The Nature of Family Ties

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The Rossis made use of Bengtson’s dimensions of family solidarity in

astud y of 323 parents and 287 adult children. Focusing their analysis

on associational, functional, affectional, and consensual solidarity they

found substantial correlations between contact frequency (associational

solidarity) and help exchange (functional solidarity). Also, a relationship

between value consensus (consensual solidarity) and affective closeness

(affectional solidarity) showed up. A lack of connection was found between

contact frequency and value consensus. Apparently, some degree

of interaction is socially expected and occurs regardless of a consensus

about core values among parents and children. Neither was there a substantial

relationship between help exchange and value consensus; help

exchange occurs independently of the subjective feelings of children and

parents toward each other.

The Rossis’ research demonstrates that only two sets of the dimensions

of family solidarity as distinguished by Bengtson show consistent

and substantial correlations: functional solidarity (help exchange) and

associational solidarity (contact frequency), and consensual (value consensus)

and affectional solidarity (affective closeness). That connections

are found between help exchange and contact frequency is somewhat

of a tautology, as was said earlier. Also the relationship between shared

values and mutual affection does not come as a surprise, because having

similar ideas on religious and political matters is an important (though

not necessarily the only or the most important) precondition to mutual

liking and emotional closeness.

The main motivational base for providing assistance to parents or adult

children seems to be internalized norms of obligation. That is probably

the reason why the Rossis devote two chapters of their book to this issue.

The structure of these norms appears to be systematically patterned:

not the type of the kin person but the degree of relatedness of ego to

the various kin types was what mattered most. Children and parents

take priority over all other kin; siblings are the next in the hierarchy of

felt obligations, followed by grandchildren and grandparents. Still less

obligation was felt to nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles.

As to the affectivity dimension the Rossis report evidence of the continuing

effects of early family experiences on current relations between

parents and adult children. Similar characteristics were transmitted from

one generation to the next. For instance, the quality of the parents’ marriage

was echoed in the marital happiness of adult children. A more

global quality of family life – family cohesion – was also transmitted

cross-generationally: happy, cooperative, interesting families tended to

breed families with similar characteristics themselves. Gender remains a

very significant factor in family life. Women keep playing a central role,

not only in the organization of the household and in child rearing but

also in the emotional climate of the family. Value consensus had an important

impact on the affective tone of parent-child relations. Dissensus

in core values (religion, politics, general outlook on life) depressed the

emotional closeness of parents and adult children.

As regards the next dimension, social interaction, the Rossis conclude

that their respondents had widespread access to both their own parents

and to their adult children. Apparently adult children did not move far

away from their parents in most cases. The access profile is reflected in

the contact between generations: from a third to almost half of the adult

children saw a parent at least once a week; one in five adult daughters had

daily phone contact with her mother. Most respondents were satisfied

with this contact frequency and, if they were not, they overwhelmingly

preferred more rather than less contact (often because one feels one

“should” have more contact). Whereas distance represented the major

factor affecting the frequency of interaction between mothers and adult

children, the quality of the relationship with fathers was even more of

an influence than sheer opportunity. Family size, in particular of the

parental generation (the number of children the parents had) but also

of the younger generation (the number of their own children), reduced

social interaction between individual members of different generations.

Accessibility of the generations (Bengtson’s “structural solidarity”) is,

of course, the fundament for both interaction and help exchange. Gender

differences were found, not only in social interaction but also in help

exchange.More women than men had regular contact with their parents,

and the help exchanged between the generations was most extensive in

the mother-daughter relationship. The quality of the emotional bond

between parent and child in the past had continuing direct effects on

the frequency of contact and the amount of help exchanged. The help

parents gave to children tended to be more instrumental (advice, job

leads, money), whereas the help children gave to parents was more personal,

hands-on care giving. Income had a strong impact on help between

generations: the higher the income of parents, the more extensive was the

help they gave to adult children. The exchange of help varied according

to the stage of the life course. Much help was given to young adults; as

the young adults matured, this help diminished, whereas children kept

giving support to their parents. As parents grew older they receivedmore

support, particularly from their daughters. Apparently there is a decline

in the reciprocity in the exchange of support between generations over

the course of life.