Reciprocity in parent-child relations over the adult life course

Merril Silverstein, Stephen J. Conroy, Haitao Wang, Roseann Giarrusso, Vern L. Bengtsor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

334 Scopus citations


Objectives. This research assessed how parents' transfers of sentiment, time, and financial assets to their adolescent/young adult children affect the children's propensity in middle age to provide social support to their aging parents. We tested whether the mechanism of long-term intergenerational exchange is better modeled as a return on investment, an insurance policy triggered by the longevity or physical frailty of parents, or the result of altruistic (or other nonreciprocal) motivations on the part of adult children. Methods. Models were examined with 6 waves of data from the University of Southern California Longitudinal Study of Generations. The sample consisted of 501 children who participated in the 1971 survey and who had at least 1 parent surviving in 1985. Growth curve modeling was applied to predict average levels and rates of change in social support provided to mothers and fathers between 1985 and 1997 as a function of early parental transfers of affection, association, and tangible resources to their children. Results. Children who spent more time in shared activities with their mothers and fathers in 1971 provided more support to them on average. Receiving greater financial support from parents in 1971 raised the marginal rate at which support provided by children increased over time. Maternal health operated synergistically with early affection to produce greater levels of support. Both levels and rates of increase in support from children were positive, even for children who received no early transfers from their parents. Discussion. The results offer some support for investment, insurance, and altruistic models of intergenerational exchange. Sharing time in activities provides a direct return to the parent that is characteristic of an investment strategy, whereas financial transfers provide a time-contingent return that is characteristic of an insurance mechanism. That affection triggers greater support to more functionally impaired mothers suggests that emotionally investing in children as a health insurance mechanism may be based on the greater moral equity accorded to mothers. The motivation of adult children to provide social support to their older parents is partially rooted in earlier family experiences and guided by an implicit social contract that ensures long-term reciprocity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)S3-S13
JournalJournals of Gerontology - Series B Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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