Do adults owe their parents anything?
The welfare state has set us free, so we no longer have any obligations to our parents after we turn 18. So what can family members expect of one another when the legal obligations stop?
When you’re 18, you have no ties that bind you. You are free to do as you wish: you can move out of your parents’ place, get a driver’s licence and you can even vote in elections.
In Scandinavia, the state pays your education costs, and in principle there is nothing that ties you to your parents. In fact, you don’t really need to see them ever again.
But you probably do. There’s even a good chance that you maintain a healthy relationship with your parents throughout your life.
”Although adult generations have no legal obligations to one another in Denmark, that does not mean that we no longer have any family responsibilities when we grow up. The parent-child relationship continues to be something special,” says Bella Marckmann, an assistant professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen.
The moral economy of families
In a new research project, titled ‘The Moral Economy of Families – Intergenerational Exchanges and Normative Expectations’, she has set out to study the unwritten expectations that generations have of one another in the Danish welfare state.
She explains that there are no written or oral rules that dictate what we should do for our parents, or what they can demand of us, once we have become adults.
”In the Western World we live longer and we have fewer children. One of the consequences of this is that we are adults with our parents for a longer period. For the majority of your life you are an adult, you have living parents and perhaps also grown-up children,” says Marckmann.
“So we need to find new ways of being grown-up together for a longer period. I am interested in finding out how Danish families maintain their relations when they have turned into several generations of adults, and what they expect of one another.”
Family is important to Danes
My objective is to find out if there are general standards and norms that all Danes can adhere to when it comes to the family, or whether there are special features that characterise different social classes and their relationships to their families.
In the latest major European Values Survey, from 2008, in which researchers interviewed citizens in 47 European countries, Danes specified the family as their most important value. The importance of the family has been on a steady increase for Danes since the first European Value Survey in 1981 (see Factbox).
”The family is important, but we have no clear-cut rules for how we should relate to one another. There are also no legal or financial obligations, unlike in other countries where parents pay for their adult children’s university education, or where the children have to support their parents when they get too old to support themselves,” says Marckmann.
Sociologists focus on families with dependent children
In her study, Marckmann will be looking for recurring patterns in Danish family relations after the children have left home.
”Danish sociologists have traditionally focused on families with children and what happens while the children are living at home with their parents. There has not been much focus on what happens after they leave home,” she says.
The European Values Survey is a large-scale, cross-national, and longitudinal survey research program on how Europeans think about family, work, religion, politics and society.
Repeated every nine years in an increasing number of countries, the survey provides insights into the ideas, beliefs, preferences, attitudes, values, and opinions of citizens all over Europe.
”The prevailing idea has been that the relations to the extended family have lost importance, but studies show that family is still important, both for the individual Dane as well as at the societal level. I am interested in finding out how Danes maintain their family relationships. What do people expect of each other, and when do they disappoint each other?”
Danish morality is situational
Marckmann will make use of the European Value Survey to find out how Danes relate to family members when they grow up. She will then interview around 45 Danes on how they relate to their immediate family.
”My objective is to find out if there are general standards and norms that all Danes adhere to when it comes to the family, or whether there are special features that characterise different social classes and their relationships to their families,” she says.
Her assumption is that the standards vary from one family to another, and that these standards are adjusted depending on specific situations:
“Previous sociological studies suggest that Danes generally favour a situational morality, i.e. that they do not follow a clear-cut set of moral rules, but are more likely to say that it depends on the situation.”
Freedom of the welfare state leads to uncertainty
At this early stage in her project, Marckmann can already see from the survey answers in the European Value Survey that Denmark and Sweden stand out from other European countries when it comes to family relations:
”Most Danes and Swedes who participated in the study said that parents only have an absolute obligation to provide for their children until the children turn 18. In other European countries, and perhaps especially in southern Europe, respondents tend to say that family members have absolute obligations to one another throughout their lives.”
The Scandinavian welfare state provides care for the elderly, childcare and education. This gives individuals the freedom to express themselves and be independent, but it also leads to uncertainty about how one should relate to one’s family, and what family members can expect of each other.
“If you look at questions in the letters pages of magazines, you see that the focus is typically on romantic relationships, but the second-largest category is family relationships and conflicts,” she says.
”This suggests that the more freedom there is in the system, the more room there is for misunderstanding each other because the expectations vary. Maybe the expectations change depending on economic, social and education factors. This is what I will be looking at in my study.”