/ Lifecourse Parenting: The Primary Intergenerational Relationship


Viewed as a microcosm of intergenerational relationships at the societal level, the parent-child dyad over the life course is explored through a brief review of research findings in three areas: marital satisfaction and parental well-being, divorce of parent or adult offspring, and co-residence patterns. Implications are considered at the micro and macro levels, and five themes are identified which characterize both the parent-child relationship and intergenerational relationships at the societal level.

Key Words: Intergenerational relationships, family, parenting, adult children, parent education

    1. Selections from this work were presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Council on Family Relations, Arlington, Virginia, November 7-10, 1997.return to text

    2. Barbara Ames is Professor, Department of Family and Child Ecology, College of Human Ecology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824.return to text

    The parent-child dyad is not only the first and primary intergenerational relationship, it is a microcosm of larger society. In this era of rapid social change, many of the challenges of contemporary family life are paralleled as multiple cohorts attempt to shape public policy, share scarce resources, educate and care for one another. These relationships, at both the family and cohort levels, bring not only challenges, but great opportunity for enriching lives and addressing perennial social problems. Although the focus of this paper is on the parent-child dyad across the adult lifespan, it is set in the context of rapid social change and provides themes and implications applicable at multiple levels.

    The quality of intergenerational relationships is affected by the structural circumstances of both parents and children (Umberson, 1992). In an effort to explore some of these circumstances, trends in marital satisfaction and parental well-being, divorce, and co-residence patterns will be reviewed. A second purpose of this paper is to suggest implications within an interdisciplinary framework, focusing on both scholarly application and professional practice. Finally, five broad themes are suggested, which not only characterize and summarize the current state of family intergenerational relationships, but may provide greater understanding of intergenerational relationships at the societal level.

    Parenting is indeed the first and primary intergenerational relationship, and it is unique in its permanence and involuntary nature (Umberson, 1992). If one generalization about parenting over the life course can be made, it is that it is dramatically changing. One source of this change is the duration of the relationship. Women who bear sons at age 25 today are more likely to have those sons alive when they are 80 (87 percent) than women in 1900 were to have their sons survive the first two years of life (82 percent). If that child is a daughter, a higher proportion will have survived at mother's age 90 (86 percent) than survived the first two years in 1900 (Uhlenberg, 19961). In a discussion of the implications of the aging of society, Dychtwald (1989) points out that ten percent of "seniors" have children over 65. These rather startling examples of current longevity illustrate that child-parent relationships spanning 50-plus years are becoming increasingly common (Rossi & Rossi, 1990). Additionally, at least half of these years is often spent with both generations as parents, which influences the nature of the relationship (Hagestad, 1988). Beyond the active parenting years for both generations, the mother-daughter relationship is particularly salient, as they often grow old together, with one or both being divorced or widowed (Wood, Traupmann & Hoy, 1984).

    While demographic factors make sustained relationships possible, economic, historic and social forces shape relationships and give them their unique texture. This combination of longevity and rapid social change also creates unique challenges and opportunities for those actually engaged as parents and adult children as well as educators, practitioners and researchers working with multigenerational families. Due to the complexity of the issues, it is particularly important to take a developmental, life course perspective, taking into account individual and family time and circumstances as well as historical or cohort effects.

    Marital Satisfaction and Parental Well-being

    Relationships with adult children clearly affect parental well-being. In a study of midlife self-evaluation, Ryff, Lee, Essex and Schmutte (1994) point out the link between parents' views of themselves and their perceptions of their children's adjustment. A Canadian study of depression and older parents found that children's problems emerged as a more important predictor of depression than other variables, such as marital status and education, which often are studied in relation to depression and older adults (Pillemer & Suitor, 1991). Perhaps suggesting a sense of purpose in a productive social role, a contrasting study found that providing support to children reduced depression associated with being unmarried in later life. Further, no evidence was found that parents are distressed by serving the needs of their adult children (Silverstein, Chen & Heller, 1996). Although inconclusive, a clear pattern of parents caring about their adult children emerges from these studies.

    Marital satisfaction and circumstances also affect and are affected by parent-child relationships. Rossi and Rossi (1990) found a significant relationship between parental marital happiness and adult child marital happiness. Children's circumstances also are reflected in a study of marital satisfaction during the leaving home transition in which the strongest child-related predictor of parental dissatisfaction was the number of returns the "launched" child made to the parental home (Mitchell & Gee, 1996).

    There also are gender differences in the nature of the relationship between parent and adult child and the effect upon marital satisfaction. A study of midlife marital satisfaction reveals that a child's relationship to his/her mother has a significant influence on the mother's marital satisfaction, but the father-child relationship does not predict marital satisfaction (Mitchell & Gee, 1996). Regardless of gender, Connidis and McMullen (1993) found that parents with distant ties to their children are less happy or satisfied with life than are parents with close ties. Interestingly, those adults who are childless by choice do not differ significantly from parents with close ties to their children in life satisfaction, but those who are childless by circumstance are similar to parents with distant relationships with their children.


    Divorce is a more specific and increasingly prevalent issue in family intergenerational relationships. In the case of parental divorce, fathers appear to be particularly vulnerable. Recent divorce has been found to be predictive of reduced contact with young adult children, but only for fathers (Cooney, 1994). Cooney found clear differences in residence patterns by gender, with one in seven young adults having less than monthly contact with nonresident fathers. Similarly, Booth and Amato (1994) found that offspring relationships with fathers appear to be more strongly affected by parental marital quality than relationships with mothers. Providing some contrast, Amato (1994) found support for the salience of the father-offspring relationship. Even after divorce, the father/child relationship affects offspring well-being, and it is an emotional bond rather than level of contact that is related to this well-being.

    Not only is parental gender important, but whether the adult offspring is a son or daughter influences intergenerational relationships in divorced families. Divorce appears to have stronger consequences for opposite sex dyads, with father/daughter relationships most vulnerable and mother/daughter relationships most resilient (Booth & Amato, 1994). Also at risk in adulthood are offspring who were not in their parents custody in earlier years, as parents report less closeness to these adult sons and daughters ( Spitze, Logan, Deane & Zerger, 1994).

    In keeping with the developmental and life course perspective, the years prior to young adulthood strongly influence later relationships with parents. Cooney (1994) found that father-son contact and intimacy directly associated with parents' marital quality during the adolescent years. Retrospective accounts of more general family conflict also are associated with lower levels of intimacy in all but the mother-son relationship. In further analysis, the level of parental support during adolescence is the primary mechanism by which marital quality/divorce influences parent/child relationships in later life (Booth & Amato, 1994).

    Intergenerational relationships are affected not only by parental divorce, but also by offspring divorce. Although little is known about the parents of divorced children (Hagestad, 1988), approximately half of parents over 60 who have an ever-married child have experienced a child's divorce (Spitze, et al., 1994). This is clearly a salient issue, and one that is unique to this cohort of parents. Despite the prevalence of divorce and the disruption it can cause, Spitze, et al. found that an adult child's divorce has selective and small influence on relationships, especially with daughters. They suggested that a process of "role budgeting" is used, in which parents decide how to allocate attention and help each child, taking neediness into account.

    Co-Residence Patterns

    Similar to helping patterns in families of divorce, neediness comes into play in intergenerational co-residence patterns. Historical patterns of co-residence reflect adult children staying in the parental home or returning home in response to parental or family need (Hareven, 1994; Ward, Logan & Spitze, 1992). However, today it is primarily the adult offspring's characteristics and needs which predict co-residence patterns. In a review of co-residence beliefs in contemporary society, Alwin (1996) points out that despite the objective census trend toward more independent households, there is a trend toward endorsing co-residence, particularly among younger cohorts.

    In keeping with the pattern of support for co-residency among younger adults, there is little support for the common belief that elder dependency is prevalent in co-residing families. Ward, et al. (1992) found that the incidence of co-residing with an adult child was higher for midlife parents than for those over age 70, although it is estimated that one in seven parents over 65 still has children living at home (White & Rogers, 1997). Further, parent characteristics such as health, marital status, and employment had little bearing on residence patterns.

    It is actually characteristics of the child and the parental home, rather than those of the individual parent that predict co-residency (Aquilino, 1990). Co-residence is most likely if the adult child is unmarried and if the parental home has not been altered due to divorce or remarriage 2(White & Rogers, 1997). A single parent home increases the probability of both sons and daughters leaving home to independent living, and crowding is a positive incentive for leaving (Aquilino). Interestingly, norms for leaving home become less clear as fewer young adults leave home for marriage and more leave to independent living, which is a much more nebulous role (Buck & Scott, 1993; Settersten & Hagestad, 1996).


    The parent-child relationship is clearly salient across the life course as midlife and older parents support and influence the well-being of their children and as adult sons and daughters continue to affect their parents in a myriad of ways. Given the importance and the complexity of this relationship, family advocates, practitioners, educators and scholars must unite in a holistic, life course approach. Increasing involvement in the public policy arena is critical, and the message must be conveyed that "family" policy which focuses solely on the childbearing and early childrearing years and then simply skips to "problems" of frail elders ignores many decades of family life (Arcus, 1995). Similarly, Moen and Forest (1995) point out that policy makers must appreciate both the explicit and the implicit (perhaps unintended) consequences of policy. For example, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) covers only those who work for employers of over 50 workers. However, the majority of women, whether mothers or daughters, work for small employers. The FMLA is generally considered legislation for child and elder care, but a life course perspective considers the long span of middle years during which many normative and nonnormative events requiring family leave take place.

    Another concern that necessitates a united approach among scholars, practitioners and educators is the special circumstances of ethnic and racial minorities, limited resource families and other marginalized groups. Ethnic minorities have lower survival rates, more chronic illness and less preventive care, which decreases the potential for reciprocal relationships in adulthood. The needs of those with multiple families or births outside marriage, adoptive families and parents with adult children with special needs also must be addressed. As longevity for the disabled increases, de-institutionalization continues, and expenses continue to rise, older parents are assuming greater responsibility for their dependent adult children (Giordano, 1988).

    The inherent strengths and vulnerabilities of gender also must be addressed. Although women generally have stronger ties and more kinkeeping skills, their longer life expectancy is a paradox. On the one hand, these years provide the opportunity to develop and nurture a variety of enduring, complex intergenerational relationships. On the other hand, women must often stretch meager financial resources and are more likely to have nonlethal chronic illnesses (Arber & Ginn, 1991). These factors may limit their ability to engage in reciprocal intergenerational relationships in the later years. As discussed in relation to divorce, men are vulnerable for different reasons. They have fewer lifelong kinkeeping skills and are more likely to face isolation as a result of earlier family circumstances. However, positive trends suggest that males may be less likely to be isolated as later life fathers as they take on more nurturing roles in young families. Similarly, as women have improved income, education and health, it is more likely that the mother-child relationship can be reciprocal until the end of life.

    Due to this diversity and complexity of parent-child dyads, family life educators and practitioners must develop outreach strategies which are appropriate, relevant and accessible. A first step is to assist younger parents in recognizing the long range implications of current practices and circumstances. A second step is recognizing that parent education for older adults is a unique challenge because there are few norms for these relationships, and each is very individual. As time passes, both individuals and intergenerational dyads become more complex, and educators, researchers and practitioners have less theoretical and practical knowledge and resources on which to draw. Clearly it is easier to address parenting toddlers than parenting young or midlife adults.

    Accessible and relevant outreach is an issue when traditional settings such as child care or schools have been outgrown as mechanisms for reaching parents. Perhaps one setting is the workplace, particularly in midlife. As more progressive workplaces address work and life issues, lifespan parenting concerns could be included in programming. The workplace could be a comfortable and appropriate place to target men for supportive programming in ways that would appeal uniquely to male audiences. Innovative, accessible and appropriate use of technology such as informative web pages, on-line support and electronic mail systems also may have particular appeal to this difficult to reach group. Additionally, those who have traditionally served older populations such as AARP and Area Agencies on Aging may wish to pursue programming focused on parent-adult child issues beyond the traditional "burden of caregiving" focus.

    Summary and Themes

    Five themes emerge which characterize the parent-child relationship over the life course. These themes summarize this discussion of parenting as the primary intergenerational experience as well as reflect cohort relationships at the societal level. The first is Dependence/Independence, which is a consistent theme across human development. The protracted process of adult children leaving home and the continued support provided by parents to their children throughout adulthood is coupled with increased longevity and potential disability on the part of parents. It is paradoxical that our socialization is generally in a paradigm of independence, as we often define maturity for young adults and "successful" aging for older adults in these terms. On the contrary, there is considerable need for and evidence of existing interdependence across the generations, and that mode must be encouraged at all levels.

    A second theme is Change/Continuity. Of necessity, change must be a focus of intergenerational relationships, driven not only by a rapidly evolving society, but also by increasing longevity and the sheer length of parent/child roles. However, significant continuity also is evident. This continuity is reflected in parents providing sustained support to their children over the life course despite both normative and nonnormative events and children caring for aging parents in unprecedented numbers. As Aldous and Klein (1991) note, "families continue as organizations, in part because parents and children are joined in sentimental ties and these ties can override other factors." (p. 605).

    The third emerging theme is Universality/Diversity. A considerable body of literature as well as the human experience itself speaks to the universality of the parent-child bond. However, there also is tremendous diversity in support patterns, geographic proximity and mobility, emotional closeness, communication and a host of other family characteristics. One thing is certain. This diversity will continue as longevity increases, ethnic and racial diversity continues to rise and families" are reconfigured in a host of new ways.

    The fourth theme is Vulnerability/Tenacity. Longevity is a double edged sword. More time together provides the generations with multiple opportunities to grow together and experience life events in common, such as parenting and grandparenting. These common experiences may increase understanding and enrich relationships. At the same time, the sheer longevity of relationships makes them vulnerable to the many changes that come with the passage of time at both the family and societal levels.

    The final theme is Predictability/Ambiguity. Parenting in the middle and later years does not have its own set of normative events. The leaving home transition is particularly ambiguous and protracted, and the "empty nest stage" is unprecedented in history. On the other hand, humans seek predictability, and parent/child relationships over the life cycle display patterns as reflected in the themes described herein.

    Philosophers, theologians, politicians and others are replete with reminders that families are a reflection of societal well-being. In reality, the family-society interface is complex, dynamic and reciprocal. It is imperative that family scholars and practitioners in an aging society address this new, normless frontier in which children and their parents relate for many decades. Perhaps in studying families, lessons will be learned that can be applied to societal intergenerational issues such as caring for and valuing persons of all ages and using increasingly scarce resources equitably. At both the family and societal levels, young and old alike would benefit from these lessons.


    Aldous, J. & Klein, D. (1991). Sentiment and services: Models of intergenerational relationships in mid-life. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 53, 595-608.

    Alwin, D. (1996). Coresidence beliefs in American society 1973- 1991. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58, 393-403.

    Amato, P. (1994). Father-child relations, mother-child relations, and offspring psychological well-being in early adulthood. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 56, 1031-1042.

    Aquilino, W (1990). The likelihood of parent-adult child coresidence: Effects of family structure and parental characteristics. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 52, 405-419.

    Arber, S. & Ginn, J. (1991). Gender and later life. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

    Arcus, M. (1995). Advances in family life education: Past, present and future. Family Relations, 44, 346-354.

    Booth, A. & Amato, P. (1994). Parental marital quality, parental divorce, and relationship with parents. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 56, 21-34.

    Buck, N. & Scott, J. (1993). She's leaving home: But why? An analysis of young people leaving the parental home. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 55, 863-874.

    Connidis, I. & McMullin, J. (1993). To have or have not: Parent status and the subjective well-being of older men and women. The Gerontologist, 33 6, 30-636.

    Cooney, T. (1994). Young adults' relations with parents: The influence of recent parental divorce. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 56, 45-56.

    Giordano, J. (1988). Parents of the baby-boomers: A new generation of young-old. Family Relations, 37, 411-414.

    Hagestad, G. (1988). Demographic change and the life course. Family Relations, 37, 405-410.

    Hareven, T. (1994). Aging and generational relations: A historical and life course perspective. Annual Review of Sociology, 20, 437-461.

    Mitchell, B. & Gee, E. (1996). "Boomerang kids" and midlife parental marital satisfaction. Family Relations, 45, 4442-448.

    P. & Forest, K. (1995). Family policies for an aging society: Moving to the twenty-first century. The Gerontologist, 35, 825-830.

    Pillemer, K. & Suitor,J. (1991). "Will I ever escape my children's problems?" Effects of adult children's problems on elderly parents. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 53, 585-594.

    Rossi, A. & Rossi, P. (1990). Of human bonding: Parent-child relations across the life course. NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

    Ryff, C., Lee, Y., Essex, M., & Schmutte, P. (1994). My children and me: Midlife evaluations of grown children and of self. Psychology and Aging, 9, 195-205.

    Settersten, R. & Hagestad, G. (1996). What's the latest? Cultural age deadlines for family transitions. The Gerontologist, 36, 178-188.

    Silverstein, M., Chen, X., & Heller, K. (1996). Too much of a good thing? Inter-generational social support and the psychological well-being of older parents. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58, 970-982.

    Spitze, G., Logan, J., Deane, O., & Zerger, 5. (1994). Adult children's divorce and intergenerational relations. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 56, 279-293.

    Uhlenberg, P. (1996). Mortality decline in the 20th Century and supply of kin over the life course. The Gerontologist, 36, No. 5, 681-685.

    Umberson, D. (1992). Relationships between adult children and their parents: Psychological consequences for both generations. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 54, 664-674.

    Ward, R., Logan, J., & Spitze, G. (1992). The influence of parent and child needs on coresidence in middle and later life. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 54, 209-221.

    White, L. & Rogers, 5. (1997). Strong support but uneasy relationships: Coreresidence and adult children's relationships with their parents. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 59, 62-76.

    Wood, V., Traupmann, J., & Hoy, J. (1984). Motherhood in the middle years: Women and their adult children. In G. Baruch and J. Brooks-Gunn (Eds.), Women in midlife. NY: Plenum.