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Filial Responsibility

Filial Responsibility


Filial responsibility describes the sense of personal obligation or duty that adult children feel for protecting, caring for, and supporting their aging parents (Schorr 1980). Filial responsibility is evident in both attitudes and behaviors of adult children, frequently finding expression in assistance with household tasks and shopping, maintenance of personal contact, provision of affection and emotional support, shared living arrangements, and help in meeting daily needs. Although typically considered aresponse to immediate demands or crises, filial responsibility also entails an important preventative dimension that promotes independence among older adults. As such, the filial adult child empowers older parents by enabling them to perform the tasks that they are capable of doing for themselves, discouraging premature dependence. This aspect of filial responsibility is enacted when adult children help their parents to acquire new skills, seek novel and enriching life experiences, and disregard negative stereotypes about aging, and also allow their parents to speak for themselves, and respect their parents' self-determination in making decisions that affect their own lives (Seelbach 1984).


Why Is the Issue Pertinent?

Care of dependent older persons is a salient issue around the world for a number of reasons. Not only are more people surviving to old age due to improved medical care, but greater numbers are living into older age when the incidence of health impairments rises dramatically, increasing the likelihood of the need for support and assistance. Social changes and family lifestyle transformations (e.g., more working women, fewer multigeneration households, more nuclear families, urbanization) have also altered the family's ability to assist older members. Given the likelihood that more adult children will encounter the privileges and demands of filial responsibilities, Victor Cicirelli (1988) coined the concept of filial anxiety to capture the "state of worry or concern about the anticipated decline and death of an aging parent as well as worry or concern about the ability to meet anticipated caregiving needs, either prior to any caregiving or during the provision of care and in anticipation of further parental decline and additional needs for care" (p. 478). With a rapidly aging population, the question arises: Should the responsibility for care of older dependent family members lie with the family or be provided by society in general?


Filial Responsibility Laws

Many countries have tried to articulate who is responsible for the welfare of dependent family members via the creation of laws. England's Poor Law of 1601 stated that communities were responsible for meeting the needs of the poor elderly, but only after the resources of adult children were exhausted (Schorr 1980). Although the North American colonies adopted the Poor Laws, the statutes were never really tested. The shift from agrarian-based economies, like those in early North America, to primarily industrial economies led to the possibility that elders would no longer be able to ensure their financial well-being through control of the family farm. Thus, industrialization led to increased independence and individualism, as well as greater vulnerability of dependent elders (Bulcroft, Van Leynseele, and Borgatta 1989).

The interface between private and public sectors for the provision of elder care continues to be defined and shaped by the creation and revision of public policy. For instance, the introduction of the Social Security Act in 1935 in the United States represented a critical federal commitment to the needs of older Americans, decreasing aged persons' dependence on family members. In contrast, however, is the fact that thirty states retain varying types of laws attributing legal responsibilities to the family for the care of elder members. For instance, there is a great deal of variation between the statutes of each state (i.e., definition of need, who is named to support, enforcement procedures, nature of support expected) and the vague and ambiguous language employed, making enforcement difficult, if not impossible (Bulcroft, Van Leynseele, and Borgatta 1989).

Many policies related to the provision of long-term care in the United States offer supplemental assistance to families who are caring for their dependent members, empowering the natural care-givers, who offer their services for free (Bulcroft, Van Leynseele, and Borgatta 1989). Governments often attempt to buttress the family's ability to provide for their elderly by offering such incentives as tax breaks for children who claim their parents as dependents. Another example in the United States is the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 that requires companies with more than fifty employees to grant twelve weeks of unpaid leave per year to any worker requiring time off to care for dependent family members, including parents.

Other countries have also enacted legislative actions and social policies geared toward encouraging filial conduct. China's constitution requires that adult children fulfill their duty to care for aging parents, but the government supplements this aid through public pensions and a state income maintenance program for select elders. Although state programs are increasingly important in enhancing the well-being of elders, expectations from children for support in old age still predominate. This is especially true in rural areas where children, particularly sons, forfeit their right to inherit family property if the obligation to parents is neglected (Pei and Pillai 1999). In 1973, South Korea's Ministry of Health and Social Affairs established a Filial Piety Prize. A major event during Respect for the Elderly Week, the prize is awarded to between 150 and 380 of the most filial responsible adult children in Korea each year and serves as one of many incentives for children to provide support to parents (Sung 1990).

In light of the magnitude of the needs required by a growing number of dependent elders, families and governments will benefit from a collaborative approach to meeting the demands. Research on filial responsibility expectations provides some clues as to how government programs can best interface with families in meeting needs of aging members.


Filial Responsibility Expectations

Filial responsibility encompasses attitudes that endorse certain responsibilities or obligations that adult children should assume in addressing their parents' needs and in maintaining their well-being. Researchers examining filial responsibility attitudes have employed a variety of different measures (e.g., vignettes as in Wolfson et al. 1993 and item-scales as in Hamon and Blieszner 1990) with varying sample populations (e.g., grandchildren, college students, elder parents, multigenerational families). Most have also measured filial responsibility expectations in a universal way ("What should children do for parents?"), rather than asking individuals what they expect from themselves or from their own children ("What should my children do for me?") (Lee, Netzer, and Coward 1994a). Some inquire about a few select areas (e.g., shared living arrangements, financial assistance) of filial responsibility, whereas others are more comprehensive in their coverage, including items on instrumental, emotional, and contact norms.

Whether using samples from Canada (Wolfson et al. 1993), the Netherlands (Ikkink, Van Tilburg, and Knipscheer 1999), urban China (Chen and Adamchak 1999), or the United States (Hamon and Blieszner 1990), findings consistently reveal strong and persistent endorsement of filial norms by both adult sons and daughters (Wolfson et al.1993). Greatest support is given to the notion that children should offer emotional support to their parents, with less emphasis placed upon physical assistance and financial support.

Although parents want to maintain their independence and typically do not expect as much from their adult children as children expect from themselves (Hamon and Blieszner 1990; Novero Blust and Scheidt 1988), parents also hope that children will be there for them when called upon to do so. Samples of Floridians and urban Chinese indicated that parents with higher levels of education, more income, and better health have lower filial responsibility expectations (Lee, Netzer, and Coward 1994a; Chen and Adamchak 1999). In addition, parents may alter their expectations of their children (from high to low) depending upon the characteristics of their children (i.e., how many are female and geographical proximity) rather than on their own personal circumstances (Lee, Netzer, and Coward 1994b). For instance, in South Korea, parents place greatest expectations on eldest sons rather than daughters or daughters-in-law (Won and Lee 1999). However, in many Western countries, because older mothers are more likely to be widowed and survive to older ages, they frequently hope to receive more from adult daughters.

Some cultural differences in expectations emerge. Expectations of shared living arrangements may be greater in Asian cultures (i.e., South Korea), where such practices are more common than in Western cultures (Won and Lee 1999). For Filipinos, respect, warmth and affection were the most strongly endorsed expectations, followed by instrumental support (Novero Blust and Scheidt 1988).

Within the United States, research has shown how racial differences affect norms in filial responsibility. Older African Americans expect more help from their adult children than do their white counterparts (Lee, Peek, and Coward 1998). Expectations for intergenerational coresidence and the exchange of financial assistance are greater among older African Americans and older Hispanics than among older whites (Burr and Mutchler 1999).


Filial Responsible Behavior

Many variables influence what children actually do for their parents. For example, aging parents' life situations influence how much and the types of aid they receive. Parents who need greater assistance (e.g., are widowed and/or are in poor health), expect more help from their children, and actively seek that aid, are more likely to receive support than parents who neither expect nor ask for help (Cicirelli 2000; Hamon 1992; Ikkink, Van Tilburg, and Knipschneer 1999; Litwin 1994; Peek et al. 1998). It is interesting that in both the Netherlands and the United States, mothers are more often recipients of aid from their children than are fathers (Ikkink, Van Tilburg, and Knipschneer 1999).

The circumstances of adult children also influence filial role enactment. Filial concern about the well-being of one's parents positively affects children's inclination to provide emotional support and assistance; conversely, recalled negative family relationship histories negatively affect children's concern and subsequent help (Whitbeck, Hoyt, and Huck 1994).

The child's gender also comes into play. Meeting filial obligations appears to be a gendered activity, with more daughters serving as primary providers and carrying the bulk of filial work, although sons do provide care in many cases (Blieszner and Hamon 1992; Hamon 1992; Lee, Dwyer, and Coward 1993; Matthews 1995). Even in Eastern societies like China and South Korea, which have historically emphasized sons' as primarily responsible for parent care, daughters are increasingly providing more of the elder support (Chen and Adamchak 1999). Among siblings, daughters are more likely to assume nurturing roles and accept tasks related to personal care or domestic support than are sons (Dwyer and Coward 1991; Matthews 1995). In brothers-only sibling networks, sons tend to wait for parents to tell them when they need assistance, work independently of one another in providing for their parents' needs, perform masculine tasks (e.g., yard work, attending to plumbing problems), employ outside aid, work to restore and promote their parents' independence, and define their filial work as relatively inconsequential (Matthews and Heidorn 1998). In a Canadian sample, however, sons who coreside with aging parents are heavily involved in nontraditional forms of care (Campbell and Martin-Matthews 2000). Regardless of whether sons or daughters are providing care, children tend to provide more support to same-sex parents, especially in the realm of personal-care duties (Campbell and Martin-Matthews 2000).

Children's marital status may affect the amount of participation a child assumes in assisting parents. Married and divorced children may have a more difficult time providing active support to a parent (Cicirelli 1989; Matthews and Rosner 1988) than those who are single.

Full-time employment and number of dependent children in the home significantly reduced the amount of assistance provided by sons, but not that provided by daughters (Stoller 1983). Geographic location understandably affects the enactment of filial responsibility. Children who live close to or coreside with aging parents are more available to oversee and care for their needs (Matthews and Rosner 1988). As a consequence of economic development and industrialization in Taiwan, however, coresidence between elder parents and their adult sons is declining, but economic transfers and financial help between sons and their parents has increased. This shift may be compensating for the fact that young Taiwanese often must reside far from their parents' home in order to work (Chattopadhyay and Marsh 1999).

The number of siblings present within a family system affects the amount and type of support provided to parents by each individual. For example, in situations where two daughters are present, both appear to share equally for the care of their parent. Although joint responsibility occurs frequently in larger sibling groups, filial responsibilities are less likely to be divided equally. Birth order and a parent's relationship with particular children may also affect the enactment of filial responsible behaviors (Matthews and Rosner 1988).


Motivations For Filial Responsibility

There are a number of theoretical explanations for the existence of filial responsibility. Margaret Blenkner (1965) introduced the concept of filial maturity as a unique developmental task of midlife. She observed that a filial crisis occurs when adult children, typically in their forties or fifties, realize that their parents can no longer fulfill the supportive role they once did during economic and emotional hardships and that they must become a reliable source of support for their parents. Corinne Nydegger (1991), on the other hand, believes that the filial role is not the result of a filial crisis, but as the result of gradual change. From her perspective, "filial maturity is a lengthy, complex process, involving children's personal development and their interaction with parents who are also maturing" (p. 107). Although they propose different theories, both views suggest that filial maturity and filial responsibility are the result of a developmental process that occurs during the life course.

Social exchange theory offers another plausible explanation for a strong endorsement of filial norms. According to this theory, human beings are motivated by self-interest and seek to maximize their rewards and minimize the costs that they incur in a relationship. At the same time, the theory asserts that relationships are governed by a norm of reciprocity: "one should reciprocate favors received from others." Because parents provide food, shelter, care, supervision, socialization, and other necessities to their offspring, children should protect and attend to their parents' emotional and material needs when they experience illness and/or are debilitated (Nye 1979). In some cultures, children might even perform rituals for deceased parents in order to contribute to their wellbeing in the spirit world. Thus, over the life course intergenerational transactions should produce fairly equitable exchanges. Adult children whose own parents were good to them but who fail to feel responsible for maintaining the well-being of aging parents would likely encounter a number of costs (e.g., guilt, social disapproval), whereas those who do acknowledge their part in the interdependent relationship with parents might encounter rewards (e.g., satisfaction, inheritance, affection, gratitude). Some scholars believe that it is impossible for children to restore balance, to ever fully and adequately repay their parents. A sense of indebtedness (Seelbach 1984) or irredeemable obligation (Berman 1987) to parents persists, even in social exchange, because parents give first, voluntarily, and spontaneously. Subsequent gifts, no matter how superior in content, cannot match the first gift. Research by Gary Lee and his colleagues (1994) supports a reciprocity effect: there is a tendency for parents who expect more from their children to also give more to their children. Likewise, those who give more to their children, receive more from them.

Attachment theory poses another explanation for the endorsement of filial norms. The existence of an internal state of attachment, an emotional or affectional bond that adult children have for parents, prompts them to remain in contact and communication with parents, protecting them from harm (Cicirelli 1989; 1993). Thus, a sense of filial responsibility is the result of friendship, mutuality, and positive feelings for one's parents rather than a sense of debt or obligation (English 1979).

A related explanation is that children are inclined to care for aging parents out of a moral imperative to do so. Children may perceive that filial norms are morally expected, and demonstrate appropriate or correct behavior toward one's parents. Such beliefs may be rooted in the Judeo-Christian commandment to "honor thy father and thy mother" (Exodus 20:12). In Jerusalem, for instance, the greater the religious observation of the care-giver, the stronger the sense of filial responsibility (Litwin 1994). In many Asian cultures, Confucian moral principles provide a strong ideological basis for filial piety and status of elders as well. Accordingly, filial piety demands that children should love, respect, and serve their parents. The importance of respect and warmth for elders is reflected in the language of Asian cultures (See Ingersoll-Dayton and Saengtienchai 1999). Utang na loob (Philippines), Bunkhun, (Thailand), and xiao (China) respectively refer to the respect, gratitude, and obligation that children should feel toward parents and serves as the basis for the provision of parent care. In fact, among a sample of exceptionally filially responsible children in South Korea, respect for parents was the most important motivator for providing filial support. Respect was indicated by "treating parents with unusual deference and courtesy, showing exceptionally earnest and sincere consideration for the parent, [and] showing extraordinary honor and esteem for parent" (Sung 1990, p. 613).

Children may adopt a responsible filial role because of socialization. Most adults acknowledge filial norms, yet filial expectations are not always explicitly delineated in terms of the appropriate or acceptable levels of support and assistance adult children are expected to afford their parents, particularly in light of other role demands (e.g., spouse, parent, employee) (Donorfio and Sheehan 2001). Nonetheless, even though such norms may vary across families, depending upon such things as cultural, racial, or ethnic influences, family structure; socioeconomic status differences; level of embeddedness in social networks; degree of traditionalism; varying geographic locations; and the sense of obligation for one's aging parents persists (Johnson 1996). In South Korea, family harmony, public recognition, and praise from neighbors are all valued outcomes of filial conduct, and as such, are effective incentives for filial role enactment (Sung 1990). Hilary Graham (1983) asserted that women are socialized to care to the extent that it becomes a defining characteristic of their identity and life work. It is through caring that "women are accepted into and feel they belong in the social world" (p. 30), particularly in capitalistic and male-dominated societies. Because women are socialized as kinkeepers, nurturers, and domestic laborers in families, it is not particularly surprising to find that daughters are more likely than sons to be principal caretakers of parents or at least receive more credit for such family work (Blieszner and Hamon 1992; Matthews 1995).


See also:Adulthood; Caregiving: Informal; Conflict: Parent-Child Relationships; Elder Abuse; Elders; Family Loyalty; Family Roles; Grandparenthood; In-Law Relationships; Intergenerational Relations; Later Life Families; Sandwich Generation; Social Exchange Theory; Widowhood


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raeann r. hamon

keli r. whitney

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