The Matrilineal Tilt in the Support of Adult Children

07.27.2010, 10:50 PM

It takes a marriage to keep a father investing in his biological children. A mother will keep investing in her biological children no matter what. Of course, there are exceptions to this sociological rule. But, on average, men are much more likely to invest–financially, emotionally, and otherwise–in their biological children when they are married to the mother of their children, whereas women tend to invest in their biological children no matter what their marital status.

A new study in Social Forces, which explores the financial implications of the divorce revolution on parental financial support of adult children, provides more evidence in support of this rule. Sociologists Shelley Clark and Catherine Kenney point out (a) that the divorce revolution has dramatically reshaped the character of intergenerational family ties and (b) that women now have a lot more income and assets of their own to share with their adult children.

You put these two facts together and you find that, in the wake of a divorce, fathers who remarry are much less likely to support their adult children than divorced mothers who remarry or remain single. (Interestingly, divorced fathers who remain single [and few do] support their children at a slightly higher rate than divorced mothers who remain single or remarry.) So, the bottom line here seems to be that the flow of the father’s money is influenced much more by his marital status, whereas the flow of the mother’s money is influenced much more by her biological relatedness to the child. Note: children are most likely to receive financial support from their parents when they remain married to one another.

Another point fleshed out by this study: stepmothers appear to steer less money to their stepchildren, whereas stepfathers appear to allow their money to flow to their stepchildren. Once again, when it comes to parenthood, marriage trumps for men, whereas blood trumps for women.

Finally, this study provides more evidence that as marriage breaks down, the U.S. is seeing what sociologist Frank Furstenberg has called a “matrilineal tilt”. That is, children who experience divorce or single parenthood typically end up relying much more on mom than dad. In this case, the adult children of divorce generally can depend more on mom than dad when they need a financial helping hand.


2 Responses to “The Matrilineal Tilt in the Support of Adult Children”

  1. David T says:

    Thanks for this. So many divorcing men that I’ve know believed that they’ll always love their kids. But when they don’t live in the same home, the feelings fade, no matter how hard the men try to preserve them.

    It is difficult to compare children raised in father-only homes to those raised in mother-only homes. Typically, dad only gets custody when mom is very troubled (drugs, poor mental or physical health.) So you write “women tend to invest in their biological children no matter what their marital status.” Is that still true of women who no longer have custody? My recollection is that non-custodial moms have a poorer record of paying child-support than non-custodial dads.

  2. Alana S. says:

    and kids coming into adulthood during the Great Recession need money to survive, and can’t always find a job that covers all the bills.

    Then what do they do if they have no parents to subsidize?
    Beg, borrow, steal? Submit to poverty?