Prague Restaurants and the Duties of Adult Children

So we were in Prague last summer and discovered this thing called a "table charge."  I'm not really sure exactly what it is, but here's one possibility--the table charge is for stuff that's standardly put on the table--bread, water, a spot of liqueur after the meal.  I thought it was pretty annoying, because I wasn't given a choice whether to order that stuff or not. The prices on the menu suggest a rule that goes "You pay for what you order" and the table charge violates that rule. I could have protested the charge, I think (note: it's not standard in Prague and wasn't stated anywhere).

Segue to the duties of adult children... A famous paper by Jane English says adult children owe nothing to their parents because they didn't ask to be born and raised.  For kids to have a duty to support their parents in old age, for example, would be like me having to pay the table charge even though I didn't ask for the bread, water, etc.  They have no such duty, she claims.

I do think adult children have duties to their parents, but how so?  Adding a second chapter to the restaurant story sheds some light.  Suppose on my second night in Prague, I deliberately go to the restaurant with the table charge because I like the food. I also now realize that, compared to restaurants without a table charge, the prices on this restaurant's menus are fairly low. Furthermore, I now anticipate the liqueur at the end of the meal, so order less wine.  On the second night, would I be entitled to protest the charge, let alone with righteous indignation?

My sense is that after the first night, I've altered my attitudes and dispositions so that, though I never ask for the bread, water, etc., I can be counted as "pro" receiving them.  I'm on board with the system, so to speak. And so I do have a duty to pay the table charge and can't protest.   Moral of the story:  asking for items is not the only way I can acquire a duty to pay for them.

Children don't ask to be born, and don't accumulate a duty to care for their aging parents starting on the first day of life.  But over the years of being cared for, they can be reluctant recipients of care they'd rather not receive, or enthusiastic recipients.  When they are past the tender years of childhood, they can take steps toward independence or deliberately continue being cared for and supported.  If you enthusiastically encourage your parents' support, it seems to me you do start to be indebted to them, like I was indebted to the Prague restaurant for the table items, despite not asking for them.

Wouldn't it be awful if adult children actually thought about how to treat their elderly parents as if they were related as restaurant owner to customer?   And yet even if they do, it's not out of the question at all that adult children do owe something to their parents, even if they never explicitly asked to be born or raised.


s. wallerstein said...

Any decent child would write a check to make sure that their parents have food, shelter and quality healthcare.

However, because I had less than adequate parents, maybe I've tended not to run into a representative cross-section of people in life, but I know lots of people whose parents were hostile, uncaring, violent, competitive, tyrannical, unconsciously opposed to their children flourishing, etc.

What is owed them besides the above-mentioned check?

P drives an hour in each direction (if there are no traffic jams) every Sunday to visit her mother, who never thanks her, never recognizes that P is sacrificing normal pleasant weekend activities (P works full-time), criticizes and negates P constantly (as she has always done), uses blatant forms of emotional blackmail towards P and displays a set of values towards society and the world in general that make P wince.

Their relationship was always like that. Her mother never recognized her as a valid other.

I tell P that all she owes her mother is to make sure that she receives decent care (she has domestic help) and sees the right doctors. P claims that she has a duty to care for her mother in a more caring way that her mother cared for her.


s. wallerstein said...

I'm going to take the liberty to use this space to write about the one of the most beautiful parent-child story I know.

J's father was a powerful and wealthy businessman, ironic and arrogant, treating him as a failure, supporting him financially, but not psychologically in his non-lucrative career as a film-maker.

J was in his early 20's when his father traveled to Israel, nothing special since his father often traveled abroad.

A few days later J realized that his father was completely bankrupt, the creditors were literally banging on the door of their luxurious apartment and that his father had fled to Israel to avoid prosecution, leaving him to face the problems.

J gave up his film-making career and began to work as a commercial photographer and with time became quite successful.

With his new earnings he traveled to Israel to see his father, with the idea of reproaching him for fleeing the country and not warning him about the impending financial crisis, but upon reaching Israel all he did was hug him.

J then began to save money to pay lawyers to fix his father's legal problems, which he did and in a few years his father was able to travel to Chile (where we live), the trip being paid for by J.

In fact, his father's trips to Chile, all of them paid for by J., became frequent. His father stayed at J.'s apartment and they visited relatives and friends together.

What's more, his father changed. The ironic, distant and superior businessman was transformed into a friend.

J and his father saw the same movies at times, read the same books and discussed them. J's father met his artistic friends and socialized with people whom he once saw as "losers" on a basis of equality and was accepted by them in turn.

This kind of mutual acceptance after such distance is so infrequent in family relations (which tend to freeze in stereotyped form) that I wanted to pay tribute to the above situation. Thanks.

Rhys said...

I like this analogy, and not only because I also had an annoying experience with a table charge. This was in Florence and the table charge had to do with trying to encourage take out orders, which a lot of European restaurants incentivize since they often don't have a lot of dining room space. We didn't have any "free" items like bread or water. Instead, every item we ordered had an additional table charge on it because we'd eaten it in the restaurant instead of taking it to go. (Of course we didn't know about that charge until we got the bill.)

"When they are past the tender years of childhood, they can take steps toward independence or deliberately continue being cared for and supported."

Does this mean after the children hit the age of majority, or do you mean earlier than that?

I think you're right that "I didn't ask to be born" can't justify children treating their parents however they like. However, it does seem likely that in general, parents get more out of taking care of kids than kids get out of taking care of their parents. From a "selfish gene" or "selfish meme" perspective, kids represent an opportunity for parents to pass on their genes and values (potentially to grandkids and beyond), so it makes a lot of sense for parents to take care of children for at least partially self-oriented reasons.

Obviously children can get a great deal out of taking care of their parents as well, because of course it's valuable to care for people you care about, particularly if there's a feeling of obligation there too. But I wonder if it's worth considering that if children don't get the same genetic/cultural benefit out of taking care of their parents that their parents get out of taking care of them, parents may be getting more out of this bargain.