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Filial Responsibility

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).


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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodFilial Responsibility - Why Is The Issue Pertinent?, Filial Responsibility Laws, Filial Responsibility Expectations, Filial Responsible Behavior