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Parents, Be Careful What You Wish For

It seems to be a nearly universal wish among parents – to see their kids get married. Many don’t even think of it as an option; of course, their kids will all marry, it is only a question of when. Then, if any grown kid seems to be staying single too long, by their parents’ measuring stick, then the questions and innuendos begin: What happened to that nice person you used to date? So-and-so’s kid is back in town; you know, you two have a lot in common. And the classic, which doesn’t need to be tied to marriage at all but still is: So when are you going to give me grandchildren?

Maybe when they fantasize about their grown kids getting married, some parents are also thinking about their future, and they have a fantasy about that, too: With their kids all coupled, they will get lots of help from them when they need it as they get older. After all, aren’t married people the family-oriented types and singles mostly selfish?

I’ve been challenging stereotypes about selfish singles and generous couples (along with lots of other similar stereotypes) for many years. My favorite way to do so is with big, impressive studies. It is all the better when the studies are based on representative national samples, so all kinds of single and coupled people are represented, in proper proportions.

A study published in the journal Research on Aging was based on nearly 5,500 pairs of adult sons or daughters and a parent who was 65 or older. Grown children who lived with their parents and parents who lived in nursing homes or other institutional settings were not included.

The adult sons and daughters indicated whether, during the previous year, they had helped their parents with “health related or personal needs such as dressing, eating, or bathing” and whether they provided help “in ways not related to health or personal care needs.” If they did help, they also indicated how many hours of help they had provided.

The first set of results shows the percent of singles and couples who helped their parents, shown separately for white and Black daughters, and white and Black sons. The second set show the number of hours of help provided, for the same categories.

There is a total of 8 comparisons of singles and couples, and as you will see, the results are the same every time.

Percent (%) Who Helped Their Elderly Parents in the Past Year

35 Single white daughters

22 Coupled white daughters

34 Single Black daughters

25 Coupled Black daughters

30 Single white sons

24 Coupled white sons

19 Single Black sons

16 Coupled Black sons

Number of Hours Helping Elderly Parents in the Past Year

129 Single white daughters

  94 Coupled white daughters

223 Single Black daughters

203 Coupled Black daughters

92 Single white sons

72 Coupled white sons

352 Single Black sons

60 Coupled Black sons

The results are very clear and consistent. No matter whether you are looking at Blacks or whites, sons or daughters, whether help is given at all or how many hours of help are given, the results are the same: the single sons and daughters help more than the coupled sons and daughters.

Why is it that single sons and daughters help their parents so much more than coupled offspring do? That’s the question I’ll address in a future post. I’ll include more results from this study, results from other research, and an example from How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century  of a single man with married brothers and his decision to move back to his hometown and care for his mother.

[For more about single people’s care-giving, click here.]


Laditka, James N., & Laditka, Sarah B. (2001). Adult children helping older parents: Variations in likelihood and hours by gender, race, and family role. Research on Aging, 23, 429-256.

Parents, Be Careful What You Wish For

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single." Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2018). Parents, Be Careful What You Wish For. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 21 Aug 2018
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