Children’s Duty to Care for Parents

In a recent letter to the editor I made some comments about the Social Security program. I made a passing comment about how children should provide for their parents in old age. In response to that comment, one observant reader commented that he didn’t want to “live off” of his kids. I understand how my comment may have been misunderstood. My point was not that parents should be lazy and expect their kids to pay all their bills when they reach old age. Due to the brevity of such pieces, I was unable to fully explain what I meant. I’d like to do so now.

My fundamental critique with the government enforced Social Security program is that it forces people to pay a “tax” in order to provide for people into their old age. However, I argue that the responsibility to care for people into retirement falls first on the individual himself (and only after that on the family unit). I should do what I can to save for my future. This can be achieved via private investments rather than government forced taxation, however. In this sense, I agree that I should first seek to fund my own “retirement,” not looking to the state or my children.

However, if an individual needs help in his old age—whether it be financial help or physical care, the responsibility falls first on that person’s children. This is what I meant when I said the biblical ideal is that children provide for their parents (in old age).

In 1 Timothy 5, the Apostle Paul is giving instructions about widows. In verse four he makes the comment that the “children or grandchildren” of the Christian widows ought to “show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.”

In his 17th century work, Building a Godly Home, the English Puritan William Gouge elaborated on the biblical duty of children to requite their parents: “In everything which a parent needs his child’s help, the child according to his ability must grant his best help. Beyond one’s power nothing can be expected.” Gouge understood the incredible amount of time, resources, and money that parents spend on their children. Parents care for children when the children are helpless, providing for their every need. It is only right that when the parents need help, the children stand ready to help.

Gouge lists several duties which children have in “giving back to parents.” Among these duties are the responsibility to care for parents in sickness and to secure an honorable burial upon a parent’s death. He then sums up the reason children are required to do so:

These and similar duties are particular branches of giving back, and are all included under the command to ‘requite your parents’ which the Apostle requires of children (1 Tim 5:4). They are but a small part of paying back all the labor, care, and responsibilities that parents have been at with their children. This thing only, that parents have brought forth children into the world, children can never sufficiently pay back. (William Gouge, Building a Godly Home)

In Gouge’s day, just as in our day, having many children could bring a serious financial strain. However, God has so designed it that having more children lessens the burden of caring for parents on each child. There are some today who may say that they cannot afford to have more than one or two children, citing their need to save for retirement. However, children are a blessing from the Lord and ought not to be rejected due to fear of financial hardship later in life.

Children grow up into adults who add wealth to the society. Parents raising a large family may have to sacrifice some of their 401(k) money, but in the end the more children they have, the more easily those children will be able to share any costs that might go into caring for elderly or sick parents.

The point is that the family is the central unit in society, not the state. Individuals should seek to build support structures within their own families and private communities (church, for example). The Social Security program ignores this reality and gives the civil government the duty of planning for retirement.

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