Family Loyalty

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Family Loyalty

Family loyalty refers to the feelings of mutual obligation, commitment, and closeness that exist among family members (e.g., parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, siblings). This devotion or allegiance to one's family has been examined primarily with reference to social support or assistance from children to parents in later life (Burr and Mutchler 1999; Stone 1991). Specifically, studies have focused on measures of filial obligation (Ishii-Kuntz 1997; Hamon and Blieszner 1990; McGrew 1991; Sung 1995) and intergenerational solidarity or reciprocity (Bengston and Roberts 1991; Bengtson and Schrader 1982) to further understandings of loyalty within the context of the family.

In addition, much of the research on loyalty has been undertaken with Hispanic or Asian families, both in North America and abroad (Cortes 1995; Li 1997; Montoro-Rodriguez and Kosloski 1998; Rogler and Cooney 1984; Sung 1998) The focus on these cultural groups makes sense given the central importance of family harmony and solidarity in the traditional value systems of ethnocultural groups within these two populations.

Filial Obligation as an Indicator of Family Loyalty

Filial obligation is a cultural concept that refers to an adult child's sense of duty and commitment to respect and care for his or her parents in later life. This level of commitment or loyalty may vary according to different variables, including cultural context (Burr and Mutchler 1999; Lee and Peek 1999), level of acculturation of the child (Montoro-Rodriguez and Kosloski 1998), the quality of the relationship or emotional closeness between parent and child (Kobayashi 2000), children's resources (Ishii-Kuntz 1997), gender of the child (McGrew 1991), and parent's expectations (Ujimoto 1987).

Adherence to the value of filial obligation, a key indicator of family loyalty, has been examined in the literature on intergenerational co-residence in later-life families. For example, research on the living arrangements of Asian immigrant older adults has fueled the notion that Asian North Americans are more likely to live with family members than are their white counterparts, due to stronger kin networks and stronger filial traditions (Chow 1983; Himes, Hogan, and Eggebeen 1996; Maeda 1983). This conception of Asian North Americans as having ideal or close-knit families is an offshoot of the model minority myth (Ishii-Kuntz 1997), a stereotype that attributes the educational and occupational success of Asian North Americans to their adherence to traditional cultural value systems (Takaki 1989). In the context of family loyalty, the ideal family myth assumes that Asian North Americans, regardless of group or generation, greatly revere older family members and, as such, feel strongly obligated to provide emotional, financial, and service support to their aging parents (Ishii-Kuntz 1997; Osako 1976; Osako and Liu 1986). One of the key ways in which children demonstrate this support is through co-resident living arrangements. Indeed, as recently as 1994, researchers have attributed the prevalence of intergenerational co-residence among married children and older parents to the strong influence of filial obligation (Kamo and Zhou 1994). Co-residence, however, is only an example of behaviorally oriented filial piety and obligation (Sung 1995), and does not provide support for the hypothesis that Asian North American adult children necessarily provide more love and affection (emotionally oriented filial piety/obligation) to their aging parents than adult children in other ethnic groups.

Recent studies examining supportive family networks, coupled with an increased research interest in the translation of filial obligation among younger generations of adult children in Asian countries, have given rise to investigations of the effects of traditional family values on adult children's provision of support to their parents in Asian North American families (Ishii-Kuntz 1997; Kobayashi 2000). Much of the research in this area has been comparative (across Asian-origin groups) and, thus, has not addressed the intracultural diversity in parent-child relationships due to generational differences and immigration experiences (Ishii-Kuntz 1997; Kurzeja et al. 1986). One exception has been Karen Kobayashi's (2000) investigation into continuity and change in older nisei (second generation) parent-adult sansei (third generation) child relationships in Japanese-Canadian families. The study incorporates a life-course approach, with its emphasis on historical, social structural, and cultural influences on the life-course. This approach provides insights into the effects of adherence to traditional Asian value systems on adult children's provision of support to parents in later life and to their feelings of family loyalty.

Solidarity as an Indicator of Family Loyalty

The concept of family solidarity or cohesion, as proposed by Vern Bengtson and his colleagues (1985), has been the source of many intergenerational family relations studies on familism over the past two decades. This view of family relations provides an important framework for understanding the roots of familism—the factors that contribute to the maintenance and/or development of loyalty within families.

Emotional closeness between parents and children and its impact on the quality of the parent-child bond is explored in research into the "intergenerational stake" (Bengtson and Kuypers 1971; Bond and Harvey 1991) and "intergenerational solidarity" (Bengtson and Schrader 1982; Roberts and Bengtson 1990). For example, the intergenerational stake hypothesis explores the cross-generational nature of emotional closeness between parents and children. The hypothesis holds that: (1) parents' descriptions of the relationship will be more positive than children's; and (2) different levels of investment and development may account for these variances in relationship perceptions. The intergenerational solidarity model goes a step further, looking at emotional closeness or "affect" between parents and children as just one of six indicators of solidarity or integration between generations in a family.

In a study examining the relationship between acculturation and family solidarity in Hispanic-American families, Julian Montoro-Rodriguez and Karl Kosloski (1998) find that for two dimensions of attitudinal familism (familial obligation and support from relatives), acculturation is positively related to familism. This means, contrary to assimilationist perspectives on family ties, that as Hispanic Americans become acculturated to the dominant Anglo culture, they continue to maintain and further develop loyalty to their families. That is, familism persists over time despite changes in, for example, language proficiency and preference, and ethnic origin of friends.

Further, Jeff Burr and Jan Mutchler (1999), in a study on ethnic variations and changing norms of filial responsibility among older adults, conclude that older Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than their non-Hispanic white counterparts to concur with the statement that each generation should provide assistance with living arrangements (e.g., coresidence) when needed. The likelihood that this attitude, an indicator of family loyalty, will translate into actual behavior, however, may be, as the solidarity model points out, dependent on a number of other factors, such as the level of emotional closeness between parent and child and the ability of children or parents to provide such support.


Family loyalty is defined primarily in two different ways: (1) as adherence to norms of filial obligation; and (2) as the level of intergenerational solidarity or closeness between the generations in a family. Both of these definitions have been studied within ethnocultural family contexts. Specifically, much of the research on filial obligation has focused on Asian and Asian immigrant families, while other investigations into the development and maintenance of familistic attitudes and behaviors—the foundation for solidarity—have been done with Hispanic immigrants.

One shortcoming of the literature on family loyalty is that it fails to incorporate broader definitions or measures; that is, the research continues to define and measure loyalty according to adult children's levels of filial obligation or as attitudinal or behavioral congruence or similarity between parents and children. Clearly, other intragenerational measures, such as the quality of children's relationship with siblings and the quality of husband-wife relationships, can be used to measure familism.

Finally, to gain a better understanding of family loyalty across ethno-cultural groups, particularly in countries with large immigrant populations like Canada and the United States, it is important to explore the diversity that exists within each group. Future research in this area then should examine the effects of ethnic identity, language spoken in the home, and immigrant status on measures of loyalty within families. Such analyses will provide valuable insights into the nature of loyalty in ethnic minority families.

See also:Familism; Family Strengths; Filial Responsibility


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