Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

What Narrows the Stepgap? Closeness between Parents and Adult (Step)Children in Germany

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

What Narrows the Stepgap? Closeness between Parents and Adult (Step)Children in Germany

Article excerpt

Using data from the German Family Panel (pairfam) based on 11,746 intergenerational family relationships, the present study examined differences in parental closeness across relations with multiple, coresidential, and non-coresidential adolescent and adult children. Replicating previous research in a multilevel analysis across families, the authors found a strong positive effect of biological descent on closeness in comparison to adoptive and steprelations; this parental favoritism toward biological offspring was partly explained by selection via parental resources and attitudes. Supplemental withinparent fixed effect analyses suggested that the relative disadvantage of stepchildren was offset by longer duration of the stepparent-stepchild relationship, lower household income, fewer children in the household, and high parental affirmation of familism.

Key Words: families in middle and later life, intergenerational relations, nonresidential parents, parental investment/involvement, stepfamilies, western European families.

Like many industrialized countries, Germany has witnessed an unprecedented rise in divorce rates since the 1960s (Dorbritz & Gärtner, 1998) that has leveled off during the past two decades (Kneip & Bauer, 2009). The increased number of divorced parents stimulated partner markets (Stauder, 2006) such that nontraditional family types (e.g., stepfamilies with cohabiting or remarried parents) became increasingly common. On the basis of national survey data from the German Generations and Gender Survey, Steinbach (2008) estimated that in 2005 almost 25% of all children age 18 or younger were not living with both biological parents in the same household and that almost half of these children coresided with stepparents. This proportion has been increasing steadily throughout the last 20 or 30 years (Klein & Eckhard, 2004, for the United States; Teachman & Tedrow, 2008).

Comparing nuclear families to less traditional family types (e.g., stepfamilies) is particularly instructive because it may shed light on the interplay of biological descent and social interaction in shaping intergenerational relations. Different family structures reflect varying degrees of biological versus social relatedness. In contrast to nuclear families, in stepfamilies there is an inherent distinction between biological and social parenthood, with at least one nonbiological-that is, social-parent who voluntarily entered into a relationship with the stepchild's parent without having necessarily chosen that particular child. Adoptive families, in which both social parents agree to take parental custody of a child, represent yet another constellation, whereas in foster families the parental role is usually limited to a certain time period.

Theoretical arguments and empirical evidence support the notion that biological parent-child ties are stronger and often entail higher levels of affection than nonbiological parent-child relationships. Arguments from two theoretical approaches are especially relevant because they shed light on possible lasting differences between biological and nonbiological parent-child relations. First, sociobiologists argue that parents selectively invest their resources, such as time and support, in biological offspring in order to maximize their inclusive fitness, that is, to pass on their genes and to assure their children's success (Berger, Carlson, Bzostek, & Osborne, 2008). Second, sociological approaches, such as exchange theory, emphasize that the phase of parental caretaking is, on average, longer for biological than for social offspring, leading to higher reciprocity expectations and more cohesion within biological intergenerational relationships. Both theoretical approaches provide a sensible rationale for expecting that parents will favor biological over social offspring.

In regard to stepfamilies, the literature on divorce (Amato, 2010) suggests that parents with problematic characteristics (e. …

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