Affection, Social Contact, and Geographic Distance between Adult Children and Their Parents

By Lawton, Leora; Silverstein, Merril et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 1994 | Go to article overview

Affection, Social Contact, and Geographic Distance between Adult Children and Their Parents


Lawton, Leora, Silverstein, Merril, Bengtson, Vern, Journal of Marriage and Family


This study investigates the following questions: whether greater affection between adult children and their parents leads to more social contact, whether frequent social contact leads to greater affection, or whether each of these mutually influences the other. Using nationally representative data collected in 1990 by the American Association of Retired Persons, we examine predictors of each dimension of solidarity and then estimate a causal model that tests the indirect and reciprocal influence among these dimensions. After finding a reciprocal influence between contact and affection in the mother-child relationship, but not in the father-child relationship, we conclude that the motivations for contact are different in adult-child relations with mothers compared to those with fathers. These differences are important for understanding the consequences of family disruption for intergenerational solidarity in adulthood. Also, parallels are drawn between parent-child relationships and voluntary friendships.

Over the last decade, research on family relations has increasingly taken a multidimensional approach to studying adult intergenerational relationships, focusing on frequency of visits and phone calls, helping behavior, geographic distance between generations, and, more recently, the affection that one generation has for another. Each dimension of family relations is further interconnected with the others in ways that affect the well-being of both generations. For example, geographic mobility increases physical distance between generations, impeding the exchange of social and instrumental support (Dewit, Wister, & Burch, 1988; Litwak & Kulis, 1987). Additionally, because the dimensions are interconnected, the social forces that influence one dimension of the family relationships will indirectly influence the others. Changes in family structure, such as the increase in divorce and remarriage, may thus alter the functioning of intergenerational relationships by reshaping access to family members (Furstenberg, 1981, 1988). Therefore, a more accurate knowledge concerning parent-child relationships can be gained by considering the interrelated and mutually reinforcing dimensions as a system. In this article, we consider the mutual impact of affection, contact, and distance.

A question arising in discussions about parent-child relations in later life is: Does greater affection lead to more frequent visiting, does more frequent visiting lead to greater affection, or does each of these mutually influence the other? Despite its theoretical plausibility and relevance to a more accurate interpretation of parent-child interactions in adult life, this question has remained unanswered. We address this question by examining three dimensions considered key to understanding the nature of adult parent-child relationships: affection, frequency of social contact, and geographic distance. First, we investigate each dimension of solidarity independently and then we develop a causal model to understand the interconnections among these dimensions, specifically how they mediate and reciprocally influence each other.

BACKGROUND

The literature on intergenerational family relations is generally sanguine about the state of intergenerational relationships in the contemporary family. Studies find that despite fears of mass alienation and abandonment, the vast majority of parents visit or speak once a week or more with at least one child (Shanas, 1979) and most live within an hour of one child (Lawton, Silverstein, & Bengtson, in press). Also, aging parents can and do rely on their children to provide caregiving and other forms of assistance (Brody & Schoonover, 1986).

In spite of the generally optimistic tone of these conclusions, there are substantial sources of variation in the quality of intergenerational relations. For instance, while the level of affection between parents and children is generally high, it is weakened in the case of parental divorce, especially between divorced fathers and their children (Cooney & Uhlenberg, 1990; Lawton, 1990). …

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