On December 27, the Chinese government passed a law stating that adult children must visit their parents “often,” or risk a lawsuit.
The measure was first controversially proposed in 2011 and its specific motives remain unclear, as does the definition of “often.” The most obvious motivator is a refreshed government effort to promote the famous Confucian concept of filial piety, or xiào, which consists of devotion to and sacrifice for one’s parents and elders (including the dead). Confucius considered this the base of humanity, the core of a successful society. The current government seems to agree.
The Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs says that more than 50% of households are empty-nesting seniors and that over half of those aged 60 or older live away from their children. Another report claims over 200 million cases of children neglecting or abandoning their parents or other elderly relatives.
After hearing about this new law, I did what any proud American would do – turned to Google (which does not operate in China) to help me prove that we Americans are more considerate than our Chinese counterparts.
Shouldn’t have done that.
Turns out that in 2010, elderly Americans lost nearly $3 billion in financial exploitation – most of which was perpetrated by family members. However, while terrible, financial abuse only constituted 12.3% of total reported abuse in 2010 – 58% of cases came in the form of neglect. And isn’t neglectful the thing I was hoping we were not?
What’s happening here?
First, we should identify the root cause. I posit that we do not have a legal or even moral issue in our countries, so much as a cultural one. In many countries, particularly those in Latin America and Asia, it is common for children to live with their families well into their 20's. Additionally, it is not only normal but expected that children live out their adult lives in close proximity to the rest of their family. We in the United States have a different view.
Independence is the word that I would say best describes American cultural ideals and leaving the house at 18 is part of proving ones independence. Returning to the house from college (for an extended period), although often immensely practical, is still shameful. Far away and out of touch, but living in your own place on the other hand, is perfectly acceptable. In our culture, independence is more important than practicality and family ties.
Now the Chinese, in their unprecedentedly aggressive pursuit of capitalism and other western ideals, are beginning to change the way they define their own successes and where they choose to live when they become independent. Over 252 million adults now leave their parents “empty nesting,” and apparently so few return that the government has felt it necessary to make a law.
It is certainly possible to change a culture through the legislature – the Chinese made sweeping cultural changes through new laws (and military force) during Mao’s tenure – but such an invasive change would almost certainly be poorly received in America. So long as we aren’t breaking any laws, our relationship with our parents is our business, not the government’s.
So what to do?
One of the main excuses for negligence that keeps cropping up in interviews with Chinese adults living away from their parents is that, with their jobs, they don’t have much time to visit home. I think I can safely assume the excuse is similar here, so let’s just remember a few things. For most of us, our parents raised us and put us in a position to have that job in the first place and the least we can do is visit them now and again. Additionally, we find time for dating and bar-hopping and Downton Abbey – I think we have the time to visit the folks, but it typically just isn’t as entertaining as our various escapes and therefore gets relegated low on the priority list.
We don’t need a law to tell us to improve our relationship with our parents, we’re better than that.