Telephoning, texting, emailing, Skyping, visiting, shopping, sharing a meal, vacationing together, running a 5K, doing home repairs: The ways that parents interact with their adult children range from the mundane to the magical. A family studies professor examined those everyday interactions between parents and adult children and published a survey with some surprising results.
Purdue University Professor Karen Fingerman evaluated how more than 600 parents, ages 40-60, “supported” their individual children, for what reasons and how often. Survey participants rated how often they provided six types of support to each grown child: emotional, practical, socializing, advice, financial, and talking about daily events.
The most common interactions were chatting, offering emotional support, advice, and socializing, such as having dinner together or going to a sport event or movie. And those interactions happened several times a month to almost weekly in some cases.
The key finding, apparent to any mothering21 reader, is that parents interact with adult children much more often and in different ways than previous generations. The surprising finding? That the child receiving the most support was not the youngest or most needy but often the most successful.
We chatted with Dr. Fingerman on the phone earlier this month.
Q. Let’s start with that counter intuitive result: Why do the most successful children—in terms of grades, accomplishments, careers—get the most attention?
There are several reasons. A young adult usually can’t achieve success without parental support so this pattern of support was probably established early in life, perhaps in recognition of special talents or motivation. Also it’s personally rewarding for parents to take pride in the child’s accomplishments. If a child is successful then you as a parent feel good seeing it as a reflection on you.
Q. However less successful children also got support but in different ways.
Children with problems received greater material and practical support, perhaps in an effort to mitigate those problems. By contrast, parents listened to and offered companionship to children they perceived as more successful.
Q. Why are parents offering more support now than in previous generations?
The world is more complicated and it takes longer for children to get a foothold and transition to adulthood. This economy undermines independence: If you can’t get a job, you can’t move out. Jobs are more specialized and require more education and training. Also young people are getting married at later ages.
Q. What kinds of support are most common?
Parents provided listening and emotional support most frequently, about once a week; advice about once a month, and practical and financial assistance from monthly to several times a year.
Q. Could you give some specific examples?
Parents may offer advice about health insurance plans when a child gets a new job or emotional support during the breakup of a relationship. Young adults reported feeling supported when their mothers simply listened to them talk about their day.
Q. What other results were unexpected?
We were very surprised how much adult children enjoy the relationship with parents and how much they like to share their daily lives. For example, they have kids and the kid says something cute. Grandma loves to hear it; friends can only listen so much.
Q. Going back to more support for the most successful children. How does that play out as children and parents age?
The supportive relationships are most likely going to continue along those lines. Middle aged parents don’t get much help from adult children. However the most successful children are most likely to be supportive of parents as they get older
|Types of Support||Percent of Offspring Receiving Help|
|Listening to him/her talk about daily events||93.1|
The study was published in the The Journal of Marriage and the Family, December 2009.