The Parent-Child Relationships Theories

Duties that a child has to his or her parents are unique. When it comes to parents, an individual is expected to do things that he or she will not do (or at least does not have to do) for other people. As the proof, if a rich person has a friend of modest means, whom he or she does not support financially, people around will hardly blame this person.

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However, when some of us do not support their impoverished parents, they face a deep disapproval of the society. Before Keller (2006), filial duties have been discussed within three rival theories: the debt, the gratitude, and the friendship theories. Still, even though each of them provides some important point needed for the understanding of filial duties, none explains those correctly.

Duties to parents are not only about gratitude or repaying the debt, and they are not the same as those that we have to our friends, as it can be seen from the example above. Keller (2006) argues, and I agree, that filial duties should be explained from another perspective – the so-called special goods theory.

Reasons Why the Debt Theory is Irrelevant

The main argument in favor of the debt theory is the fact that parents have done a lot for their children, so when a child grows up, he or she owes a lot in return (Keller, 2006, p. 256). That is as if a person has taken a loan from his or her parents as a child and must return it in adulthood.

However, that is not entirely like this. Admittedly, we owe a lot to our parents. But we can never pay out the loan we have taken. A day when we owe nothing to our parents never comes. Even though this discrepancy is probably the most important, it is not the only one. Another inconsistency lies at the very core of the nature of debt.

If an individual takes a loan, he or she undertakes the responsibility to meet the conditions of its returning. Those are stable and do not depend on such factors as the needs of a person who provides the loan, the financial condition of an individual who takes it, or the current state of relationships between these two sides. Filial duties are susceptible to these factors.

As Keller (2006) states, you “are only required to give your parents what is reasonable” (p. 256). For instance, if you are currently unemployed, you are not expected to give your parents as much as you should give them with a well-paid job. Or if your parents have more than enough money, no one will blame you for not giving them yours. Finally, the kind of relationships parents and children have matters as well. If you drift apart with your parents (for reasons you can not be blamed of), you have much fewer responsibilities.

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Non-Compliance with the Gratitude Theory

Duties of gratitude are much more vague. If someone does something good for you, you have a responsibility to respond with an act of gratitude. However, there are no strict conditions that determine when or how you should do this. You are not supposed to bring your well-doer a benefit of a particular size: both an evening in the restaurant and a thank you note can be acts of gratitude.

Besides, while the debt theory does not take into consideration any circumstances, the gratitude theory is heavily dependent on those. For example, if you are rich, and your benefactor is not, money will be the best chance to return the favor; however, if both of you are rich, money can hardly be an act of gratitude.

Although the gratitude theory does not have such significant discrepancies with filial duties as the debt theory has, it still does not fully cover children’s responsibilities to parents. First of all, there are people who do something good for others but do not expect them to demonstrate their gratitude in return. They do not want to be thanked all the time.

Thus, an act of gratitude can be embarrassing or even insulting to them. Parents are usually like this. When a person has such kind of parents, his or her gratitude is less demanded; still, it does not mean that this individual has less filial responsibilities. The second reason why the gratitude theory does not fit is the following.

As Keller (2006) says, there are sacrificing and effortless benefactors (p. 260). The latter does something good for an individual but does not put a lot of effort in it; the former sacrifices something important to be able to help.

Similarly, there are people who are born to be parents and who put fewer efforts in the upbringing of a child, and there are those who sacrifice a lot to be good parents (give in their career, plans for the future, etc.). You do not have less filial duties if your parents have sacrificed less, even though the gratitude theory says that you should be more grateful to sacrificing benefactors (Keller, 2006, p. 260). Finally, duties of gratitude do not require the ongoing commitment, while filial responsibilities are open-ended.

The Drawbacks of the Friendship Theory

The friendship theory says that children and parents have the duties of friends, and filial duties are determined by the current state of their relationship, not something that has been done in the past. Friends do not have to contribute to their relations equally – they do what they reasonably can.

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So, just like the gratitude theory (and unlike the debt theory), this one also states that children are only required to do what is reasonable. Additionally, friends try to help and benefit each other regularly to keep their friendship alive and healthy. That explains why our duties to parents can never be fulfilled.

So, the friendship theory can explain something that the remaining ones can not. Still, it is not perfect. The friendship is “a matter of ongoing choice” (Keller, 2006, p. 263). First of all, people can choose their friends while it is impossible to choose members of the family. Besides, friendship can be ended while parents always remain parents.

Duties determined by friendship also depend on many factors: how close you are with your friend, how much time you spend together, and so on. Relationships with parents are not the same. If you have not talked to your friend for years, and he or she suddenly calls you and asks to live in your flat for two or three weeks, you are free to refuse.

However, you can not do this if your mother asks about the same. Besides, parents can demand much more than friends do: for instance, you can pay for your father’s medical care but it would be weird if you do the same for a friend.

My Own Opinion

I think that Keller (2006) is right when he says that filial duties are distinctive from any others. The reason why none of the theories mentioned above can fully determine and explain the responsibilities we have to our parents is that none of them is actually aimed to address the parent-child relationships.

Parents are not loan providers, benefactor, or friends. Admittedly, in some cases, they can be those, but they perform much more roles in the lives of their children. That is why none of the theories describes filial duties entirely and correctly.

Parents can expect and even demand their children to perform responsibilities that they will never expect someone else to perform: providing a place to stay, paying for medical care, helping in financial troubles, keeping in touch, coming for Christmas, and so on and so forth.

That is because the opposite is true in childhood: children expect their parents to perform duties that no one else performs. Both parents and children provide each other with special goods, and those special goods generate special duties. That is what Keller (2006) calls the special goods theory.

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To conclude, filial duties indeed are impossible to understand as duties of indebtedness, gratitude, or friendship. Each of the theories above fails to explain some characteristics of filial responsibilities. The debt theory does not consider any of important circumstances, the gratitude theory addresses only one-time events while filial duties are ongoing commitments, and the friendship theory fails to explain why people are “stuck” with their filial responsibilities, even though they are not “stuck” with the duties of friendship (Keller, 2006, p. 264).

However, none of the theories is aimed to explain our responsibilities to parents, so it is not surprising that none of them is right. The special goods theory, in its turn, is much more helpful: it says that parents provide their children with goods that no one else can provide, and those unique goods generate unique duties, filial ones.


Keller, S. (2006). Four Theories of Filial Duty. The Philosophical Quarterly, 56(223), 254-274.

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