what kind of impact will this have on your child, to say nothing of yourself?

Done conscientiously and respectfully, raising children is an example of productive work at its finest. However, you undermine your own efforts when you place your child out into the world telling him, at least implicitly, “Live self-responsibly; but remember, it’s for my sake. I gave up everything for you, and now you owe me.”

Your grown child owes you the respect you deserve as a person who took care of him when he was helpless and vulnerable. But this does not mean he owes you his life. He does not owe you any particular outcome — to be a doctor, a lawyer, or even not to be a criminal. These choices and developments are the product of numerous factors, many of which pertain to aspects of life other than childhood influences. Whatever becomes of your child in young adulthood or adulthood — it’s not all about you. It’s not even mainly about you. Your child is supposed to turn into an autonomous adult. As any parent of more than one child knows, you can raise siblings exactly the same way, and they will still turn out differently — radically different, at times.

Notice the contradiction in the self-sacrificial idea itself. This mother, like a lot of mothers and fathers, encouraged her sons to think of her parenting as an act of self-sacrifice. Yet as she told her friends, it was her entitlement to expect an early retirement, provided by one of her children for all her efforts.

I do not endorse the idea of self-sacrifice, as you can tell. But if you do endorse self-sacrifice, then what business do you have expecting anything in return? It’s a glaring contradiction.

Again, that’s the unspoken, unasked for contract. If you read on in this article, you will learn the author decided to become a philosophy professor and writer, rather than a doctor or lawyer, as his mother hoped he would become. I don’t know how she handled this fact; but he writes that he later attempted suicide, and indicated that the first inkling of such a thought occurred when he heard his mother tell her friends she hoped they provided her an early retirement.

Like I said, it’s a heavy burden to put on a child that, “I gave up my life for you.” It imposes on that child a responsibility not only for his or her own survival and well-being, but an equal (if not greater) obligation and duty to make it all OK for the parent(s)—via honoring an agreement to which the child was never free to consent.

It’s heavy, heavy stuff. And it’s universal. It’s one of the reasons why I’m always saying that ethics (the idea of self-sacrifice vs. individualism) is inescapable when dealing with emotions, self-esteem and mental health.

We do not ask to be born. Parents have no more basis for expecting unearned benefits from their children than children have expecting unearned benefits from their parents. We are all autonomous, sovereign human beings … and that’s how it should be.


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