Academic journal article Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics

Intergenerational Family Relations in the United States and China

Academic journal article Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics

Intergenerational Family Relations in the United States and China

Article excerpt

What is distinctive about the American family, and what does it have in common with families in other countries? This chapter examines American family patterns by contrasting them with those that are literally on the other side of the globe, in urban China. Taking advantage of similar surveys that we conducted in the United States (Logan & Spitze, 1996) and in China (Logan, Bian, & Bian, 1998) the chapter studies relationships between parents and their grown children, specifically coresidence, proximity, frequency of visiting, and exchange of help. Our focus is on routine behaviors and how parent-child ties are built into the normal fabric of life in these very different social and cultural settings.

The comparison seems surprising, because China has long been thought of as a prototype of traditional Confucian family culture, whereas the United States typifies modernity. Of course one would expect that in the course of the twentieth century, under the impacts of economic changes and political revolutions, Chinese traditions might have begun to give way to new patterns (Whyte, 2003). American families surely are also changing, though the pace and direction of change is much debated. Our comparison is with families in transition in both countries, and we hope to understand each case better in light of the other.


Our initial expectations are framed by modernization theory, according to which the process of industrialization or urbanization pulls family relations down a certain path: "Extended kinship ties weaken, lineage patterns dissolve . . . the nuclear family becomes a more independent kinship unit" (Goode, 1963, p. 6). Modernity demands a flexible and mobile nuclear family, and places physical and social distance between extended kin. Kin networks are replaced by other institutions better suited to the new conditions to provide education, health care, and social interaction. Traditional family relations are either a victim of or a barrier to modernization.

By this reckoning, the American family has long been under assault by social changes. It is in societies such as China where one would expect to find stronger traces of the traditional extended family, even if many analysts believe that "as countries are industrialized, they increasingly resemble highly developed societies in their family, kinship ties, and other basic institutional arrangements" (Bernard, Mogney, & Smith, 1986, p. 151).

We will point in a different direction, offering evidence that on the key question, the strength of ties between parents and their grown children, American and Chinese families are actually very similar. The greater differences between them are in how ties are organized, most prominently in the way they are gendered and in the directionality of exchanges. The contrasts with China make more apparent characteristics of intergenerational relations in the United States that contradict much received wisdom.

Gendering of Parent-Child Ties

Much has been written about the differences between son and daughter roles in connection with older parents, mostly accentuating the special responsibilities assigned to daughters. Family theorists usually argue that daughters are assigned the key role in intergenerational support (e.g., Crimmins & Ingegneri, 1990). Some studies found that son (or daughter) preference is associated with parents' age and marital status (Aquilino, 1990; Wolf & Soldo, 1988). Other studies found that daughters play a more important role than do sons (Litwak, 1985; Stoller & Earl, 1983), or daughters have more frequent interaction with parents than do sons (Rosenthal, 1985; Rossi & Rossi, 1990). Without disputing the validity of these observations, our international comparison suggests that these gender differences should be understood as foreground details within a more general background of gender neutrality. This is not a new finding; it is a central conclusion in Spitze and Lagan's (1990) previous analyses of the survey data studied here. …

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