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Phillip BUCHANON: I grew up with a chip on my shoulder — like, as if I had to make it for my family.

I’d like you to meet Phillip Buchanon. He grew up in Fort Myers, Florida.

BUCHANON: When I was young, I played a lot of sports. Baseball was my first sport. And when it came to summer trips, I didn’t really take summer trips with my family because my teammates always wanted me to stay because I was like one of the best players. So I spent a lot of time at home and with my teammates. And so I have always worked on the idea of me making it professionally, either in baseball or football.

And he had reason to believe that this was a real possibility.

BUCHANON: When I turned eleven years old, I scored five touchdowns in one football game and I hit my first home run. And so ever since then, I was like, “Man, I’m going to make it in football or baseball. I know I am.”

Buchanon’s mother was his main parent.

BUCHANON: My dad was my 7th-grade English teacher, he was my basketball coach in middle school, which we won a championship. He was around, but he wasn’t really in my life like that. But I don’t fault him, it’s just, you know, sometimes, the way you’re raised and the way you’re brought up.

While he was still in high school, Buchanon says, the Cincinnati Reds offered him a $500,000 signing bonus to play baseball. As he recalls it, his mother pushed him to take the deal. But by then football was his true love. So in 1999, he headed for the University of Miami, where he became a star player on a star-studded football team.

BUCHANON: Man, I can’t even explain everybody who was on that team. But from that team alone, we had about 17 first-round draft picks. Just first rounders.  It was so much fun.

In Buchanon’s junior season, 2001, Miami went undefeated and won the national championship. It was considered one of the best college football teams ever. They beat their opponents by an average of 33 points which — if you are not familiar with American football — that is a lot of points. Buchanon decided to forego his senior year of college and enter the NFL draft. The agent he chose was not the one his mom suggested (she had her eye on an agent with strong NFL connections) but he felt good about things. On draft day, in April of 2002, Buchanon’s family threw a huge party at their house in Fort Myers.

BUCHANON: This was supposed to be a special moment, a happy day.

But it was tense. There had been talk that Buchanon might go very high in the draft — at least top 10, maybe even top five. But that wasn’t happening, and he was hearing about it from his family.

BUCHANON: Once the fifth and sixth pick happened, they were saying, “See, if you had went with this agent, you would have gotten drafted high.”

They kept watching, kept waiting, kept not hearing his name be called.

BUCHANON: And so, I kept dropping. And then my mindset was like, “I guess I’m not going to top 10, can’t get that Bentley now.”

Buchanon was eventually picked by the Oakland Raiders with the 17th pick in the NFL Draft. Relatively speaking, this was still an incredible accomplishment. Buchanon would end up with a multi-year contract worth about $12 million, including a $4 million signing bonus. But the draft-day drama wasn’t over. At the party, Phillip Buchanon’s mother had something to say to him.

BUCHANON: She just said I owe her a million dollars. You know, “because I had you. I raised you.” And in a sense, it’s almost like, “Yeah, son, I’m happy for you. But you still owe me that million dollars,” and walk away. I thought it was like a joke like, you know.

DUBNER: This was the day of the draft?

BUCHANON: Day of the draft, day of the draft, yes.

DUBNER: So wait a second. You’ve just gone through this big disappointment. You thought you were going to go higher, you get to number 17, which is still great, Oakland Raiders pick you, and then your mother says, “Congratulations, son, and by the way, you owe me a million dollars?”

BUCHANON: Yeah, but that’s part of it. My uncle, Uncle Two Face, he had already told all the girls to get on his team because he was getting a $300,000 credit line. So I was supposed to be giving him that money, too.

DUBNER: So between your mom and Uncle Two Face, you’re 1.3 million in the hole before you, before you even go to Oakland. So did you give her a million dollars eventually?

BUCHANON: If I’d gave her a million dollars, I wouldn’t be here right now. That’s all I’m saying.

Does this story shock you? If so, why?

Viviana ZELIZER: It shocks us because parents and children are not supposed to have a contractual obligation like if it were any other kind of business.

But who says we’re not supposed to have an obligation? Maybe kids should pay back their kids for raising them?

*     *     *

What do you remember about the day you were born? Nothing, of course, right? Your young brain wasn’t capable of recording a memory that you’re able to access today. You weren’t really capable of much at all. You couldn’t walk, you couldn’t talk, you couldn’t feed yourself. And you certainly weren’t capable of making any big decisions, like: Do I even want to be born? To these parents, in this place? None of us choose to come into this world. It’s the parents who choose to have the baby. And once we’ve arrived, these parents do a lot for us. So, how far does our obligation go to repay them? In what form should that repayment come? How formal should the obligation be? These are some of the questions we’re asking today. I began by polling a couple of kids I had easy access to.

DUBNER: Okay, introduce yourself please.

SOLOMON DUBNER: Solomon Dubner.




ANYA DUBNER: Anya Dubner, and I’m 13 years old.

DUBNER: Yeah. Are you guys somehow related to me?


SOLOMON: You found me on the street.

DUBNER: Okay, very good. So you are my children. And we’re making an episode about what obligation children have to their parents when the children are grown and the parents are old. So any thoughts on that first?

ANYA: Well, it’s kind of like an unwritten rule that children should help their parents with their health and just with anything. Maybe when they can’t drive anymore, help them drive or help them find people who could drive them. That’s just one example, but I think that when children grow older and their parents grow older that they should definitely help their parents.

DUBNER: What if the parents need money, should the children pay them? Give them a bunch of money, do you think?

SOLOMON: You don’t just, obviously, leave your parents out to dry and not give them anything.

DUBNER: Okay, so there was this instance where a football player named Phillip Buchanon, who played for about —

ANYA: Futbol or football?

DUBNER: Football. American football. An American football player named Phillip Buchanon who was drafted by the Raiders and then played for like 12 or 13 years in the NFL. He grew up in a family without a lot of money. And he was a first-round draft pick so he got a lot of money. And guess what his mommy said to him when he signed his contract?

SOLOMON: Give me all your money or give me none of your money. I don’t know which.

DUBNER: Something right in the middle.

SOLOMON: Give me half of your money?

DUBNER: She said, “You, now — because I raised you, because I’m responsible for getting you to this point — you need to write me a check for a million dollars.”


DUBNER: What would you do, Solomon, if you were in that situation?

SOLOMON: I don’t know.  There are so many different variables, I just can’t answer.

DUBNER: Name some of the variables that you would have to consider.

SOLOMON: Well, my relationship with my mother growing up —

DUBNER: We should say Mom’s in the room listening to this, so should we make Mom leave the room so you could give a more — 

ANYA: I think it totally depends on the situation, how close you are with your parents and if they’ve ever done anything wrong. But, I mean, of course, if you are able to give them money then you should, but it depends on every situation and it could be different for everyone.

Okay, so let’s hear a little bit more about the situation with Phillip Buchanon.

DUBNER: What’d you major in?

BUCHANON: I majored in football.

DUBNER: Did you get a degree or no? Did you get a diploma?

BUCHANON: No, I didn’t get a degree, but I went back and got my degree.

DUBNER: Oh, you did?

BUCHANON: Yeah, once I got my degree in 2013, that’s when I started writing the book, too.

DUBNER: The book Buchanon wrote is called New Money: Staying Rich. It’s intended especially for athletes and others who suddenly make a lot of money.

BUCHANON: See the issue is, once you make it, that’s when you got to turn it up a whole other notch and then you have to try to learn everything you can learn about handling your money.

DUBNER: So tell me how much money you made roughly during your whole NFL career, 10 seasons?

BUCHANON: Honestly, I don’t even know.

DUBNER: Well, your first contract you said was 12 million for five years. Then you went on to — Houston was next, right? So, I mean, if we had to guestimate, we’d say something like maybe 25-30 million?

BUCHANON: I would say 20 something, but I don’t, I don’t know exactly.

DUBNER: What kind of financial shape are you in now?

BUCHANON: Oh, I’m good.

DUBNER: So how’d you do that? It sounds like you’ve made a lot of mistakes, you admitted that. In the book you write that you spent literally about a million dollars in strip clubs, right? Is that true? That sounds like so much money to spend in strip clubs.

BUCHANON: Yeah, I mean I spent money from just having fun, doing stuff, popping bottles, hanging out with friends. I mean, I blew a lot of money. I’ve also made some money, some investments.

DUBNER: Outside of football?

BUCHANON: Yeah, outside of football. Yeah.

DUBNER: So basically, by the time you got out of football a few years ago, you’re still in good shape, yes, financially?

BUCHANON: Yeah, yeah. Correct.

Many former athletes are not in Buchanon’s position. If you follow sports even a little bit, you’ve heard many, many stories about the former multi-million-dollar superstar who’s lost everything. In a recent academic paper, the researchers Kyle Carlson, Joshua Kim, Annamaria Lusardi, and Colin Camerer analyzed financial data from all NFL draftees from 1996 to 2003. The median career length of these players was six years – which, the authors note, “will provide an NFL player with more earnings than an average college graduate will get in an entire lifetime, plus a modest pension.” And yet, the researchers found, roughly one in six players went bankrupt within 12 years of retirement — a much higher bankruptcy rate than the average person, who’s also earning a lot less money.

Even more sobering: the risk of bankruptcy doesn’t decline even for athletes who make more money and have longer careers. In other words, there’s almost no relationship between how much you make and the risk of going bankrupt. But overall, in this universe of people, the risk is very high. In most cases, there are two common themes: Number one, a complete lack of understanding of how to manage money – to pay taxes on time, save for the future, invest wisely, etc., etc. And, number two, a lot of athletes, especially those from low-income backgrounds, suddenly find a lot of people reaching into their pockets, family members included. Phillip Buchanon, you’ll recall, got a $4 million signing bonus — that’s pretax, of course — from the Oakland Raiders. He was 21 years old.

BUCHANON: That was the first big check. For me to see that much money was crazy, but I was already in the hole. I had already spent about close to a million dollars already.

DUBNER: How do you spend that much? I mean, I guess two questions: A) How do you spend that much? and B) You didn’t have it yet. So talk about the line of credit that you got in order to spend that much.

BUCHANON: A million dollars today is nothing, to be honest with you. I mean like, I’m being serious. You can buy a house for $200,000, a quarter of a million dollars. I mean, there’s some people who pay a million dollars for a house.

DUBNER: Alright so what did you spend your million on? Did you buy a house? Was that part of it?

BUCHANON: Yeah, yeah, I bought my mom a house. And I was sending money to her. It could have been $10,000, almost $20,000 a month back to her.  And then I was spending money on myself and I was traveling.

DUBNER: And how do you get a line of credit on that? You just borrow against your future draft money? Is that the way it works?

BUCHANON: Well, once they have something from the NFL that says that he has the potential to go first round, then bam. They give you a line of credit, of money.

DUBNER: “They” meaning just a bank?

BUCHANON: Yeah the bank. But the line of credit came from the agency that I was working for that they had a partnership with somebody. So they felt very strong about me getting drafted —well, I knew I was going to get drafted in the first round.

Okay, so Phillip Buchanon had already spent around a million dollars – that’s after-tax dollars — even before he was drafted. He’d already bought his mom a house – and a car.

BUCHANON: I paid $40,000 for it, for the car she wanted.

And then, as he told us and as he wrote in his book, his mother asks him for another million dollars on draft day, for having gotten him to this point.

DUBNER: So did you find a middle ground with her? Or did you give her kind of none beyond what you’d given her already?

BUCHANON: She got a brand-new car, she got a new house, she’s getting 10,000, in between 10,000 and 20,000 every month. What’s the point of giving you a million dollars?

DUBNER: Right, right.

BUCHANON: And I’m paying all the bills.

DUBNER: Right.

BUCHANON: And you’re working for your money. That money you’re working for? You spend it on yourself.

DUBNER: What’s your relationship like with your mom now? Good? Or not so good?

BUCHANON: Nah, we haven’t talked since probably about April.


BUCHANON: We were talking before that but since the press ran with the idea of what she said, which was true, I mean, she felt some type of way so —

DUBNER: Do you regret writing that and do you regret saying it?

BUCHANON: No, I don’t regret writing it. It’s real. I’m being honest.

In his book, Buchanon does the math on what his mother said he owed her. He writes, “One million dollars divided by eighteen years of raising me was approximately $55,555.55 a year in restitution. Except, at age seventeen I decided to move out of my mom’s house, choosing to live with a close friend and his father because I no longer felt secure in my own home. Why, you ask? Because my mother let people come in and out of our house and take what they wanted. So technically, even if we went by her logic, I only owed her $944,444.44 for her services over seventeen years. Is it petty that I’m knocking a year off her calculation? The fact that I have written this paragraph enrages me, merely because I’m entertaining the thought that her argument had any logic at all.”

But does Phillip Buchanon’s mom’s argument have some logic, at least in some cases, where a grown child becomes much more well-off than the parents who raised the kid, and who, presumably, spent a lot of money on that kid? According to one government estimate, American parents spend, on average, about a quarter of a million dollars raising a child until age 18.

ZELIZER: What we need to understand is which kind of economic transactions are appropriate for the family.

That’s Viviana Zelizer.

ZELIZER: And I’m a professor of sociology at Princeton University and I specialize in sociological approaches to economic activity.

DUBNER: Maybe the best part of economics is price theory, which argues that you know, price really works as an equilibrium creator. But price doesn’t always work. So can you just talk about, first of all, your overview on those kind of transactions and how’s a productive way to think about them?

ZELIZER: Well, My main concentration has been to show that the world of pricing and the world of intimacy and personal relationships, which are supposedly two totally separate spheres and what I call hostile worlds, in fact mix all the time. And what is interesting is to see how that works. For example, the assumption is that household transactions — that the home is a sacred sphere and that as soon as money gets involved with that kind of sacred sphere, bad things happen. So what I’ve tried to do is to show well, not really.

In a 1994 book called Pricing the Priceless Child, Zelizer showed how the economic role of children has changed over time.

ZELIZER: One of the grand transformations is the turn of the 20th century when you have the emergence of what I call the “economically useless but priceless child.” So what does that mean? That in the 19th century, the economic value of children was taken for granted. And, obviously, in poor households it meant child labor, and in less-poor households there’s still an appreciation that children should be engaged in some form of productive activity. It was good for the soul and it was good for their value as individuals. And then you have a gradual sentimentalization of the value of children. You know, there are of course child-labor laws that are passed, but those laws are influenced also by changed cultural views that the child should be defined by their sentimental and emotional value.

Zelizer could track these changes through historical papers like court cases, insurance policies, and adoption records.

ZELIZER: When children were taken in by foster families in the 19th century, they were taken in because of their labor value. Not that they were necessarily unloved; I don’t think we can judge past psychologies. But they certainly were taken in for that. And babies were — nobody wanted babies in their households in the late 19th century.

DUBNER: They couldn’t do anything, yeah.

ZELIZER: But the enormous transformation, by the 1920s or so, it is the babies that become the hot commodity. Especially blonde, curly-haired, blue-eyed little girls got prime market value. And then starts the fact that people don’t want to adopt older children because now kids are adopted following these new sentimentally defined conceptions of children. They’re adopting them for that emotional value, and not for any kind of economic contribution.

The late economist Gary Becker, in a 1960 paper called “An Economic Analysis of Fertility,” went so far as to call children “consumer durables” — that’s the same category that contains refrigerators and cars.

ZELIZER: The whole idea, of course, is that parents make very rational calculations as to why they have children, right? The idea is that, in the past – well, you had children because they’re going to help you on the farm or they’re going to help you in old age and then you decide to have children because they are valuable as consumer durables.

*     *     *

Steven LEVITT: Economists have spent a lot of time thinking about children and how children fit into the economics of a family unit.

That’s Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author.

LEVITT: Historically, in an agricultural system there was a lot of hard work to be done, and children could do a lot of that work, and so children were really an investment. They were an asset, not quite like livestock and not quite like a cotton gin, but they were assets that had value. And another element of that value were for retirement. In cultures where the requirement was that children took care of the parents, parents would have a lot of kids in order to make sure there were some children around to take care of them when they got old. Now, all of that has changed dramatically in the industrialized Western world, and as a consequence, the fertility rates have plunged. Basically every country that’s gone from an agrarian economy to an industrial or service economy, whatever you want to call what we have now, has seen an enormous transition in fertility from something like four or five or six kids being born per woman to something more like between one and two, two and a half kids per woman. And so kids today, in a place like the United States, are not really assets at all. They’re really consumption value for the parents, I think. So when I think about my kids, I expect nothing from them in return. I don’t ever expect them to help me financially. I joke with them a lot about when I’m old which of the four of them is going to change my diapers. And actually only one, my daughter Amanda, is the only one who has ever in all the time that I’ve asked, said that she voluntarily would change my diapers when I’m old. So, for that reason I have to give Amanda a very disproportionate share of any inheritance that I have, to reward her for her — at least her stated — loyalty.

Levitt was just joking about distributing his inheritance unevenly — at least I think he was joking.

LEVITT: There’s such a strong moral imperative against giving different amounts of money to different kids, that I actually would never even consider it.

That doesn’t mean some people don’t do it, to ensure that their kids will take care of them in their old age. Among economists, this is known as the “strategic bequest motive.”

*     *     *

To what degree are children obligated, if at all, to help care for their parents, financially or otherwise? Every family is different, of course. In some cases, a child may end up making more money than the parents ever could have imagined. In others, a parent may be sitting on a pile of money that will be passed along only after death.  In a case like that, is the inheritance a gift? Or, perhaps, something else entirely, like part of a strategic-bequest motive?

HARTOG: It’s that it’s a way of controlling children.

That’s Hendrik Hartog.

HARTOG: I teach history and American studies at Princeton. I’m the author of several books, but most recently, Someday All This Will Be Yours: A History of Inheritance and Old Age.

In that book, Hartog analyzes inheritance disputes from the 19th century.

HARTOG: These were cases in which an older person had typically asked a younger person, often their child, to come take care of them in their old age. And if they did then — this is the “someday all this will be yours” — the child would get the property  at the end. The cases came into being because the younger person had come there, had taken care of the older person, and then, one way or another, the younger person typically ended up with nothing.

Cases like this weren’t all that common. But Hartog argues they do tell us a lot about how families — at least 19th-century American families — used to think about financial obligations, and the mutual distrust that was involved.

HARTOG: I’m not a game theorist, but it is a kind of game where younger people had no reason to come home except for the promise of land or property of one kind or another, because that’s the only resource which the old had available to them.  So the strategic bequest motive got expressed, typically, by people saying: “Oh, it’s going to be yours.” Or, “I’ve told everybody it’s going to be yours.” Or “I promised it to you.” “You go ahead and make those improvements because it’s going to be your property.” “You should go muck out the stable because it’s going to be your stable” — but not actually make the transfer itself.

So Hartog does see the strategic-bequest motive at work in these old cases. But it seems to have faded.

HARTOG: There is a continuing debate in economics about what purpose does inheritance serve. Is it simply a reward for activities of individuals earlier? What good does it do to the next generation? Part of the argument is that it’s a way of controlling the future. Now, how well that control works in the modern world is, I think, something, that as I understand it, there’s a lot of contrary evidence.

But part of the story may be that parents aren’t necessarily as dependent on their grown kids anymore. Private pensions and Social Security add some cushion. But there are also forces pushing in the opposite direction: people are living a lot longer, for instance, and may have greater need for their grown kids to help them out.

DUBNER: So, Levitt, you have four children.


DUBNER: Now you’ve done pretty well for yourself. You have a nice career as an economist and many related endeavors and you make a nice living. But let’s say that somehow you blow it all. And you’re destitute. You can’t even afford to play golf anymore. Let’s say this happens to you between the ages of 60 and 70. What do you expect now from your grown children? Do you think that they owe you for all the years of investing in the people that they’ve become? The food, shelter, education, love? Do they owe you? Should they pay you?

LEVITT: So, I wouldn’t say “should.” I do give my kids lots of love and I give them tuition to good schools and lots of stuff that they like to play with. But I definitely don’t do that under the condition that this is just a loan and they’re gonna pay me back in the future. And my hope is that we have a nice enough relationship that they would want to help me out in the same way that I want to help them out. But I don’t think that we should think about parenting as being conditional, at least not in a culture like the United States.

DUBNER: And, maybe this is a ridiculously obvious question, but why shouldn’t we consider parenting or any family relationships to be conditional in some way? Because even though we all say that — I mean, I’ve said it, you just said it — it seems as though we treat it as though things are conditional. Like, there are things that your family can ask you to do that you will do only because you happen to share a gene pool, that you wouldn’t do for a friend or a colleague.

LEVITT: So this is a harder question than you usually ask me, Dubner. For starters, different cultures have come to different answers. In traditional Chinese culture, for instance, or Indian culture, children are very much expected to take care of aging parents, are really beholden to them. It’s not really right or wrong, it’s just in that culture that is the implicit deal that’s set up between parents and children. Now, the kids don’t get to agree or disagree with that deal. They’re born into the culture, and the culture dictates they have to take care of them. In the U.S., I think it’s a little different. I think that we have a culture in which it is not deterministically said that parents deserve to be taken care of by their children. And we put in programs like Social Security a long time ago because we didn’t want children to have to take care of their parents, we wanted parents to be able to take care of themselves. And so in that world I just don’t see how I could, either morally or especially legally, expect my children to take care of me if they don’t feel like I deserve it or did a good job of raising them.

I wanted to run this idea past Viviana Zelizer, the Princeton sociologist who studies the economics of personal relationships, because she happens to have a son, Julian, who also teaches at Princeton.

ZELIZER: Yeah, he’s both in the history department and in the Woodrow Wilson School. We are officially the first mother-son combination in the history of —I don’t brag about a lot of things but this one’s a fun one — in the history of Princeton.

DUBNER: That is worth bragging about. That is absolutely remarkable. Now obviously since you’re a professor at Princeton I’m sure you’ve been well-compensated during your career. But what do you expect from Julian? What do you expect in later years? Do you expect him to drop by and not only visit you and perhaps help take care of you when that time comes?

ZELIZER: You want to get me into trouble now with my son? 

DUBNER: Absolutely.

ZELIZER: I think that I am a cultural product of the 20th and 21st century, so I would not want any kind of emotional or financial assistance to be an obligation. I’m not a 19th-century mother. And  I guess he doesn’t earn enough for me to ask him for a million dollars. But I would want any kind of assistance that I will need — and I will probably need it when I’m older, if not financial, emotional — that it comes out of affection. So, I am, again, a cultural puppet.

DUBNER: And when you say that, that it would come out of affection, it sounds as though you, with an N of one at least,  would consider the contribution that comes out of affection more valuable dollar for dollar let’s say, or hour for hour, than a contribution that comes out of obligation, yes?

ZELIZER: Look, you’re going at the heart of contradictions that academics have. Yes, as a mother I do. As the debunker of these kinds of splits I would say — what I would tell me — “Listen, what you’re saying is pretty lame. Because even if you feel some obligation and part of that money comes of obligation, that would be okay, too.”

DUBNER: In the case of this now-former football player Philip Buchanon and his mother asking for a particular sum — which is a large sum, a million dollars — in exchange for having raised him and gotten him to the point where he was NFL-ready, do you think it’s wrong? Do you label that “wrong,” or do you look at it with more nuance than that?

ZELIZER: Well, I would look at it with more nuance because I would put a lot of — not football money, professor’s — money, on the fact that there’s a story we don’t know there and that there’s a lot of other things going on than what he reports in the book. So, on its face, it violates the expectations that we have of a parent-child relationship, that they should not be quid pro quo, right?

DUBNER: Right, right.

ZELIZER: So, I would need to know her side of it before making a moral judgment. It could be very bad but maybe she has a story about it. Maybe he promised her something, and, you know, he did give her a house, you see. So that he considered okay, which was interesting to me. Money— which is more apparently compensation — was uncomfortable. Giving her a good —a house — makes the transaction more household-like.

I did ask Phillip Buchanon to put us in touch with his mom to hear her side of the story. “Everything in my book is true,” he told us. “So let’s just leave my mother out of this. She doesn’t want to talk about this issue.” We did try to reach her independently. Our producers spend a couple days on it, but were unable to. I also asked Buchanon if what Viviana Zelizer talked about was indeed part of his problem. That it wasn’t necessarily that his mother asked for so much money – a million dollars – but that she asked for money at all.

DUBNER: Let’s pretend for a minute that instead of you buying your mom a house and a car, which total were about 300 grand, right? Let’s pretend that instead of that, your mom had said to you, “You know what, Phillip? I know that you’re willing to buy me a house and a car, and I love you, baby. And you’re going to have a great career, but rather than the house and the car, just give me the cash. Just give me 300 grand.” Would you have done that? Would that have felt different?

BUCHANON: I mean, why would I want to give her $300,000 without her telling what she’s going to do with it?

DUBNER: Right, right.

BUCHANON: That, to me, that doesn’t make sense. So, I mean, if she said, “I have this plan to do this and do all that and I’m probably going to need about $300,000, and I can generate some money and then I can figure out a way to pay you back the money that you gave me, too,” now that would have sounded more attractive. But then again, when you’re dealing with your mom, when you first get money, it’s like, I gave my mom the money and I don’t really expect it back.

DUBNER: What percentage of NFL players do you think buy their mom a house?

BUCHANON: That is an unwritten rule. I think all of them do that. That’s normal.  And some players can’t do it right away and some players want to do it right away. But eventually, if they can do it, if every player can buy their mom a house without a problem, they’ll do it. And a car.

I asked Steve Levitt whether he thought Phillip Buchanon’s mother was right or wrong for asking for that money.

LEVITT: So, you know that I never deal in right-and-wrong. So it’s a hard question to answer. If I’m that mom, can I see myself doing it? Absolutely. If I’m that kid, can I see myself wishing my mom hadn’t done it? Absolutely. If I’m that kid, do I give my mom that money or not? I don’t know. It kind of depends, I suppose, about how nice my mom has been to me. But I certainly understand the incentives involved on all sides. But I’m almost sure if she tried to take a legal case that there’s no chance that she could win that, given the way our culture has evolved.

Maybe, but maybe not. It turns out there are laws, at least in some places, that require adult children to help provide for their parents if they’ve fallen on hard times. They are known as filial responsibility laws.

HARTOG: Filial responsibility statutes are very weak efforts to ensure that the young will support the old if they are needy.

That, again, is Hendrik Hartog, the historian. The laws, he says, go back to Victorian England, when local governments had to provide for the poor. For them, the laws were a practical solution.

HARTOG: Basically, you don’t want to have to raise taxes in order to pay for the old geezer you have to take care of, so you go after his children. If an old person ended up on the equivalent of welfare — that is in the local poor relief — then the overseers of the poor could go after their children, if they could find their children. The problem was that they usually couldn’t find them.

Some other governments passed their own filial-responsibility laws, including, believe it or not, roughly half the states in the U.S. And these laws remain on the books, even though you’d hardly know it.

HARTOG: They rarely are enforced. Very, very, very, very rarely. So, you know, in a sense, every time they are enforced they become a New York Times article or they become an article in the local newspapers.

Still, some governments keep trying.  China, for instance, recently updated its “Law for the Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Elderly.”

Amy CHUA: I think China is dealing with rapid modernization and a lot more wealth.

That’s Amy Chua. She is a law professor at Yale.

CHUA: And they passed this law that was trying to legislate and force filial piety and I just can’t — you know, I’m not a fan.

DUBNER: You’re not a fan because it’s unenforceable or because you think it shouldn’t have to be enforced in the first place?

CHUA: I think that it can’t possibly lead to the kind of ideal family relations that these legislators have in mind, you know — when you’re doing things under threat of prison sentence. But, in general, I think it’s a little bit easier there than it would be in a country like this, because I still think there’s a huge amount of natural, much more ingrained sense of loyalty and respect to one’s parents in China.

Chua was born in the States to Chinese parents who’d immigrated from the Philippines. She wrote a book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about the strengths – and limits – of strict Chinese parenting.

DUBNER: I’m curious what your inclination has ever been toward your parents. Whether or not they literally need money, they worked hard to raise you in a style that was not typically American, and I’m just curious what you felt you needed to repay them with.

CHUA: Well, first of all I do not think that a parent can demand money or gratitude. That’s not the idea at all. But in my own case I feel enormous obligation, debt, gratitude towards my parents. It’s a very — I don’t even want to call it Confucian filial piety thing, but it’s very different. I’ve always felt that I do need to repay my  parents and it’s not because they demanded it, never. But because I just feel that they  deserved it.

DUBNER: What do you mean? You mention Confucian filial piety, what do you mean by that?

CHUA: It’s a traditional Confucian tenet that respecting and obeying your parents is like the first principle. They have ancestor worship. I mean taken to the hundredth degree and to a point that I think can be pathological. There was something like the ideal family is five generations under one roof. Oh my gosh, that would be nightmare! But in moderation, it just means that your parents take care of you and then there’s this cycle where you start, as they get older, you start taking care of your parents. And they are first and foremost — the grandparents are the most important people.

There are other views from antiquity, however, which suggest that as much as ancestor worship, and providing for our elder parents, may be be a desirable thing, it doesn’t necessarily jibe with human nature. Consider a memoir written more than 300 years ago by a woman known as Gluckel of Hamelin. She was a Jewish widow in northern Germany, left to provide for her fourteen children after her husband died. The memoir was meant to teach her children how to carry on in the face of adversity. It opens with a story about parents and children — a folk tale, really — and I wanted to run past my own kids, Solomon and Anya.

DUBNER: Okay. I want to read, I want to read you guys something. And I just want to hear your response to it, okay? “A bird once set out to cross the windy sea with its three fledglings.” You know what a fledgling is? A baby bird. “The sea was so wide and the wind so strong, the father bird was forced to carry his young one-by-one, in his strong claws. When he was halfway across with the first fledgling, the wind turned to a gale, and he said, ‘My child, look how I am struggling and risking my life in your behalf. When you are grown up, will you do as much for me? And provide for my old age?’ The fledgling replied, ‘Only bring me to safety and when you are old, I shall do everything you ask of me.’ Wherat -” Can you guess what’s going to happen?

SOLOMON: The dad drops the bird.

DUBNER: Do you know this story?


DUBNER: Oh, you’re right though. “Whereat the father dropped his child into the sea and it drowned and he said, ‘So shall it be done to a liar such as you.’ Then the father bird returned to shore, set forth with his second fledgling, asked the same question and receiving the same answer —” What do you think happens this time, Anya?

ANYA: He drops her.

DUBNER: Yep, “drowned the second child with the cry, ‘You, too, are a liar.’ Finally, he set out with the third fledgling, and when he asked the same question, the third and last fledgling replied, ‘My dear father, it is true you are struggling mightily and risking your life in my behalf, and I shall be wrong not to repay you when you are old, but I cannot bind myself. This though, I can promise: When I am grown up and have children of my own, I shall do as much for them as you have done for me.’ Whereupon the father bird said, ‘Well spoken my child, and wisely. Your life I will spare and I will carry you to shore in safety.” So what do you think of that story?

SOLOMON: Well, I don’t think that the father should have dropped his children to their death.

DUBNER: Solomon, let’s say 20 or 30 years from now, I’m old, I’m poor, I’ve got nothing and I say to you, “Solomon, come help me. Take care of me.” What’s your response going to be? That’s what I want to know today, right now.

SOLOMON: At this point it would definitely be yes.

DUBNER: Anya, what’s your answer?

ANYA: Yes, of course.

DUBNER: Yes, of course? So if I were a father bird with both of you in my talons right now, what should I do? Should I drop you in the ocean? Or should I believe you?

ANYA: Well, according to the story, you probably would because that’s pretty similar to what the other birds said.

DUBNER: You know, there are some countries where there are laws — including the U.S., but they’re never enforced — when children have to visit their parents when they’re older and have to do other things to take care of them. Do you think there should be laws like that?

ANYA: I actually don’t think that there should be.  It depends on everyone’s relationship with their parents, or if their parents even want them to visit. It just depends on so many things that I think it shouldn’t be a law to have to visit somebody in your life.

DUBNER: Now, you guys are pretty young, but you both know the way that life and civilization and family life have changed a lot in the last hundred, two hundred years, right? And in the old days grandparents would live with the family and things like that, right? And so that children and grandchildren, even, would help take care of grandparents and so on. That seems to happen a lot less now. Do you think because that happens a lot less now, especially with money, that children should in some way be obligated to pay for, to take care of their parents? Or do you think that kind of changes the relationship in a way that makes it more like a business transaction than family?

SOLOMON: That’s a good point about the business transaction, but I think in general, kids should definitely take care of their parents when they get older.

DUBNER: Solomon, I can’t wait to play you this tape 30 or 40 years from now. And Anya, I’m gonna play you the tape and I’ll say, “Anya, do you remember you said that you know there’s no real law — there shouldn’t really be a law — but kids should definitely take care of parents.” So if I say, “Anya, you’ve got to come over and clip my toenails.” What are you going to say then?

ANYA: Ughhhhhh!

DUBNER: Would you? You’ll be there?


DUBNER: What will you help me with if I need help?

SOLOMON: I’ll make you food. I don’t want to help you get dressed. I’ll help you move things. I’ll read to you. I’ll do what you need. But I won’t help you get dressed.

DUBNER: Anya, what are you going to do for me?

ANYA: Well, I will probably be the one to cook. And then I would do what Solomon would do.

DUBNER: Can I tell you something? I totally believe that you guys would help.

ANYA: Of course!

SOLOMON: I would help you get dressed if you needed it really badly, I thought I should say.

DUBNER: Thanks, Solomon. I appreciate it.

ANYA: Me too. Except I’m a girl.

DUBNER: So let me quote the father bird. “Well spoken, my children, and wisely. Your lives I will spare and I will carry you to shore, in safety.” But you know, the truth is, I know that your job is to take care of the next generation, it’s not really to take care of us. But I think you’ll take care of us okay. Yeah?


ANYA: Mmm hmm.

DUBNER: I love you guys.

ANYA: You too.

SOLOMON: You too, Steve.

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Coming up on the next Freakonomics Radio:  it’s that time of year again: Nobel Prize season. We get an inside look at the secret process that goes into picking the Nobel Prize in economics: “How to win a Nobel Prize.” That’s next time, on Freakonomics Radio.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Greg Rosalsky. Our staff also includes Arwa Gunja, Jay Cowit, Merritt JacobChristopher WerthCaroline English, Alison Hockenberry, and Kasia Mychajlowycz.

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