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Posted 10.18.06


Americans Feel Less Obliged to Assist Stepparents, Study Finds

COLUMBIA, MO - An aging mother needs assistance from her adult child while an ill stepfather also needs help. A University of Missouri-Columbia researcher said that most Americans do not think the obligation for the child to help is the same in both scenarios.

Larry Ganong & Marilyn Coleman."Our study basically confirmed that perceived obligations between kin were seen to be stronger than between step-kin," said Larry Ganong, professor and co-chair of the MU College of Human Environmental Sciences Department of Human Development and Family Studies. "There is a cultural norm that states if you are family then you help each other. In step relationships people have to decide; there is not an automatic conclusion that help should be provided."

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Ganong found that four factors generally apply when individuals are asked about whether or not an adult stepchild should help an aging stepparent: is there a close emotional relationship, what has the stepparent done for the child in the past, how many demands are there on the child's resources, and how much is the stepparent 'in need'?

"If you don't have the automatic kinship norm to fall back on, intergenerational aid between step-kin has to be 'earned.' In genetic relationships, the process is just the opposite. An older parent has the kinship obligation norm to fall back on unless they lose it," Ganong said. "For instance, this can happen to divorced parents who sever ties with their children. Perhaps, 20 years later they need some help, and those children are not going to come through for them because the parents' behavior violated kinship norms and the children therefore feel no obligation to assist."

Reciprocity makes a big difference in the feeling of obligation or willingness to help. Ganong said there has to be a mutual exchange of something (money, favors, love, approval, etc.) between family members in order to form an emotional bond. This holds true in both step and traditional relationships.

One surprising finding, according to Ganong, was that in the national sample, race and ethnicity were rarely related to how study participants felt about the topic of helping older parents and stepparents.

"Stereotypes might suggest that Latinos, Asian Americans, African Americans and Caucasians might feel differently about family obligations; however, we found no major differences," Ganong said.

The study - Patterns of Exchange and Intergenerational Responsibilities after Divorce and Remarriage - was published in the Journal of Aging Studies. It was co-authored by Marilyn Coleman, Curators' professor of human development in the MU College of Human Environmental Sciences.



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