Norms of Filial Responsibility for Aging Parents across Time and Generations

By Gans, Daphna; Silverstein, Merril | Journal of Marriage and Family, November 2006 | Go to article overview

Norms of Filial Responsibility for Aging Parents across Time and Generations


Gans, Daphna, Silverstein, Merril, Journal of Marriage and Family


This investigation examined the normative expectation that adult children should be responsible for the care of their aging parents, and how this norm changes over the adult life span, across several decades of historical time, in relation to generational position in families, and between successive generations. Analyses were performed using 4 waves of data from the University of Southern California (USC) Longitudinal Study of Generations between 1985 and 2000. A multilevel latent growth model was estimated using 4327 observations from 1,627 individuals nested within 333 families. Results revealed that filial norms weakened after midlife, in response to parental death, and over historical time, yet strengthened in later-born generations. Findings are discussed in terms of the malleability of filial responsibility over the life course.

Key Words: families in mid and later life, filial norms, growth curve analysis, intergenerational relations, life course.

Declines in mortality rates over the past century have increased the need of older adults for prolonged periods of care, thus making caregiving to older parents a normative activity in the lives of adult children (Brody, 1985). The role of adult children in providing long-term support and care to their aging parents has aroused much interest in social gerontology and family studies in the last quarter century (e.g., Brody & Brody, 1989; Logan & Spitze, 1995; Silverstein & Parrott, 2001); yet, the norms of filial obligation that guide these supportive behaviors are not well understood. The purpose of this investigation was to examine developmental, historical, and generational dynamics in the endorsement of filial norms toward older adults. Specifically, we examined the strength with which adult children are expected to be responsible for the care of their aging parents, and how this value changes across the life span, over several decades of historical time, between successive generations, and in relation to one's generational position in one's family.

Filial responsibility for assisting older parents is an aspect of the broader concept of norms of familism-attitudes about the centrality or primacy of family life (Parrott & Bengtson, 1999). As a social norm, filial responsibility reflects the generalized expectation that children should support their older parents at times of need (Cicirelli, 1988,1990). More than an expectation of one's own behavior, norms of filial responsibility refer to the recognized duties and obligations that define the social role of adult children with respect to their aging parents. Although expressed norms are predictive of personal intentions to provide support and the supportive behaviors themselves (Bromley & Blieszner, 1997; Peek, Coward, Peek & Lee, 1998; Silverstein & Litwak, 1993), they are conceptually distinct from both intentions and support (Stein et al., 1998). As generalized expectations reflecting underlying value orientations, filial norms are relevant to people at all stages of the adult life span regardless of generational position, including children who have no surviving parents, and individuals who have no children.

At a practical level, however, filial norms may change in response to personal circumstances that affect the ability to provide parental care (e.g., competing demands) or cause one to retroactively attribute supportive behavior to internalized normative values (e.g., providing parental care). Guided by the theory of cognitive dissonance, Finley, Roberts, and Banahan (1988) suggest that generalized filial expectations may be adjusted in an attempt to reconcile the gap between the ideal and what is possible or actual. Thus, in our investigation, we acknowledge and try to capture the subtle distinction between structured and situational aspects of filial norms as they evolve over the life course.

Intraindividual Change in Filial Norms

The literature on filial responsibility as a dynamic process falls along three main lines of thought: (a) life span development, (b) cohort socialization, and (c) life course. …

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