Understanding ‘utang na loob’ | Inquirer Opinion
Safe Space

Understanding ‘utang na loob’

There was a passionate discussion in social media, in the past week, around the idea of children as “retirement plans” for their parents, spurred by a content creator who shared intimate, painful details of his relationship with his mother. I will not point readers to the source material as it seems to be a story with no winners, and there has been enough inconsiderate memes and jokes over what is a serious issue. What I will comment on is the larger discussion taking place around what it means to have utang na loob for our parents.

Utang na loob is a Filipino value that has no accurate translation in English. Some would call this “debt of gratitude,” but utang na loob goes further than that in the sense that it is never fully repaid. It is not simply a transactional relationship, as in debtor-debtee, but an acknowledgement of kapwa between the two parties after a significant act of malasakit, an act of compassionate sacrifice that goes above what is expected. Utang na loob, then, cannot be repaid purely through money or material offerings but through a loyal long-lasting relationship.

Erroneous understandings of utang na loob include the false notion that it is obligatory, similar to a legal contract. Another mistake is to assume that it can be demanded from others. True utang na loob is manifested freely, as an expression of a person’s malasakit for someone who has provided malasakit to them. Not all acts of malasakit garner utang na loob from the recipient; expecting such reciprocity would mean that it was not a true act of malasakit. Therefore, utang na loob cannot be forced.


Any value, while having inherent virtue, can be exploited or distorted. Kindness and generosity can be taken advantage of by scammers and con artists. The value of respect toward elders can be distorted to mean that younger people are not allowed to express their personal views, even though personal expression can be done in a respectful manner. In therapy conversations, I often refer to the “gratefulness monster,” when clients refuse to seek help from family members since they felt they have no right to add to their problems after everything that has been done for them. Utang na loob isn’t inherently bad. It can, however, be exploited by others when it is reduced to a transaction, just like how a debtee collects payments.


The ongoing debate in social media pits utang na loob toward parents against protecting children from becoming their “retirement plans.” The concept of children as retirement plans connote that the main reason parents conceived their children was to ensure that they would be taken care of in their old age. The key point here is intent. No child should ever be born with the purpose of being someone’s retirement plan. We should all aspire for our children to be able to live a life of their own choosing. If parents do not hold expectations of financial gains or returns, their malasakit will more likely be perceived, which will, in turn, engender utang na loob from their children. Utang na loob is, ironically, never “owed.” I dare say that children do not automatically owe utang na loob to their parents. It is, however, naturally nurtured in a parent-child relationship filled with malasakit. Parents can express sadness or even be upset when they realize that utang na loob was not formed, as it shows that their malasakit was not acknowledged. Examples of this are: “What my parents did for me was the bare minimum,” “I didn’t ask to be born; I owe them nothing,” and “Parents are supposed to do that for their children.” Adult children, in turn, can also feel upset that their expression of utang na loob was not appreciated because parents expected it in a different form, such as money or in always agreeing with what parents say.

I hope that parents can understand that adult children can still hold utang na loob toward them, even if they do not always do what the parents want. This is similar to children who hold a tantrum and are accusing parents of not loving them after not being given what they wanted. Utang na loob does not mean giving everything that is asked. Utang na loob is, in a way, a promise to have malasakit in a relationship. And sometimes, that malasakit comes in the form of setting limits for the other’s best interests. Refusing to be a parent’s retirement plan, in the sense of providing all their financial needs at the cost of securing their own financial stability, does not necessarily mean that the children do not care what happens to them. It’s almost impossible to find a parent-child relationship that’s truly devoid of malasakit and utang na loob; let’s start recognizing it in each other.


[email protected]

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.

TAGS: utang na loob

© Copyright 1997-2024 INQUIRER.net | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.