»  The New York Sun

June 13th, 2003

  Filial Reflections


In imperial China there was a popular handbook titled Twenty-Four Exemplars of Filial Piety. It contained improving little tales, from dynasties all the way back into dim antiquity, of persons who had been exceptionally dutiful towards their parents. (These fables can still be found in condensed form in the peasant almanacs sold in Chinatown around the Lunar New Year.) Samples: Dong Yong of the Han dynasty sold himself into slavery to get money for his father's funeral rites. Old man Lai of the Zhou dynasty, aged 70, dressed in children's clothes and cried like a baby to amuse his parents. Yang Xiang strangled a tiger to save his father. Told by the family physician that the only way to diagnose his father's illness was to taste the invalid's stool, Yu Qianlou of the Southern Qi took a spoonful from the paternal bedpan without hesitation. And so on. Filial piety was the foremost of the Confucian virtues, and the height of domestic felicity was "four generations under one roof," each generation waiting on the one above it in seniority.

The Anglo-Saxon tradition is almost at the opposite extreme. To live in a walled compound with three generations of our relatives would strike most of us as a vision of hell to compare with Dante's, or at least Sartre's. We get on okay with Mom and Dad, most of us, most of the time, but draw the line well short of enslaving ourselves to pay for their burials, and would much rather not be put to the test with tigers or bedpans. Generally speaking, and with due allowance for primogeniture in past times, our affections for our parents are loose and casual by comparison with those elsewhere. We leave home as soon as we can, without much backward glancing, and set off to hack our own paths through life's jungle, in directions mostly of our own choosing.

I am not sure I could prove that this lax style of filial piety is morally superior to the doctrines of Confucius, or healthier for the individual psyche, but it is clearly better suited to a republic of free citizens. We feed our kids, clothe them, school them, nurse them through illnesses; then we launch them off into the world with: "Don't forget to write [19th century], phone [20th], e-mail [21st] once in a while." Given the costs and anxieties of child-raising nowadays, and the recreational opportunities for over-50s, we are not too unhappy to see them go. As Dick Armey has observed: "The American Dream is more than just owning your own home; it's getting your kids out of it." To be sure, there has been some erosion of this ideal recently. From time to time you will read magazine articles about parents stuck with 30-year-old chicks who will not leave the nest. This is a temporary aberration, though — a result of high real-estate prices and tight job markets.

The downside of this easygoing scheme is the neglect of the unwanted old. We accept this with resignation, understanding that it is the price to be paid for the independence, vigor, and creativity of the young — to whom, we feel instinctively, the world most properly belongs. When an elderly character in one of Barbara Pym's novels grumbles about pop music, her young companion points out that: "Of course you don't like it. It's not for you. Nothing's for you any more." Fifty years on, things are no longer quite that bad, but we still live in a society where the old defer to the young in a way that would have horrified Confucius.

My father was an English working man of little education. The main determinant of our relationship was the fact that I, unlike him, grew up in a meritocracy, in which bright children from poor homes were sent to college at public expense. This opened up a gulf of incomprehension between us that I was never, in adult life, able to bridge satisfactorily — a common problem for the postwar generations. My feelings of filial affection, though real and constant, were diluted by the knowledge that there was not very much I could talk to Dad about. His political opinions seemed to me absurd and contradictory. A steadfast adherent of the Labour Party, he believed, like several million other Labour voters, that the Reds menaced our national security, that black immigrants should be repatriated, that labor unions were wrecking the country, and that the best form of government would be one run by practical-minded businessmen. He was a militant atheist of such unreasoning vehemence that I took shelter from it in the Church of England. He knew little of science, history, or music, and almost nothing of art or literature. None of that was his fault; if it had been, I could have deplored him; yet its not being his fault did nothing to make his company more congenial, or my guilty impatience with him less painful.

Even in these far-from-ideal circumstances, filial piety still had a nasty bite. Dad was 85 when he died. For the last year of his life he suffered from what we now call Alzheimer's disease, but which at that time, in England at any rate, was still referred to more straightforwardly as "senile dementia." It came and went, and in between spells Dad fretted about it, and feared wandering away by himself and not being able to find his way home. One morning while stopping over with my parents I said that I was going to walk to some stores a half mile away to buy stationery. Dad asked if he might go with me, as he had to pick up his social security money from the Post Office. We walked to the stores together. I left him at the Post Office, made my purchases, and started home, my mind dwelling on some life problems of my own. Halfway home I realized that I had forgotten all about Dad. I had to run back to the Post Office to get him.

Dad made light of it, but I could not forgive myself. Still today, 18 years later, the memory burns. There is hardly anything in my life I would rather undo, if I could. It is too late now to make amends. I can only hope that when my turn comes round I shall show as much forbearance and good humor towards an unfilial son as my father did. And come it shall. My style of weekend attire features work jeans from Sears, the ones with a loop attached to one of the side seams for holding a hammer. When my daughter (now 10) was a toddler, she used to hold on to that loop for security when walking with me. "And just wait," remarked a wise friend on seeing this. "One day she'll use that same loop to drag you off to the nursing home." Very likely so. This is the framework within which parent-child relationships run their course in our time and culture.

Probably they will get even more relaxed over the next few decades, as new discoveries in the human and biological sciences pull us towards more deterministic ideas about human nature. Judith Rich Harris's The Nurture Assumption and Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate are, very likely, the harbingers of a great slow change in our thinking about our children — about how much we can influence them, how much we matter to them. Not very much once you discount for genetics, seems to be the answer coming out of the labs and the research institutes. An acquaintance of mine, an academic biologist, preaches "the 96 Percent Rule": two percent of what you do benefits your children, two percent is harmful, and the other 96 percent doesn't make a darn bit of difference. I am not myself that fatalistic. Surely Dads make some difference, if only by their mere presence. Doesn't the sociological data on fatherless kids show that? I feel sure, though, there is a trend under way here in the way parents and children regard each other.

If I am right, this is a new thing in the world. Even before the 20th century fell for Freud's notions about the molding of personality via childhood experience, it was taken for granted that one ought to "train up a child in the way he should go." If nurture becomes seriously discredited to the advantage of nature — if the 96 Percent Rule, or something like it, becomes widely believed — a great burden of guilt will have been lifted from parents. Those who are idle and indifferent towards their parental duties will have a sanction for sloth. If 96 percent of what we do makes no difference, why bother with the other four? This does not look to me like a happy prospect. I am not sure we wouldn't be better off sticking with Freudian-era guilt. There is no arguing with science, though, and every result that comes in from psychology, biology, and genetics seems to deliver another blow to nurturism.

It follows that Father's Day, already one of the feebler of our celebrations, may dwindle in significance yet further, as our conception of Dad shifts from "molder of our character" to mere "transmitter of our genes." This would be a shame. There is, or ought to be, a natural affection from child to father, whatever the biological realities. The old boy did, after all, put up with our follies and misdemeanors for 18 years or so, and paid for the broken windows and the orthodontists. It's a poor thing if we can't acknowledge the debt once a year. It is not, after all, that we are unwilling to fulfill our filial duties; it is only that most of us, like Telemachos, need a little prodding from higher powers. In lieu of a friendly goddess to jog our memories, a Hallmark Holiday will do.