You gotta love China. The country that tells you how many children you can legally have — one — is now telling the kids they have to visit you.
A new law, titled "Protection of the Rights and Interests of Elderly People," states that "family members living apart from the elderly should frequently visit or send greetings to the elderly persons."
Emphasis on "should," of course. But the Chinese government doesn't drop hints. And if parents aren't satisfied with the attention they are getting from the kids, they can ask for mediation or file a suit. The law also forbids insult, ill-treatment and abandonment of the aged.
This is the government's response to a rapidly aging population and the success of the one-child policy. There aren't enough kids to look after the 'rents, and the government does not provide much of a pension or social welfare system, especially in rural areas.
It may also be a reaction to a spate of news stories about neglect of the elderly in China, including one about a man who kept his 100-year-old mother in a pigsty on his farm where her roommate is an enormous sow. He explained the situation by saying his mother didn't mind because it was conveniently close. (That sounds exactly like something my son would say.)
The younger generation is grumbling because working overtime and holidays in the city and accumulating wealth is now a virtue in Communist China, and mom and dad often live in the country. And it isn't easy for parents to move closer to the kids because health care is apparently tied to your home town, and it isn't portable.
But this dilemma has unleashed the entrepreneurial spirit in China's new capitalist economy, and you can hire a company to pay attention to your parents or grandparents. You can pay for brief chats on the phone or for someone to run errands. Or you can spring for a birthday party package.
I don't know about your kids, but if we lived in China, mine would be in prison or a re-education camp. I have had one 30-second phone call from my son since Easter, during which he asked me to stop sending "harassing" emails asking him to call. And the last time I was with my daughter, she told me I had something in my teeth.
I am not sure there is enough of a police presence in this country to get them visit regularly, and if they knew they could hire a service to come to dinner on Sundays or send a card on my birthday, I'd have been signed up ages ago. And I would probably be paying the bill, too.
Devotion to the ancestors was a pillar of Chinese life before Mao demanded that loyalty for the state. Now it is imperative that filial piety return so the government won't have to shoulder the burden of a population that is aging on a scale and at a speed that makes the baby boom look like a blip on a screen.
But it also means that one child could be responsible for "the spiritual and financial needs" of as many as six aging parents and grandparents. That's a lot of trips home for a country that doesn't really have weekends or vacation, although the law also requires employers to cooperate if workers need time to care for their parents.
The law also requires children to pay their parents a monthly allowance if they can't visit or care for them, but I know plenty of parents who would be just as happy to get their kids off the cell phone plan and the car insurance.
Leave it to China to try to legislate parent-child relationships. Good luck with that, because if there was a way to make the kids pay attention to me, I'd have found it long ago.
Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.