Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

"Because They're My Parents": An Intergenerational Study of Felt Obligation and Parental Caregiving

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

"Because They're My Parents": An Intergenerational Study of Felt Obligation and Parental Caregiving

Article excerpt

Using an intergenerational sample of 460 young adults and their middle-aged parents, the study examined adults' views of parental obligation and caregiving. Both generations of women generally reported higher levels of felt obligation to their parents than did both generations of men. Regardless of gender, adults with one living parent generally reported feeling more obligation to provide assistance than did adults with two living parents. Overall, young adult children expressed higher levels of felt obligation to their parents than did middle-aged parents to their parents. Felt obligation accounted for a significant amount of additional variance in young and middle-aged adults' reports of parental caregiving beyond that of gender, self-reports of parental affection, and filial responsibility.

Key Words: adult development, felt obligation, parental caregiving.

Sociologists estimate that adults may now spend about half a century relating to their parents (Gee, 1987). For the first time in history, an individual is likely to spend more years as an adult child with living parents than as a parent of a child under the age of 20 (Hagestad, 1990). Despite such dramatic shifts in family roles, researchers have paid relatively little attention to the obligations that accompany parent-child relationships throughout adulthood.

The study presented here uses an intergenerational sample of 460 young and middle-aged men and women to examine the role of parental obligation in adults' reports of parental caregiving. The merits of felt obligation, a relational approach to the study of parental obligation, are contrasted with those of filial responsibility, a popular attitudinal approach. Adults' views of felt obligation are investigated as a function of gender, generation (young, middle-aged), and parental status (one or both parents living). The research examines the role of felt obligation in accounting for adults' reports of parental caregiving beyond that of gender and other established family variables.

APPROACHES TO PARENTAL OBLIGATION

Empirical studies of family obligation have primarily investigated the presence of obligation as a general attitude or societal norm. Rossi and Rossi (1990) asked adults to respond to vignettes about circumstances that might elicit obligation in different social roles. Respondents reported higher levels of general obligation for the family roles of parents and children than for other types of kin. Early empirical studies suggest that both genders endorse norms of obligation for family and view adults as obligated to perform activities consistent with traditional sex roles (Adams, 1968; Bahr, 1976). Adults typically endorse contact and assistance as strong social expectations of kinship and report negative sanctions for nonperformance of family obligations.

More recent research on obligation has focused on adults' duties as caregivers to older parents. Filial responsibility is conceptualized as a societal attitude toward adult children's duty to meet the needs of aging parents (Blieszner & Mancini, 1987; Seelbach, 1981; Walker, Pratt, Shinn, & Jones, 1990). Studies suggest that both parents and adult children acknowledge the existence of filial responsibility as a societal expectation (Hamon & Blieszner, 1990). Although findings regarding gender differences in reports of filial responsibility have been mixed (Finley, Roberts, & Banahan, 1988), reports of filial responsibility have been found to differ as a function of geographical distance from parents (Finley et al., 1988), residential location (rural or urban), and ethnicity (Hanson, Sauer, & Seelbach, 1983).

As an attitudinal approach to the study of obligation, filial responsibility emphasizes the larger social context in which duties between adults and their parents may unfold. Yet, filial responsibility says little about specific expectations of behavior that adults develop in their ongoing relationships with their own parents. …

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