By Wayne William Cipriano
During the holidays as we spent a lot more time talking to, watching and thinking about family, especially younger family, a thought appears that has happened many times before but seems to fade away as time passes.
It is the idea of “familial debt.” We are such an advanced race of beings that we are gifted by the ability to raise our young for a very long period of time. Many other animals nurture their young for long periods, but none that I am aware of will support their offspring well into adulthood as many of us, to our enduring shame, seem to do.
But, even those of us who adhere to the Stay in School ‘Till You’re 18 Then Get Out on Your Own philosophy of raising kids (also known as When You’re Sure You’re Smarter Than Us, Go Out Into The World and Prove It, we are required to provide for those kids for a certain amount of time. That required time is somewhere around four or five or six years, the time during which the kids could not survive without our help.
So, for those few years we do all these things that children need. We hydrate them, we feed them, we clean them, we clothe them, we house them, we call on professionals when necessary for their care, and we protect them during those years they cannot protect themselves.
By doing so we generate a debt that kids inherit. As time goes by the kids grow and gradually become the adults we were when they were born, they come into the reverse responsibility we accepted when we had them.
It is a reverse responsibility because initially the kids pay back in reverse. First they give us the advice and guidance we gave them when they left the cocoon of our protection. They may support us financially when we can no longer do so for ourselves. They may have to house us, even clothe us if the needs arise. And, if we are lucky enough to live long enough, as our abilities and perceptions face, perhaps they even clean us, feed us, hydrate us and oversee our care our professional care that our kids cannot provide.
It is the reverse of the chronology that we recall when we were “big” and they were “small.”
Like you, I can hardly conceive of a time when our kids will do for us the things, those deeply personal things, like writing checks, driving cars, taking showers, changing clothes –– that the assumption of which heralded their adulthood, and the loss of which bemoans our regression. And yet, if we are very lucky, it happens to us all.
We do those things for the guardians who looked after us when we were kids with all the affection and respect those guardians “put in the bank.” And we learned from them that which we lavished our kids because that “was the right thing to do.”
As our kids become us, they remember the responsibility, the support, the care, the protection they enjoyed and sooner or later understand the debt the incurred. When they do so, we should, as best we are able, putting aside our discomfort, our awkwardness, our fears, graciously accept when that debt begins to be repaid.
Just like ours before them, it is now their debt of three or four or five years. We didn’t agree to it, nor did they, but it is a debt nevertheless. And like all debts it can be satisfied or it can be ignored, but it is still a familial debt that calls out for repayment.
We should graciously accept that repayment, but man, it is going to be hard.