June 8

The Dangers of Duty

June 8, 2012

Parenting

While I was in Beijing, China,  I observed a long wall that was covered with twenty-four large murals. I asked my Chinese companion about the meaning of the scenes, and she said they illustrated traditional Chinese values regarding the duty of children toward their parents.

It is a longstanding Chinese tradition that children have the obligation to respect and care for their elders. Three of the murals, for example, told a story of a father who wanted to eat some fish for dinner. In the middle of the winter, this appeared to be impossible, but the son walked out on the ice of the nearby river and stood there barefooted until the heat from his body melted a hole large enough for him to catch a fish for his father. The boy had no fuel for cooking the fish, however, so he cut strips of skin and fat from his own belly to make a cooking fire.

This attitude in China—though extreme in the panels—still influences the way parents feel toward and treat their children. Parents regard children as objects to be commanded, and the children feel trapped by culture, custom, duty, and guilt. They feel obligated not only to respect and care for their parents but to submit to being controlled in almost every choice: the school they attend, how hard they study, the job they pursue, their choice of partner, how they raise their own children, and more.

Duty certainly has a useful place, but if we use duty as a stick to motivate people, rather than helping them to be genuinely loving, the results can be disastrous. So many young people felt utterly controlled by their parents. They hated the control, often even hating their parents, but then they felt guilty for their negative feelings—even more control. Overall, the parent-child relationships I saw were not warm and loving, and both the parents and children suffered as a result.

Parents all over the world control their children in ways similar to those described in the murals. Parents certainly make sacrifices for their children, but then they use them as justification for making demands on the children. This is not love. It's trading, and both parties feel unsatisfied. It is perhaps just as common in parent-child relationships for the parents to feel a duty to satisfy every need of their children, which results in entitled, spoiled, selfish children, as well as frustrated and unappreciated parents.

Love–receiving and giving—leads to happiness. Custom, culture, duty, and obligation have results that are far less predictable and invariably less happy. Duty, in fact, can be dangerous—especially while it is being forced as a virtue.

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