Nowadays, we observe a strong and rewarding relationship between children and their parents; the generational conflict such as the one seen in the sixties and seventies of the last century seems to have vanished. Nevertheless, the quality of relationships can suffer under tensions caused by different values and norms. A study in the US state of Massachusetts researched mother-child dyads and looked more intensively at 64 mothers who reported estrangement from at least one of their children. The authors defined the relationship as estranged when mothers reported on having no contact with the child – either face-to-face or via telephone – in the last month, or having contact of any type but less than once a month.

Do norms or values matter? To answer this, the researchers used following indicators for measurement: The similarity of values was measured by asking the mothers to describe to which degree was their children’s global outlook similar to their own. Norm violation was measured by looking at the children’s problems with drinking or drugs and with the law in adulthood. No major crimes occurred in the sample.

Though the authors controlled for family size, race and depression, no significant correlation between these indicators and estrangement was found.

Only one indicator on the mothers’ side showed significant results: married mothers were less likely to have one estranged child than widowed or single mothers.

The remarkable overall result was that values did have influence, whilst the norms did not: When there was a strong dissimilarity between mothers’ global outlooks to those of their adult children estrangement was likely to occur, whereas no such correlation was found in the dissimilarity of norms accepted by the mothers and those accepted by their adult children.

This qualitative study allowed the researchers to look deeper into the correlation. Mothers explicitly placed higher importance to their values and less to societal norms, and tolerated a violation of norms as long as the values were similar.  Fathers’ relationships to their adult children was not under study in this research.


What do the results mean?

In my opinion the results are very much ”american“ in the sense that the dominance of values over societal norms might occur in a rather individualistic and pluralistic society where the single person counts more than the society as a whole. I doubt that in collective societies as in, for instance, the Chinese society, the results would be the same.

Qualitative interviews also show that religious values were often very important to the mothers:  This fact is likely to be found in a less secularized society such as the United States where religion plays a more important role than in, for instance, Europe. We should therefore avoid generalization of the results and their application across the world.

A further explanation more related to sociological theory can also be offered: We always observe a gap between the values and the norms, and although we usually assume that people behave according to their values, this is not true. People sometimes express opinions without following them in everyday behavior. One example within family sociology can be offered, namely that although there is a great prevalence of fathers participating equally in parenthood activities in Europe, the practice still shows a discrepancy.

Although limited to a specific society, the study shows that emotional relations, a consensus view of reality and a very diffuse but consistent feeling of belonging matter more than deeds.


Source: Gilligan, Megan; Suitor, J. Jill & Pillemer, Karl. Estrangement Between Mothers and Adult Children: The Role of Norms and Values. Journal of Marriage and Family 77, 908 – 920.

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