University researcher says children’s decisions affect parental health

Natalie Sullivan

The marriage choices you make and the level of education you receive could affect the relationship you have with your parents and their health later on in life, according to a University lecturer. 

Jenjira Yahirun, research fellow at the University’s Population Research Center, spoke on campus Friday about issues relating to intergenerational relationships—the relationship between parent and child—across the lifespan. Her research focused on two topics: how interracial marriage affects the parent-child relationship, and how the level of education adults receive as children affects parental health. 

Yahirun said she took a different approach when studying parent-child relationships.

“Most researchers, when they study intergenerational relationships, look at how the parent’s behavior affects the child later on in life,” Yahirun said. “In my research, I’m looking at the opposite: how the adult child’s behavior affects the parents.”

Yahirun said the first issue she chose to focus her research on, interracial marriage, was important because of the increased number of interracial marriages in recent years. 

According to Connor Sheehan, a sociology graduate student who worked with Yahirun, 15 percent of all marriages in 2010 were interracial, which is double the amount in 1980. 

“We’re seeing more interracial marriages, parents are living longer, and people are having fewer children, which means these relationships matter more,” Sheehan said.

Yahirun said she wanted to find out if marrying interracially was detrimental to parent-child relationships. 

“There’s this perception that if you marry interracially, it degrades your relationship with your parents,” Yahirun said. “It creates a cultural gap, and so the thinking is that then you don’t communicate with your parents as much.”

To categorize the quality of parent-child relationships, Yahirun tracked ratings of emotional closeness, the distance children lived from their parents and how often they contacted their parents through visits, phone or email.

Yahirun said she found that on average, interracial marriage did not negatively affect children’s relationship with their parents, although the effects varied by race and gender.

“Interracial marriages do have detrimental effects on relationships with mothers for blacks, Asians, children of immigrants and daughters,” Yahirun said.

According to Yahirun, this could be problematic for these parents because their children would be less likely to care for them later on in life. 

“Parents of these groups may be more likely to rely on children for care later in life because they lack institutional support, and if their children move further away from them, that’s going to be harder to provide,” Yahirun said.

In a second study, Yahirun examined the effects of children’s education on their parents’ health. She found that on average, children who had more education had parents with fewer health problems. 

“Parents who invest more in their children benefit more later in life,” Yahirun said.

Sociology graduate student Amy Lodge said the results of the study made her more appreciative of her parents. 

“It just makes me really grateful for everything they’ve done for me, to make sure I got a good education,” Lodge said. “Hopefully this study shows that it will pay off for them in the future.”