A new study in the Journal of Marriage and Family examines a trend that journalists, financial advisers, and older parents have known about for some time: These days, many parents provide financial and other forms of support to their sons and daughters well after they turn 18. The researchers found that richer parents offer more financial support than poorer ones; however, parents of lower socioeconomic status (SES) give their adult children more of several kinds of intangible support, and on other measures parental SES does not seem to matter.
A group of scholars led by Karen L. Fingerman of the University of Texas at Austin used data from the Family Exchanges Study on some 600 Philadelphia-area parents between the ages of 40 and 60 who had at least one child over age eighteen. The parents answered questions about how often they provided their kids with many types of support: financial, practical, emotional, and technical support; advice and companionship; and listening to them talk about daily life. Parents also noted the amount of money they gave each adult child, whether each child lived in their household, and (in cases in which the adult child had children) whether and how often they provided child care.
Few of the findings are surprising. For instance, Fingerman et al. discovered that "parents who had higher incomes or better education gave more material resources to the average offspring than lower SES parents," though prior research has found that rich and poor parents give similar proportions of their income to adult children. (A third study suggests that in working-class and poor families, financial support sometimes flows in the opposite direction: from adult children to their parents rather than vice versa.) Higher-SES parents also listened to their children talk about daily life more often. By contrast, less educated parents are more likely to live in the same household as an adult child, and "there were no significant differences by parental SES in provision of practical support, emotional support, advice, companionship, or in parental child care."
Fingerman and her coauthors delved more deeply into why higher-SES parents can support their children more. Specifically they looked at "parental resources (i.e., hours at work, financial problems, marital status), family competition for support (i.e., family size, presence of children under age 18, caregiving for an aging parent), and offspring situations eliciting support (i.e., student, marital and parental status, age, and life problems)." It turned out that three factors "were significantly associated with overall support to the average grown child in a family: (a) marital status (married parents gave more), (b) smaller family size, and (c) having a child under age 18."
Why would marriage matter so much? Citing earlier studies, the authors note that "Marriage to the child's other parent may increase shared investment in the child as well as fostering more resources to distribute... Married parents share a generational stake in their grown children and also may support one another and thus have greater emotional reserves to assist grown children. Likewise, married parents may be more economically secure."
Presumably, in almost all cases, adult children benefit from having their parents' practical and emotional support, and such support doesn't have to take a major toll on parents' time and energy. The issue of financial support is more complicated. Media coverage of the phenomenon often raises the question of whether the well-intended help is actually harming both parties. A Bloomberg News story entitled "Your Kids Are Ruining Your Retirement," for example, quoted policy analyst Pamela Villarreal warning that “The more boomers put out for adult kids, the less they can put aside for themselves, which is scary as they live longer and need savings to last them into their 80s and 90s.” Financial advisers quoted in the same article say overly generous parents are preventing their kids from learning how to live on a budget. The Wall Street Journal has issued similar cautions against financing adult children’s "self-destructive behavior."
I doubt that the vivid examples that journalists cite are at all common—how many parents could even afford to give their grown children enough money to cover not just rent but regular manicures?—but for parents with adult kids, those concerns are at least worth keeping in mind.