Family Obligations: What Are They & Common Examples

Family obligations are traditional expectations amongst those with common ancestral ties. The most common is the parental obligations to children; to raise, feed, clothe, house, and love them. In addition, many cultures have expectations of children caring for their parents in their advanced years.

Family is the first community we enter upon our birth. Then, perhaps eventually, we are adopted into another family, fostered, married, or create our own with another person. Family is the tie that binds, or so it is claimed in cultures and societies over the globe. There are epic tales of vengeance that go on for generations, all in the name of duty towards family. Even on a less dramatic scale, family comes with obligation.

Being part of a family comes with expectations. Some of these result in upliftment and enrichment of one another. Other times these expectations can open up conflict, especially if they clash with another family’s traditions and obligations. These roles can provide a safety net and comfort to some while leaving others open to abuse. But, despite imperfections, the ideals behind family obligations persist.

family obligations meeting in the kitchen

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Common Family Obligations

Obligation is an opaque concept that generally rests on ethical and moral ideals. At times, these can become bound by laws. Then there are other obligations that are not legally binding but are expected by the community the family lives in, or perhaps even in that family’s own traditions. Yet, obligations change shape with each generation.

Parents’ Obligations to Children

One of the oldest family obligations is between parents and their children. There are holidays that celebrate this duty, including Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. People may even brag about how well they parent. But as Chris Rock put it in his 1996 HBO Special, Bring The Pain, “You’re supposed to take care of your kids!”

Christ Rock’s humor can be filled with controversy. But in this respect, laws around the world agree with him. In most parts of the world, those who have kids are legally obliged to feed, clothe, and house them. In many countries, the laws go further, including a legal obligation to educate one’s offspring.

However, legal obligations do not always extend to social expectations. Nor is the obligation of parenthood socially split evenly between the parents.

Traditional Gendered Obligations of Parents to Children

Historically, most cultures position the mother’s role as a nurturer and the father as a provider. The father was traditionally seen as the head of the household and obliged to earn money to pay for primary necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter. The mother’s job was to raise the children, while turning that money into actual meals and clothing while keeping the shelter habitable.

This traditional framework of father and mother roles persists in many societies and countries to this day. It is, however, changing shape. For example, conversations are happening in some societies regarding the division of domestic labor, while many mothers also earn money outside the home, and fathers take on more nurturing roles in the upbringing of their children.

Yet social obligations are generally not balanced. For example, a mother who abandons her kids is seen as more unusual and the act is typically demonized. On the other hand, absent fathers and missed child support payments are a common narrative and receive less scorn.

Meanwhile, there remains suspicion of non-traditional family structures, be it single parents, parents of the same gender, or families that are made up of different races or cultural backgrounds. These families redefine obligations and how this is accomplished by the adults involved.

Children’s Family Obligations

Children’s obligations in a family are incredibly varied historically and in modern times. Like parenthood, these roles are often gendered, but they can also depend on the child’s rank in the family. For example, the oldest child commonly has obligations that the youngest child does not. But this is not always true, and with many cultures having fewer children, expectations are also shifting.

Children’s Traditional Obligations to Family

Historically children were often a source of wealth and security. Parents had children out of a need for workers and to ensure that they would be provided for in old age. There could also be a need for a child to carry on a family legacy, which could be as fancy as a royal blood line, or as simple as carrying on a family business; be it the family farm or medical practice.

Thus, the obligation of children to obey their parents was more than being told to wash their hands and set the table. Moreover, as children’s choices impact their parent’s future, children could be obliged to obey their parents in selecting their careers and even whom they marry.

Historically, families were typically larger than they are today. Thus, older children were often expected to help out with daily chores and look after younger siblings. This burden would typically be felt most by the family’s oldest daughter. Whereas, the eldest son might feel the greatest responsibility of providing for the family if the father was falling short of his duty or died unexpectedly.

Thus, a daughter might be doing the caregiving, cooking, and cleaning alongside her mother or in place of an ill or deceased mother. Whereas the eldest son might be hunting, fishing, helping his father at work or taking on jobs to help bring additional wealth or food to the family.

As children grew up, their obligations towards family would shift. There was often the expectation to provide grandchildren to their parents and, possibly, heirs to carry on the family name. There was also the expectation of taking care of the parents in their aging years. Perhaps the unmarried daughter might be obliged to do the actual physical work, while others provided financially.

Children’s Modern Obligations to Family

These days, children’s obligations towards their parents and siblings are widening in expectations depending on culture and community. Nevertheless, there remains an overall belief that children have a duty to their parents in their old age. However, this obligation takes different shapes depending on a family’s traditions.

Modern children are no longer necessarily expected to share in the work of the home. Of course, there remain cultures where children have chores and are expected to look after younger siblings. However, there are families where children’s role in the home is to be raised and educated and their obligations do not go much beyond obeying their parents and, perhaps, tidying their rooms.

Some children are still obliged to provide for their elderly parents in their own homes as adults. Thus, one home may house three generations or more. The care and financial support are considered to be the children’s responsibility.

In other cultures, parents are now expected to have planned for their old age with retirement funds and seek out assisted living centers or nursing homes if they cannot cope with living entirely independently. Obligations of the children residing locally might be a weekly visit or running errands, such as taking parents to the doctor. Children further away might only call once a week, and visit a few times a year.

There remains, however, an expectation of children to step in if parents are mentally or financially unable to cope. Social workers, health services, and other support networks will make calls to children with the expectation that the children will make a plan or be part of a long-term care solution.

This is especially true in countries or states that do not have sufficient long-term care providers for their aging populations, where children are expected to take the place of professionals and fill the role of ‘essential caregivers’ for their elderly parents. Children who do not participate are often viewed as lacking and not doing right by their parents. 

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Obligations in family shift over time and across cultures. But at the heart of them is the idea that those in a family take care of each other. What that means depends on the family and the society they live within. For some, the obligation to one another may be as little as a phone call from time to time.

In others, the obligation can be a massive finical burden. Sometimes the law agrees with these obligations; other times, they are enforced by social pressure and family expectations.

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