01/30/2012 08:14 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

What Do Our Kids Owe Us?

We've fed them, sheltered them, taught them to live independently. Then suddenly (if we're lucky) our kids are gone. Daily contact is replaced by occasional text messages and visits on major holidays. While we struggle to keep abreast of events in their lives, they rarely do the same for us.

When my friend Amy's husband left her for another woman, she was surprised at how little support she got from her grown children. "I know they sympathized," she says. "They were just really busy." Nevertheless, that Christmas, "The biggest gift under the tree was for Lisa, my German Shepherd," Amy admits. "She's the one who was there when I needed her. "

My mother is similarly attached to her pets. Last spring, she refused to join the family for Passover because it would have meant leaving her elderly Bichon, who wasn't up to the drive. After years of being guilt-tripped about returning home for the holidays, I was unpleasantly surprised by this turn of events. But perhaps, like Amy, my mother finds the simpler relationship more rewarding at this point in her life.

While I love my dog, I can't imagine that connection taking precedence over time with my kids and (when I have them) grandkids. And I hope I never end up keeping score -- if you don't write me a thank you note, I'll stop sending birthday gifts.

I've seen the damage that can come from withholding love out of fear that there might not be enough go around. With our children, especially, caring needs to be its own reward.

For this reason, I suspect that there's no reasonable "return" on the investment we make in our kids. In his book Thirty Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, Karl Pillemer writes, "When there's a rift, it's usually the parents who need to compromise" because "they have a greater intergenerational stake...they pay a higher price if the rift occurs."

This might not sound fair, but I think it's true. As parents, it's up to us to continue reaching out to our children without expecting repayment in kind.