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What does it mean to be filial?

By Dr. Henry Wong Meng Yeong | Monday April 21, 2014

Another clue to discern a person’s character is to observe his respect for his parents and brothers as they are fundamental qualities of a good man. It is recorded in the analects that it is rare for one who is filial (孝) to parents and respectful to elder brothers (悌) to be insubordinate towards his superiors, much as you will not find someone who is not insubordinate start a revolt.

Photograph courtesy of Reuters/Jason Lee

This precept was supported by Billy Graham who said: A child who is allowed to be disrespectful to his parents will not have true respect for anyone.

The word for filial(孝) is pictorially formed of two words, with the elderly(老) parent on his son’s (子) back, an allegorical representation of parental support. What then does it mean to be filial and what is expected of parents and children?

Being filial is an outward responsible behavior reflecting an inward reverence and respect. It is this sense of respect that shouting at parents in harsh abusive tones is not tolerated in Chinese families. Are one’s filial duties towards one’s parents discharged by merely feeding them and housing them in nursing homes? Confucius lamented that filial sons in his time were content if their parents were well fed. “Even dogs and horses are well fed, what then is the difference if parents are fed without reverence or respect?” said Confucius.

It is a sense of duty that Confucius teaches that a good son should not wander afar when one’s parents are alive and that if one should, he should notify them of his whereabouts. In today’s society, if parents were to ask their children on their comings and goings, it will be misconstrued to be an infringement on their personal rights!

Confucius taught that being filial means that apart from sickness, one should not give one’s parents cause to worry. In 500BC, people died from illnesses which today are curable, thus a sick child is a cause of worry for parents. This will resonate with any parent who has lost a child through illness, which is a cause for anxiety.

Parents, on their part should not have cause to worry about their children apart from sickness. But parents today do continually worry as many see themselves as lifetime providers for their precious children. They continue to spoil them with material comforts and some even anguish that they have not amassed enough wealth to ensure that their children live comfortably for life, a clear departure from nature where animals teach their young to survive without them. For parents, this self-inflicted anguish is in vain when their children, instead of being grateful, see it as their entitlement which if carried further will result in siblings clashing over assets, dividing families. If only their deceased parents knew that their act of sacrifice would end up with a broken home, they would have made different choices, to spend the money or perhaps give it away. It is after all not money, but the love for money which is the root of all evil.

Spoiling children today is common practice. Edward VIII remarked “the thing that impresses me most about America is the way parents obey their children”. Confucius believes that parents should instead equip their children with values and virtues for life. Confucius believes that “to love your children is not to indulge them in comfort,” words also echoed by Plato: Let parents bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence.