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Visit Your Parents or Be Sued: Is That Un-American?

Bulletin from Wuxi, China: In the first suit filed under the country's new law requiring adult children to visit their parents "often," a court ordered a woman to check in on her 77-year-old mother at least twice a month, and on at least two of the country's big holidays.

With our summer vacations in full swing in the United States, we wonder whether a similar "don't-you-dare-ignore-your-parents" law would fly here?

Discussion: Zimmerman Verdict of Not-Guilty: Was Justice Served?

Great Grandma

Today's Americans embrace many cultural norms that call on children to respect and honor their parents. Some flow from the Ten Commandments, others from places like Laos, Mexico, India or any other country that contributes to the American melting pot. As always, it's harder to put your finger on an "American" attitude about parents than to point out paradoxes:

  • As of 2010, 28 states had so-called "filial responsibility" laws that require adult children to support their parents. That's pretty impressive, until you learn that about a third of those states have never enforced those laws, and most of the others try less and less often. Nursing homes will sometimes pressure children to guarantee their parents' unpaid bills, citing filial responsibility, but there's no need to succumb to that pressure, according to Robert Bullock, of the Elder and Disability Law Center in Washington, D.C.

  • Hard-fought battles in the 20th century yielded modest support for aging parents in the form of Social Security and Medicare, though the shape of that support is under increasing pressure to change.


Like the United States a century ago, China is undergoing accelerating and seismic social change brought on by industrialization and urbanization. These forces, along with the country's one-child policy, have left more members of China's older generation living alone and fending for themselves, as the New York Times reports:

"According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, empty nests now account for more than 50 percent of all Chinese households; in some urban areas the figure has reached 70 percent. A 2011 report by the official Xinhua news agency said that nearly half of the 185 million people age 60 and older live apart from their children - a phenomenon unheard of a generation ago."

Is China's new filial devotion law, then, an attempt to stave off the inevitable time when their society becomes more like ours: one in which we love, honor and support our parents when and if we can, but bow to realities of modern life?

Perhaps we need another lens to examine our own situation. Does the daily unpaid labor of more than 40 million Americans who care for a family member, often an aging parent, belie the easy stereotype of our country as a place where the old are left to fend for themselves?

And would a law requiring us to visit and see to the needs of our elders change this situation? In a better world, perhaps, it would help these caregivers get the support they need, and allow more of us to share their responsibilities. Let us know what you think in comments, below.

Photo by Ed Aisela via Flickr


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