Posted on 26 May 2014.
I. Invisible Debt
There is a uniquely Filipino concept that is often brought up when a person’s relationship with his or her parents is strained: “Utang na Loob.” It is the idea that a child “owes” his or her parents for providing him an education, clothing, shelter, comfort and love. Initially, I thought that this particular notion is unique to the Filipino experience. However, I’ve learned that there is a concept in the West that is quite similar. It’s called, “Invisible Debt.”
Huffington Post’s Ashley Ryan wrote the article “Free Yourself From Emotional Debt: Move Beyond Pain From the Past” in an attempt to differentiate invisible debt from regular debt. She writes, “We all know what debt is. Some of us, most of us, still have a few we’re paying off. Student loans, car payments, mortgages. But what about the unseen debts, debts that are invisible to the naked eye but instead live within our hearts?”
What she’s talking about here is the debt a person incurs from negative experiences. The father who walks out on his family, whose approval the child is still seeking; and the mother who was over-critical, so the child overworks to prove that he is worthy of her love are both examples of this sort of debt.
The Filipino version, however, is more insidious, especially when it involves an abusive parent. In many cases, not only does a child have to endure the fleeting whims of his or her parents (who may have had the best intentions, but don’t really know what the fuck they’re doing), the child is expected to be “grateful” as well for being provided basic needs.
The issue with “invisible debt” or “utang na loob,” as it has been discussed in many blogs, is that it has an unlimited cost. Unlike a common loan, one is never certain how much more has to be paid, or when the loan will expire. The question I am asking is, “Is it rational/ethical for a parent to bring up utang na loob?”
Before I continue, I would first like to mention that I don’t have terrible parents. In fact, I am very lucky to have been raised by well-meaning, understanding, mostly rational, human beings with only average imperfections. I’ve had conflicts with my parents, more or less, as much as the average human being has. I am grateful for everything that I have been provided. I just had to mention that, because in many instances throughout this article, I’m going to sound like an ingrate, especially as soon as I mention my position:
I am grateful that I have been provided an education, clothing, shelter, comfort and love. However, I do not owe my parents because they provided me these things. It’s a parent’s job to provide these things. People who can’t provide for these needs should not have children to begin with. These are basic children’s rights.
I believe that “utang na loob” has no place in the parent-child relationship. I think it’s inappropriate for parents to demand a return of investment. Parents should not ask payment for “products and services” they were supposed to provide their children for free.
Now, I know I sound like an asshole. Let me clarify. I intend to take care of my parents when they are old, but not because I owe them “utang na loob,” but because I love them. The problem comes when parents expect their children to love them eternally, by default, simply because they did what they were supposed to do as parents – raise their children.
According to the blog, The Invisible Scar, “A good parent offers unconditional love and support; an emotionally abusive parent demands unconditional love and support from his/her child.”
When parents decide to have children, they also decide that they will give a child, who can’t fend for himself, access to basic needs. Asking for a guaranteed return on the provision of these needs is like asking someone to sign a contract before he could read. The basis for accountability should always be choice. However, in the case of children and parents, only one party was involved in the decision making: parents chose to have children, but children didn’t choose to have parents. Why then should children be held accountable, why should they be held in debt, for choices that their parents made?
For those who don’t get it yet, let me point out the obvious: The “utang na loob” parents often bring up to emotionally blackmail their children is not only irrational & unreasonable, it’s also unethical.
II. Why is it unethical?
The notion of the “invisible debt” or “utang na loob” is a form of abuse. Not all forms of parental abuse are physical. There are things that a parent can do to cause severe psychological damage on the child. The blog, “Invisible Scar” defines psychological abuse as, “a pattern of intentional verbal or behavioral actions or lack of actions that convey to a child the message that he or she is worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or only of value to meet someone else’s needs.”
“Utang na Loob” implies that a child was provided basic needs, not because he or she is loved, but because there is an expected return. “You owe us, therefore, you should pay us back.” This particular demand is irrational and cruel. It also turns love and affection into an economic resource. A child-parent bond is commodified by putting an invisible “price tag” on the relationship.
It’s very Catholic, in a sense, because it’s reminiscent of “Original Sin.” It’s a debt you didn’t earn, but it’s one you have to “try,” for your entire lifetime, to pay for anyway. Otherwise, you are a bad person. And like “Original Sin,” it will impose standards of moral perfection that you can never live up to. Whatever you do, you will always be a sinner until God decides that you are not.
Similarly, you will always have “utang na loob,” until your parents decide that you don’t. If you disobey an irrational demand, “Wala kang utang na loob.” If you select a partner your parents do not favor, “Wala kang utang na loob.” If you decide to move out sooner than your parents want you to, “Wala kang utang na loob.” If you disobey any of their wishes (whether or not these wishes are reasonable), “Wala kang utang na loob.”
But what is this “utang na loob” parents speak of? What are the parameters of this debt and how is this debt paid? The truth is it doesn’t exist. You do not owe your parents “utang na loob” for raising you. That’s a parent’s job. Some parents do the job well, and some parents don’t. Parents who do the job well deserve your gratitude and praise, but they are not entitled to your unconditional obedience. They can’t be allowed to make decisions for you as an adult, according to their desires, just because they did their job when you were a child. Your duty, if there be any, should be towards your own children if someday you decide to have kids of your own.
My parents deserve my gratitude and praise for being the best parents I could ask for. But, as an adult, I deserve to live my life according to my will, not theirs. “Utang na loob” is not a commodity a parent could trade to acquire a child’s unconditional obedience.
If there is anything that should demand obedience, it is not debt. It is reason.
Ryan, A. (2013, March). “Free Yourself From Emotional Debt: Move Beyond Pain From the Past.” Retrieved on May 26, 2014. From: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ashley-ryan/emotional-wellness_b_2939928.html
The Invisible Scar (2014, February). “The Silent Treatment [Types of Emotional Child Abuse Series, Part 1].” Retrieved on May 26, 2014. From: http://theinvisiblescar.wordpress.com/tag/withholding-2/
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