Amy Brainer is an Assistant Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Sociology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. In this blog I interviewed her with three questions about her new book, Queer Kinship and Family Change in Taiwan (2019, Rutgers University Press).

BR: You write that stories about lesbian and gay successes were used both by the social movement for parents of LGBT children and by some of your respondents as well. Can you discuss the ways in which that seemed to have both strengths and weaknesses for your respondents?

AB: Many of the heterosexual parents that I spoke to were worried about the economic implications of being gay or transgender. Social stability and class mobility were major touchstones in our interviews, in support group meetings for parents and for queer and trans young people thinking through family issues, and in other places that parents gathered. These parents viewed normative signs of success, like a college degree and a stable job, as particularly important for children who do not conform in other areas. They used lesbian, gay, and (on rarer occasions) transgender success stories in ways that were often personally empowering but politically limiting. I saw queer and trans activists struggle with this: How to welcome heterosexual family members into the movement without compromising their more radical queer ethics?

In general, we think of normativity as benefiting middle class lesbians and gays, and this is true in Taiwan as in many other places. But, I also caution that it is often middle class and more privileged activists and academics who have the most developed critiques of normativity. We have to be mindful not to create a new stratification system based on how non-normative we manage or espouse to be, because this will end up reinforcing the very class divisions we claim to be trying to dismantle.

BR: It seemed that you attempted to bring together two different literatures, research on gender & sexuality with the research on family change in Taiwan. Did this integration of traditions, and your research itself, provide you with any directions that you’d recommend for studying and working with LGBT families of origin in the future?

AB: Bringing literatures together sounds fantastic in a proposal but tends to be harder in practice. The gaps that exist often reflect larger epistemological and political differences. For example, demographic data are collected by the state for population management and surveillance, and queer theorists are pushing back on this. But knowing something about fertility rates, about patterns in how people create and sustain families or break away from those families, is obviously of great value for those of us who are trying to figure out what is going on with queer populations and how to support them. I think queer scholars and activists can appropriate these data while remaining very critical of methods and frameworks.

In studying and working with families of origin, we cannot simply export models based on U.S. populations to other parts of the world. This is (I hope) an obvious point but one we must continue to make. For example, in my answer above, I noted parents’ economic concerns around sexuality and gender. These are concerns that activists must address if they want to bring parents into the movement. A model that assumes parents’ concerns are primarily moral or religious (as they are for many U.S. parents) is inadequate in this context. As a second example, I point out in the book that research on trans people in families does not consider the effects of gender transition within patrilineal and patrilocal family structures – still among the most common family structures in the world. There are many new directions that open up when we step outside the narrow box of what we already know based on predominately white, western families.

BR: Can you provide some examples of how your standpoint helped shape the research project and the analysis?

AB: Ethnography is such an intimate mode of research and who we are matters a great deal. There are several parts of my biography that I highlight in the book: my race and national origin, my femme sexuality, and my family background and coming out experience. I am white, U.S. born, and employed at a North American university. The unearned privileges that come with these characteristics shaped, for example, my ability to cross borders freely and without fear to do this research and my ability to apply for grants without first checking the citizenship requirements. (The Wenner-Gren, which provided the majority of funding for this project, does not discriminate based on nationality, but many other funding agencies do.) In Taiwan, my outsiderness shaped the ways that people perceived and related to me. For example, many people invited me to spend time with them in their homes, including on holidays and other special occasions. Hospitality can be a barrier to deep understanding because when we are hosting others, we often present only our best. But it can also facilitate understanding – in this case, by giving me a glimpse of everyday family life that I might not have had otherwise.

While I was doing this fieldwork, many people asked me questions about my own family story. I am very close to my family, but our journey around sexuality has been a difficult one, threaded with periods of deep pain. This, too, shaped the research. It opened up my life to my informants in a way that, in certain cases, brought us closer. In other cases, it positioned me as a daughter in need of advice from the heterosexual parents with whom I was spending so much time. It continually reminded me of the emotional labor my informants were doing when they agreed to be interviewed. This whole experience also changed the way I approached the topics of sexuality and gender with my parents. I became more open to hearing their points of view and reasons for acting and feeling as they did. Being an ethnographer gave me tools to listen in a way I had not been able to achieve before. So as much as my biography shaped the research, the research also shaped me and my family relationships.

Amy Brainer is an Assistant Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Sociology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.

Reposted from Psychology Today

Americans live longer than ever before, with life expectancy increasing from 60 to 80 years of age over the 20th Century. Baby boomers are living what sociologist Phyllis Moen calls a Third Act, discovering new ways to experience healthy active years after retirement. With a rapid increase in life expectancy and rising expectations for the quality of life, baby boomers are forging new ways of aging. So what does this mean for sexuality? Are we beginning to see gender equality between the sheets among the aging boomers?

Remember, it was only 40 years ago that women were considered sexually obsolete after menopause (and, many times, even earlier). Men defined their virility by their ability to get and sustain an erection. Today these may seem like ridiculous calculators of age and sexual fitness as both culture and technology has changed the ways we think about sex and gender.

Boomers pioneered the Sexual Revolution of the ‘60s and yet, they did so after having been raised with the sexual script that men pursue and women submit. This permitted men to interpret an awkward “no, thank you” rejection as a possible “yes” in the making. Still, it was a radical shift in our cultural norms for men to be able to take a woman to bed before promising marriage and for women to seek sexual pleasure outside of relationships. After all, the one night stand of the boomer generation precluded the “hook-up culture” of today’s Millennials.

While much misogyny remained, and gender inequality is still a futuristic goal, the boomers did liberate sex from marriage and made the right to sexual pleasure a human right. Now, it appears that boomers must—once again—break the gender rules set by generations before them when it comes to sex after 50.

For men, erectile dysfunction or ED (an inability to get or maintain an erection) can feel emasculating although such physiological changes are actually explained by the biology of aging. Even with the advent of Viagra and Cialis, which are impressively effective at treating erectile issues, research suggests that some men still feel uncomfortable bringing up sexual difficulties with their doctors. And doctors, too, are reluctant to ask patients over 50 about their sexual health due to old stigmas surrounding sex later in life. Gender stereotypes that men are powerful, and always ready for sex, still haunt the boomer men who were raised in an era when talking about sexual problems held negative stigmas. We do see boomer men working around some of these stigmas though, for instance, many men are ordering ED meds via online prescribers like the popular Roman website.

For women, menopause is often cited as the primary culprit affecting their sexual lives. However, research finds that social and psychological factors such as emotional well-being and a strong emotional connection with one’s partner as well as positive body image may be more predictive of sexual activity later in life than the hormonal changes associated with menopause. That’s not to say age has no physiological impacts on sex for women; discomfort during sex due to less blood circulation in the genital area (reducing vaginal lubrication) is a biological factor that reduces sexual comfort during sexual intercourse in later life. Of course, technology, here too, can come to the rescue with products to increase lubrication and blood flow. In fact, many women find menopause liberating sexually because they no longer have to worry about pregnancy every time they have intercourse. Even more promising, most women who desire to remain sexually active as they age will do so, albeit with a bit more prepping.

The boomers want fulfilling relationships as they age and our culture is beginning to reflect this. Women in their 60’s and 70’s are now being cast in leading roles involving romantic and sexual relationships. Both Jane Fonda’s and Lily Tomlin’s characters in Netflix’s, Grace and Frankie have love affairs, and of course, so do their ex-husbands… with one another. What’s more, people over 50 are the fastest growing demographic of online daters. Indeed, women over 50 who date report frequent and satisfying sex and boomer men can usually find an intimate partner if they are in the market for one.

Boomers are by far the most sexually liberal generation of older adults that we’ve ever seen.  And by pushing against the pre-existing molds of what sex after 50 looks like, boomers are showing us that they want gender equality and sexual satisfaction between the sheets in their encore adulthood, the third act of their lives.


Risman, Barbara J, Carissa Froyum and William Scarborough (co-editors). 2018.  Handbook on the Sociology of Gender.  Springer Publishers.

Nicholas Velotta is a Freelance writer and graduate of the University of Washington, and can be contacted at Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.

A briefing paper prepared by Nicholas Velotta and Pepper Schwartz, University of Washington, for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf).

Not too long ago, women were considered “over the hill” once they reached middle age. Women in the 1960s recalled being told that their fate was to be “fat at 40, finished at 50.” But over the last two decades the U.S. has seen a massive shift in older adults’ attitudes towards sex, romance, and intimacy, with women in particular feeling emboldened to remain sexually and romantically satisfied throughout their entire life cycle, not just when they are young. Heterosexual partners tend to become more egalitarian as they age, and the majority of divorces that do occur after age 50 are initiated by women. Matchmaking sites have given older women far more chances to find partners than in the past, while men can now take Viagra or Cialis in order to keep their sex lives vibrant and healthy.

Desexualized? Who is on the hook for cosmetic surgery?

There are challenges of course, and many of those challenges are starkly gendered. After menopause, women are frequently seen as non-sexual beings, something we call the desexualization of older women. Men on the other hand have been given lifelong statuses as sexual beings and seldom face societal obstacles to romantic contact later in life. To compensate for this gender double standard, many women have resorted to surgical interventions to reduce the signs of age on their body—in fact, they make up the largest growing market for cosmetic surgery. Other women have decided to forgo relationships and sex entirely, relying on social networks of friends to support them emotionally instead of intimate partners. Fortunately for the many women who continue to date later in life, the research concludes that their sexual satisfaction and frequencies are fairly high.

Resexualized. Stars might suggest older faces that are sexy.

What our review, “Gender and Sexuality in Aging,” in The Handbook of the Sociology of Gender, best illustrates is that Baby Boomers have become far more liberal in regard to sex, and when older men and women prioritize lifelong sexual satisfaction they have a better shot at achieving it today than ever before. Gender, sexual orientation, race, and other demographic factors affect Boomers’ success at this, and U.S. culture as a whole is just beginning to value intimacy as a lifelong goal. But with older faces becoming “sexy” (think Alfre Woodard at 65, Meryl Streep at 69. Or  Denzel Washington at 63, Tom Selleck at 73) and more attention being given to the study of sex and aging (see the endowed professorship in sexuality and aging at the University of Minnesota), we are seeing progressive shifts in our mainstream culture towards making older bodies less stigmatized and more romanticized.


Nicholas Velotta, University of Washington, Pepper Schwartz, Professor of Sociology, University of Washington. They are authors of “Gender and Sexuality in Aging,” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender.

A briefing paper prepared by Pallavi Banerjee, University of Calgary, for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf).

Imagine thousands of highly qualified women forced to stay home because they are not legally allowed to work. Sounds unreal in this day and age, right? And yet this has been the reality for many women who have legally migrated to the US on what are popularly known as dependent visas or H-4 visas. These are visas given to spouses and children of workers who migrate to the U.S. on H-1B visas to work in a “specialty occupation,” mostly in science, technology and engineering fields. The H-4 dependent visa forbids the spouse of a skilled worker to engage in legal employment for a term that could be as long as 20 years. These visas disproportionately affect Asian migrant families in the U.S., given that more half of the H-1B and H-4 visas go to Indians, followed by Chinese.

Dependent H-4 visas were originally designed with women in mind, as the extension of the 18th-19th century coverture doctrine that a wife had no legal identity outside that of her husband. The doctrine was generally accepted until the late 20th century in accord with the male-breadwinner ideology of the 1950s in the US. However, the law in itself is not gendered. This means that men as well as women can be excluded from the labor market if they come in with a spouse who is on an H-1B visa. In practice, women are the majority of those affected. But either way, these policies leave lasting imprints, although in distinctly gendered ways, on the lives of spouses who come in with one H-1B and one H-4 visa holder. Families where the woman is dependent on the man have to live like 1950s nuclear families, even though many women are qualified to be co-providers and would prefer to be. In families where the man is excluded from the labor force, by contrast, gender power struggles within the families assume difficult and complex forms, generating ambivalence in both the working and the stay-at-home spouse.

Trailing wives and the reinvention of dependence.

Because the most common recipients of H-1B visas are male high-tech workers, women (their wives) are disproportionally affected by these policies. Approximately 80 percent of all H-4 visa holders are women, most of whom are highly-educated and were working before migration. A “housewife visa” or “vegetable visa,” as many of the dependent wives call the H-4 visa, forces these wives to become economically, socially, and psychologically dependent on husbands. My interviews with these women revealed that they experienced a loss of dignity and an increase in self-deprecation. They tried to cope by engaging in excessive cooking, cleaning, and decorating while also resenting it. These women told me they felt they were back in the days of the “traditional family” where women had no identity of their own and were devalued in society. They talked about being rendered invisible and feeling shackled and depressed. Some even reported contemplating suicide. In situations of domestic violence, women in such circumstances have no means to leave and support themselves. Accordingly, some women describe these visas as “prison visas.”

Trailing husbands and the loss of status.

Relatively few men are on the H-4 visas, and typically these are the husbands of women who were granted work visas because of their training as nurses. Such men report a complicated relationship with their dependent status. While most claim to enjoy raising children as an equal caregiver with their wives, the loss of their culturally normalized head-of-household status leaves them sore and resentful. In order to compensate for this loss, dependent husbands find multiple ways to reassert their masculinities. For instance, they emphasize how they “allowed” their wives to be the main migrant. They also skirt around doing any of the everyday housework and control the family finances, while invoking the imagery of the “sacrificial father” who gave up his career “to ensure the well-being of the children and family.” Meanwhile, the breadwinning wives overcompensate for being the breadwinner by doing all household chores.

Executive Orders from Obama to Trump.

In 2015 Obama responded to research and a spurt of online activism around the issue of legal dependence by signing an Executive Order that made it possible for H-4 visa holders to obtain Employment Authorization Documents after being approved for permanent residency. H-4 visa holders without permanent residency approval remained stranded. But the EO did have positive effects on the lives of 179,600 spouses that year, and 55,000 additional spouses in subsequent years, as estimated by USCIS. Many H-4 visa holders attempted to return to work. Some with specialized degrees found work quickly. Others found it difficult to find jobs, as is common for women with a long employment hiatus. However, what was important is now they had the opportunity to look for work legally.

The Trump administration, by contrast, has announced its intent has to implement the Buy American and Hire American Executive Order. This will revoke the employment authorization for H-4 visa holders, threatening economic and family stability for many and perpetuating gendered dependencies and conflicts within and outside the families. These apparently gender-neutral visa policies harm women and men alike, by imposing either a male breadwinner family that subordinates women or a female breadwinner family that leads to ambivalence, resentment and conflict.


Pallavi Banerjee, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Calgary, Canada, and author of forthcoming Dismantling Dependence: Gendered Migrations, Indian High-Skilled Families and the Visa Regime (NYU Press)Prof. Banerjee’s research on H-4 visa played a critical role in the Obama Administration’s reformulation of those rules. Professor Banerjee is author with Raewyn Connell of “Gender Theory as a Southern Theory” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender.


A new article published in Journal of Marriage and Family examines the relationship of cohabitation and divorce, and claims that recent research that finds that premarital cohabitation does not impact divorce rates is incorrect. They find that in the first year of marriage, premarital cohabitation is associated with lower divorce rates compared to those who directly marry (because those who would have divorced quickly are filtered out by premarital cohabitation), but that afterwards premarital cohabitation is associated with higher divorce rates. These effects “cancel each other out,” making it appear as if cohabitation is not associated with divorce, when, according to them, it still is; just not in very early marriage.

However this research makes an important omission. They account for the age at which women married their first husband, but don’t account for the age at which they moved in together.  As my past research has shown, accounting for age at marriage but not the age at which couples moved in together artificially inflates the association between premarital cohabitation and divorce for recent cohorts, compared to statistical models that account for the age at which couples moved in together, or even statistical models that do not account for age at all.

This inflation happens because the older that couples are when they move in together with the person they will eventually marry (whether at marriage or beforehand) the less likely they are to divorce.  When accounting for age at marriage only, researchers are comparing couples who married directly at, for example, age 24, to those who moved in together at perhaps age 21 and then married at age 24.

My research argues that a more accurate comparison would compare those who moved in together at, for example, 21 (and then eventually married) to those who both moved in together and married at age 21.  When doing so, the relationship between premarital cohabitation and divorce disappears for some cohorts; and in very recent cohorts, as I show in my recent CCF report, reverses, with premarital cohabitors having a lower risk of divorce compared to couples that marry directly. In other words, the reason premarital cohabitors seem to have a higher risk of divorce is not because cohabitation causes divorce; it’s because premarital cohabitors who eventually marry select partners and move in together at earlier ages compared to other couples who marry at the same age, when they are less prepared for the roles and responsibilities that are associated with eventual successful marriages.

To demonstrate the importance of how researchers account for age on research findings, I recalculated the odds ratios for the relationship of premarital cohabitation and divorce that I present in my recent CCF report on changing cohabitation over time (which accounts for age at coresidence), in statistical models that either account for age at marriage instead, or don’t account for age at all. As you can see in Figure 1 below, models that account for age at marriage show a stronger association between cohabitation and divorce. In the most recent cohort, this effect appears neutral, but when accounting for age at coresidence instead (or even if not accounting for age at all) premarital cohabitation is associated with a lower risk of divorce.

Figure 1: Odds Ratios for the Association Between Premarital Cohabitation and Divorce in First Marriages in Four Cohorts: The Importance of Age Controls

Note: Numbers calculated from the 1988 National Survey of Families and Households (1956-1985, N=3,594) and National Survey of Family Growth (1986-2015, N=9,420) using Cox regressions and based on women <36 at first marriage. Controls for raised not religious, religious attendance, race, education at marriage, mother’s education, prior cohabitations, lived with both biological parents at age 14, birth prior to coresidence, began coresidence while pregnant. Age at Coresidence models additionally control for age at coresidence and age at coresidence squared.  Age at Marriage models additionally control for age at marriage and age at marriage squared. †p<.10, **p<.01

In my new article recently published in the journal Marriage & Family Review I show that the length of time that couples live together before marriage has grown in recent decades (See Figure 2), increasing the importance of correctly accounting for the age at which couples move in together, as it grows further and further from the age at which these couples marry.

Figure 2: Average Duration of Premarital Cohabitation with First Husband among Premarital Cohabitors who Married before Age 36 (Months)

While the overall pattern in this new research of lower divorce rates in the first year of marriage after cohabitation seems plausible, accounting for age at marriage rather than age at coresidence artificially inflates the divorce rates of premarital cohabitors across all marriage durations, calling into question whether premarital cohabitation is in fact associated with higher divorce risks at later marriage durations, as found by the authors. A comparison that accounted for age at coresidence instead of age at marriage would likely have led to significantly different findings.

Arielle Kuperberg is Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Sociology and Cross-Appointed Faculty in the Women and Gender Studies Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Follow her on twitter at @ATKuperberg and reach her at


A briefing paper prepared by Kenly Brown, University of California, Berkeley, for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf).  

Since the 1970s and early 1980s, feminist criminologists have explored the ways in which the distribution of justice and punishment varies, based on people’s marginalized (or privileged) identities, their vulnerability to state violence, and their exposure to interpersonal violence  (Potter, 2015Riche, 2012Chesney-Lind, 2006 ; Burgess-Proctor, 2006Bertrand, 1969Heidensohn, 1968). In my chapter with Berkeley’s Nikki Jones, “Gender, Race, and Crime: The Evolution of a Feminist Research Agenda,” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Genderwe argue that feminist scholars must “examine the relationship between interpersonal violence and institutional violence, as well as the feminist movement’s relationship to the state” (p.456). Ultimately, institutional violence shapes the conditions and outcomes of the interpersonal violence that marginalized groups navigate on a daily basis.

In my study, The Disciplinary Dumping Ground: The Construction of Black Girlhood in an Alternative School, I use a similar intersectional analysis to study the ways in which alternative education creates inequitable conditions of learning and access for Black girls who are vulnerable to exclusion, neglect, and violence in their everyday lives. I extend literature on exclusionary discipline (i.e. disproportionate levels of harsh punishment sanctioned against Black and Latinx students) to consider the significance of exclusionary spaces in education: alternative schools.

Benign intent, harmful result.

California has seven types of alternative schools: independent charter, community, juvenile court, opportunity, school of choice, community day, and continuation. Continuation schools enroll 75 percent of the 136,000 students enrolled in alternative schools, ostensibly providing a more positive environment for students who have difficulty learning in large school settings, are at-risk to not graduate, and/or have disruptive behavioral issues (Taylor, 2015 & Velasco and Gonzales, 2017). Despite this benign intent, teachers, students, and practitioners colloquially refer to alternative schools as dumping grounds used to warehouse students of color from under-resourced neighborhoods that traditional high schools find disruptive and/or underperforming (Dunning-Lozano, 2016Kelly, 1993). Indeed, Elder’s qualitative research found that continuation schools were less like a learning community than a correctional institution for students stigmatized as “outsiders” — academically failing, on parole, pregnant, and /or working (Elder, 1966).

My research explores how alternative schools contribute to the further isolation of marginalized students, particularly low-income Black girls, who are the most vulnerable to violence and neglect in their interpersonal lives. Studies have shown that Black girls are perceived as less innocent than white girls and are more harshly punished in school for not meeting mainstream expectations of middle-class white girls (Epstein, Blake, and González, 2017). Using ethnographic methods including direct and participant observations and semi-structured interviews, I find that the compounding effects of isolation, neglect, and danger in low-income communities render Black girls more vulnerable to be pushed into learning environments that are also isolated, lack stable funding, and have limited resources. An intersectional vulnerabilities framework shows how stereotypes associated with Black girls and women perceived as aggressive, domineering, or hypersexual increase their exposure to interpersonal violence in their everyday day lives and structural violence at the hands of institutions.


Kenly Brown, Ph.D. candidate in African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, with a designated emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Nikki Jones, Associate Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, author of Between Good and Ghetto: African American Girls and Inner-City Violence and recently published The Chosen Ones: Black Men and the Politics of Redemption. They are authors of “Gender, Race, and Crime: The Evolution of a Feminist Research Agenda,” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender.

Imagine that your 75-year-old mother has fallen and broken her ankle. She lives alone in a third-floor apartment in a city not far from where you live, but this accident means that she cannot manage on her own for several weeks, if not longer. What would you do? Would you take her into your home? Would you move into her apartment to help her until she healed? Would you pay someone to come in daily to help her cook, bathe, clean house, run errands? What if your mother had broken her hip instead of an ankle? Would that change what you would do? What if she showed signs of the early stages of dementia? What would you do then?

Suppose that your mother had divorced your father when you were 10 and moved far away from you and your father. Suppose also that you and she had not been close for years. Would that affect how you answered the questions above about helping her? What if I had substituted the word stepmother for mother, would that have made a difference to you? What if this stepmother had raised you since you were 11? Would that make a difference? What if it was your aging father who broke a hip? Your stepfather?

These are the kinds of questions we have been asking Americans for over two decades in more than 20 studies about beliefs regarding intergenerational responsibilities to older (and younger) family members. The beliefs we examined may be unique to the United States, although we suspect they are not.

It might surprise you to know that in an abstract way most Americans believe that adult children have responsibilities to their aging parents and other older kin. In fact, most Americans agree with the broad statement that ‘adult children should take care of their parents when they get old’. In fact, this belief is so widespread that most states have filial responsibility laws that define younger family members’ obligations to provide care for aging parents and grandparents.

Critics of these laws, however, argue that these and other U.S. social policies about intergenerational assistance are based on outdated assumptions that family ties are always emotionally close and loving, that families are able and willing to assist older kin, and that family membership is stable. These assumptions do not reflect the experiences of many, if not most, families in the 21st Century. Families vary in the degree to which members are emotionally involved in each other’s lives and, with most adult men and women in the paid work force, there are few families with available kin to provide aid. Moreover, longer life spans and lowered reproduction has meant that there are fewer young people and more old people in extended families. Family membership is not constant; families in the United States have experienced decades of structural changes due to divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation and these changes make connections among kin more tenuous than in the past.

U.S. policy makers are therefore faced with laws and social policies that are designed for a mid-Twentieth Century extended family at a time when multi-generational family structures are becoming more complex. We began investigating whether beliefs and attitudes about intergenerational responsibilities also were becoming more complex. We began a research program to investigate how divorce and remarriage affected beliefs about intergenerational assistance to genetic and step-kin, and we examined beliefs about aid given to both older and younger family members.

Consensual beliefs about intergenerational family relationships and support are important to examine because such beliefs function as parameters within which individuals define and negotiate their responsibilities to kin, they serve as criteria to measure how well individuals are functioning as family members, and they provide a framework that people use to justify and explain their conduct to others. What people actually do in relationships is based partly on personal beliefs about appropriate actions between kin and partly on widely held expectations about what should be done regarding family responsibilities. Normative beliefs about intergenerational responsibilities also are important to understand because such beliefs influence the development and application of public policy.

Our studies were random samples drawn regionally or nationally. We used phone surveys, mailed surveys, and face to face interviews. We can’t tell you about all the findings from these studies, so instead we summarize them.

In general, genetic bonds among generations denote greater intergenerational obligations than do affinal bonds. This means, all other factors being equal, people believe that genetic kin should receive more assistance than affinal kin (step-kin or in-laws).

Genetic kinship is not enough to attribute obligations to assist. For most people genetic kinship was relevant but did not automatically mean adult children and grandchildren should help.

Relationship quality is important in attributing obligations to assist, regardless of the type of relationship (genetic or affinal). Parents and adult children were thought to be much more obligated to help each other when relationships were emotionally close. When relationships were distant or hostile, any help was discretionary and more limited than when bonds were close. Step-kin who develop emotionally close relationships were perceived to be obligated to assist each other at levels similar to genetic kin who had close bonds.

Beliefs about helping older kin are stronger when the older kin have helped family members in the past. For most people, adult children are obligated to help parents only if the parents had fulfilled parental responsibilities to children when they were young. Family obligation norms no longer applied when genetic kin had not observed the norm of reciprocity between generations. Genetic kinship had significance, but without past histories of mutual helping it was as if the responsibilities attendant to kinship were unimportant. Without a history of financial, tangible, and emotional support from parents, adult children were seen as having lesser debt to repay than they would have had if parents had provided more for them. Divorced and remarried older parents who were perceived to have broken the reciprocity “contract” lost their “rights” to receive help from adult children.

Stepparents and stepchildren who had helped each other in the past were perceived as obligated to assist each other at levels similar, but not quite equal, to older parents and adult children who had reciprocal exchanges. Stepparents who help raise stepchildren thus can “earn” assistance later in life.

Intergenerational assistance is limited for relationships formed later in life. Step-relationships formed in later-life have less time to build close bonds and exchange resources, which reduced the likelihood of them being perceived as kin and having responsibilities to help each other.

For middle-generation adults, helping children takes precedence over helping elders. There is a hierarchy of intergenerational assistance, with children at the top as targets of aid.

Intergenerational assistance is conditional for most Americans. For most of the thousands of respondents in our studies, perceptions about intergenerational obligations were not automatic, but were related to several factors – relationship closeness/quality, reciprocity, resource availability, and other demands on family members’ resources were important when making judgments about helping.

Clearly, there is a lot we don’t know yet about how structural family changes affect intergenerational obligations to assist kin. This issue is relevant in societies with loose social safety nets, such as the United States. In six of our intergenerational obligation studies, we found that attitudes about helping kin were significantly related to participants’ helping behaviors in their own family networks. Our studies suggest that the final years of older adults who were less than stellar parents, stepparents, or in-laws may be in jeopardy when they need help to care for themselves. As a nation, we seem ill-prepared to deal with the rising number of Baby Boomers who are becoming our “senior citizens.”

Lawrence Ganong is a Chancellor’s Professor of Human Development and Family Science and Emeritus Professor of Nursing at the University of Missouri. Marilyn Coleman is a Curator’s Professor Emerita of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Missouri. They have studied post-divorce family relationships and stepfamily relationships for over four decades. They may be reached at and

Reposted from The New York Times.

If you strolled by the playgrounds of Flushing, Queens, this summer, you would have seen throngs of Chinese immigrant women tending to their American-born grandchildren.

The moms and dads were at work, all through these long summer days. For those who cannot afford expensive day care and camps, in a country that does almost nothing to help working families care for their kids, grandparents are a lifeline. And increasingly, these grandparents are immigrants.

One of us, Xuemei, recently spent time with a Flushing family who moved here from rural China years ago. Each day the mother, father and grandfather board buses arranged by their employers to take them to work at Chinese restaurants. They leave their home around 10 each morning and return around 10 each night. In their absence, the grandmother performs all of the housework and cares for the couple’s two American-born children.

The Trump administration is now threatening those care-taking arrangements.

President Trump has been pushing for a law that would end family-based immigration — what he calls “horrible chain migration.” He even used the migrant children separated from their parents on the border as bargaining chips to try to get Democrats to agree to such a proposal, before a judge ordered them returned to their families.

In June the House defeated a plan by Representative Bob Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia, that would have restricted legal immigration through the family reunification program so that only the spouses and minor children of American citizens could immigrate — barring grandparents. A week later, the so-called compromise G.O.P. bill on immigration was also defeated. It would have effectively cut the sponsorships of spouses, minor children and parents of American citizens by about 215,000 over the next two decades, according to analysts at the Cato Institute. But Republicans haven’t given up.

The Trump administration’s determination to separate families has formed the backbone of its immigration policy since Day 1. These proposals reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of 21st-century American families and contradict the principle of family unity that has guided American immigration policy for the last 50 years. (In fact, a few weeks ago President Trump’s in-laws became American citizens thanks to the family reunification program.)

According to data from the Department of Homeland Security, the number of legal permanent residents admitted as parents of United States citizens rose to about 174,000 in 2016 from about 56,000 in 1994, an increase to 15 percent from 7 percent of all admissions.

America needs these late-life immigrants. Older parents serve as valuable resources, often helping with the down payment on homes and with child care and household chores as younger immigrants juggle tight work schedules. Their assistance is free and reliable, allowing adult children to work, improve their English and further their educations, thus integrating faster into American society.

Another woman Xuemei spoke to, a retired doctor in her 80s from Fujian Province, hardly fits the Trump administration’s pernicious stereotypes of immigrants as threatening or burdensome. When her daughter-in-law gave birth here 20 years ago, she left her job in China so that she could come to help the young couple with child care. Her son, who had stayed in the United States after receiving a scholarship to medical school, sponsored her visa.

“I have only one son; how can I not help him?” she said.

Immigrant elders also help transplanted families maintain a sense of continuity. They may serve as cultural intermediaries by teaching grandchildren about their home country’s language, religion, food and cultural traditions. Their accounts of family histories can serve as a source of ethnic pride and personal empowerment for younger generations searching for their identities as racial and ethnic minorities.

Instead of narrowing our conception of what a family is, we should broaden it. When one of us — Stacy — was 16 and the oldest of four children, her mother died. Her father wanted to bring his niece from Chile to help the family out. But nieces didn’t count as eligible family members under the reunification program. So the family struggled along.

The support of family caregivers may be invisible to outsiders, but it is essential for the well-being of transnational families, especially in a country that lacks a system of affordable child care. The Republican plans to restrict family-based migration won’t help Americans — they will hurt Americans, by depriving many of our youngest citizens of the social, psychological and economic benefits of strong extended family ties.

Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology at the University at Albany, where Xuemei Cao is a doctoral student.

A briefing paper prepared by Emily W. Kane, Bates College, for the Council on Contemporary Families Families’ Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf).

Despite fifty years of significant change in gender relations, social definitions of good parenting remain so deeply gender-based that we still think of mothering and fathering as very different activities, and we continue to valorize white, upper-middle class, heterosexually-partnered mothering and fathering. The gender of our kids also plays a pivotal role in how we parent them, a trap we continue to fall into even though many parents want to loosen gender constraints on their sons and daughters. All these patterns take place in the context of an increasingly privatized family, with each American household expected to do the hard work of raising the next generation with less public support than in the past, and much less than in other affluent industrialized democracies.

Adaptations to pressures from everyday life.

The transition to parenthood still leads to inequality in the division of household labor between mothers and fathers. Women take on more hours of housework and child care as well as coping with the expectations of “intensive motherhood.” Parenthood also heightens the gender wage gap for women, because their earnings are hit by what social scientists call a “motherhood penalty.”

These gender inequalities are not so much the result of choices made based on personal preferences as they are adaptations to pressures from the everyday world and the lack of institutional support for shared care-giving and breadwinning from employers and government. The most economically privileged families can buy themselves out of some of these constraints by outsourcing household labor and child care, often to poorly-paid women of color, sometimes undocumented immigrants. In these privileged families, heterosexual partners lessen gender inequalities by taking advantage of intertwined inequalities of race, class, and gender elsewhere in the population.

Intersections between inequalities of gender, race, and class.

Focusing only on the work-family issues of economically advantaged, heterosexually partnered families leaves out the vast majority of parents, from single parents to LGBTQ parents, from low-income parents to non-residential parents, and from transnational parents to incarcerated parents, all of whom face similar constraints from gender expectations that are compounded by other intersecting inequalities. The inadequate levels of public support available to low-income women raising children on public assistance force them to operate with “both hands tied.” Non-residential fathers in low-income neighborhoods face stereotypes about “dead-beat dads” even as they struggle to “do the best they can.” Incarcerated mothers are vilified with little recognition of the social factors that contribute to their problems and little support offered to help them establish more secure lives for themselves and their children. African-American mothers navigate treacherous terrain as they try to protect their sons from dangerous racist stereotypes about Black masculinity. Immigrant domestic workers try to offer emotional as well as material support to children left behind in their home countries as they care for the children of affluent American families. Meanwhile, diminished public services and a declining safety net leave individual American families “cut adrift” to survive on their own, a trend that burdens families across the economic spectrum but leaves low-income households especially vulnerable, widening inequalities in the educational and enrichment activities to which children have access.

At the same time that these gender and other inequalities shape the work of parents, children’s gender also shapes the way we parent. My research demonstrates that even the many parents who want a less gender-constrained world for their kids often find themselves trapped into reproducing gender patterns in the way they raise their sons and daughters, with particularly limiting expectations placed on sons. At the same time, scholars are beginning to document the paths forged by parents of transgender children, as they follow their children’s lead in new and less constrained directions.

Parents and children in the contemporary United States face a range of limitations, including gender-based expectations, economic inequalities, and other inequities based on race, sexuality, and citizenship status. Individual families need the kind of collective support that can allow us all to contribute to the socially critical work of raising the next generation with fewer constraints. The scholarship reviewed in my Handbook chapter, “Parenting and Gender,” helps chart a path toward that greater public support and more equitable, inclusive possibilities.


Emily W. Kane, Professor of Sociology, Bates College, She is author of “Parenting and Gender,” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender.

A briefing paper prepared by Heidi Gansen, Northwestern University, and Karin Martin, University of Michigan for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf).

Children are gendered by parents before they are born. What does that mean? As soon as parents know if “it’s a boy!” or “it’s a girl!” they start to imagine different children and childhoods. From birth, children are treated differently by gender and learn to “do” their gender from families, peers, school, and media. Parents and families buy different clothes and toys for boys and girls and decorate their rooms differently. Observers ascribe different traits (e.g. tough, brave) to a baby that is assumed to be a boy (even if it’s not) than to a baby perceived to be a girl.

We don’t even know we are doing this.

Things we do not think of as constructing gender differences do, as we write in “Becoming Gendered” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender. For example, preschools are heightened incubators of gender difference. Preschool teachers have differential responses to boys’ and girls’ behaviors, such as permitting informal behaviors for boys (lying down during circle time; loudness) and requiring more formal school behaviors for girls (indoor voices; sitting up straight).

Except when we do.

In some preschools, the curriculum is explicitly gendered. Beginning in preschool, some teachers see instructing children about their gender’s behavioral expectations or responsibilities as an explicit component of their curriculum and teaching practices. In work forthcoming in Sex Roles, Gansen interviewed and observed teachers in three preschools (nine preschool classrooms total). She found that teachers in the three preschools disciplined boys and girls differently and created gendered stories to account for and justify their gendered beliefs, expectations, and disciplinary practices.

For example, in all three preschools that Gansen observed, when girls were not following teacher instructions to clean up, girls were disciplined by having to clean up an area by themselves. In one classroom, if there was nothing left for girls to clean up, teachers would have a child or teacher dump a container of toys on the floor. These dumped-out toys were then the girls’ “responsibility” to clean up on their own. However, in none of the nine classrooms that Gansen observed did teachers discipline boys by having them clean up without assistance from their peers or a teacher. Instead, teachers in these nine classrooms frequently asked other children (almost always girls) to help boys clean up.

In another classroom, the teachers had boys do push-ups when they were physically fighting or being aggressive with their classmates. The teacher would ask the boys involved to take a break, come to the middle of the classroom, and do five push-ups. This teacher held gendered expectations for children’s behavior. She viewed boys as having physical energy they needed to release, and she implemented a gendered disciplinary practice (push-ups) to accommodate what she perceived as a behavioral “need” for preschool-aged boys. By contrast, in all nine classrooms, teachers immediately sent girls to timeout or moved them to a different play activity when they engaged in physical behaviors.

Freeing children from boy vs girl discipline creates stronger individuals.

Beginning in preschool, disciplinary interactions between teachers and students guide the construction of gender difference in young children. Gendered expectations and differential treatment of children at the young ages of three to five years old create and maintain gender inequality by constructing gender differences as natural, normal, and unchangeable. Perhaps if we change our gendered expectations and disciplinary responses to boys’ and girls’ behaviors in various contexts, such as at home and in school, we will open the door for children’s identities to be shaped in more individualized, and less gendered, ways.


Heidi M. Gansen, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow, School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University, hgansen@umich.eduKarin A. Martin, Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, University of Michigan, kamartin@umich.eduThey are authors of “Becoming Gendered,” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender