Spring 1984, Volume 1


Rebecca M. Smith

Nurturing Daughters and Caregiving Sons

Rebecca M. Smith is a professor in the Department of Child Development and Family Relations, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she is actively engaged in research. She delivered one of the keynote addresses at the 1983 Family Education Conference at Weber State.

A report on the afternoon keynote address at the Fourth Annual Family Education Conference, Weber State College, September 14, 1983, given by Rebecca M. Smith, Department of Child and Family Relations, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, NC.

Within the family, sons and daughters have different behavior roles-we expect daughters to do certain things, we expect sons to do certain things. The moral reasoning of sons and daughters is related to these behavior roles.

"Nurturing" refers to behavior that will cause another person to grow to his or her potential. However, no matter what you do, if the other person doesn't want it, it doesn't work. Nurturing means those acts and those intentions that are given for the growth of the other person, willingly given but also willingly received. On the other hand, "caregiving" can be only care giving. Yet care giving can also be for nurturing; it can be for growth. Adult daughters tend to be nurturing caregivers, and adult sons tend to be care givers.

With people living longer, what is going to happen to the son and daughter roles in three-generation families or in step-families? In extended families, with more generations and a smaller number of children, the burden of care of the parent is going to increase. Middle-aged adults will have three generations to care for: their youngold parents, their old-old grandparents, and their own children.

The family is also affected by a preference for either sons or daughters. In those societies where there is a preference for a predominance of daughters, the parents believe that the daughters will be more rewarding companions, or the father sees sons as competition, or the parents depend on daughters for support.

Societies prefer daughters when the lineage and the wealth come through the daughters, or the daughters can be traded, as in a primitive society. But even in these daughterpreferring societies, men are the most powerful people. In those societies where there is a preference for a predominance of sons, the sons are economically more productive, and the parents expect to rely primarily on sons in their old age. Also, there may already be enough daughters to help mother, so that the sons will not be asked to do women's work. There is a preference for a predominance of sons when sons are needed for protection and when parents do not live in societies with equalitarian ideologies. In this case, fathers may also expect companionship with their sons. In the United States, there is a preference for both sons and daughters; however, in certain families some prefer sons over daughters. Both men and women have a stronger preference for sons for firstborns, although this preference is not nearly as high for women as it is for men.

There is a difference, then, in the way people look at daughters and sons. There is also a difference in the morality or the moral reasoning that is taught to daughters and sons, and in the way these daughters and sons, in turn, will care for others.

A decision is a moral decision only when there is an interpersonal interaction in which there are conflicting rights and competing claims. What you do with yourself and for yourself is not a moral decision unless it affects someone else. A moral decision involves only relationships with someone else. The ultimate moral decision is based on justice or not hurting someone, and there are two ways you can go about it. One way is what is called the ethic of justice, in which everyone has equal rights. The other way is through the ethic of care, in which keeping relationships together is of primary concern.

Lawrence Kohlberg's studies in the late 50's, based on interviews with males, identified six stages in the advancement and development of moral reasoning in the ethic of justice. In the very lowest stage of justice, you decide to act only not to get punished. In the second stage, you make your decision to act only if you are going to get something in exchange. In the third level of justice, you play out your role as society has told you; you have been the good person; you do what you are told to do, and you feel good about it. Have you ever driven down the road at 55 mph and not one bit more, and you thought, "I'm a good driver because I'm obeying the law, because I am 'good,' " and you don't think about what the law is for? That is the third level. By the way, we operate on all these levels at various times. In the fourth level of justice, which would be a bit higher, you are willing to obey the law, but also you understand why laws have to him be. You drive 55 mph because you know why the laws are made, At that fourth level, you know that rules are made for the good of society, and you are willing to follow them because you know that society would fall apart if you did not. In a fifth and higher level, you are able to look at the laws and decide that some of them may no longer be accurate, that you could make changes, or that laws are really based on what is called "social contract," a contract between people who trust each other. If you can't trust someone else to do something, then the whole fabric of society falls apart. In the sixth and highest stage of the development of moral reasoning, you base all of your decisions on justice. Kohlberg did concede that there may be no level five or six in actual living, that they may be only ideals.

In addition, using his scale, Kohlberg found more men moving into higher levels than women. He found that practically none of the women went above stage three-the stage of carrying out your role and feeling good about it.

However, as Carol Gilligan continued the studies begun by Kohlberg, she found that women do not approach moral dilemmas in the same way that men do. Therefore, Kohlberg's hierarchy of the six stages of moral development may be one way that people can reach moral maturity, but not the only way. And the other way could be through keeping society together, keeping the relationships together, not hurting people. Gilligan began to listen to the women, and that is where the title of her book came from, In a Different Voice. Maybe in a different voice women are saying similar things as the men and reaching the same level of moral maturity as the men that Kohlberg interviewed. Gilligan also found some men who prefer the ethic of keeping society together.

Gilligan came up with a different list of stages, which she calls the ethic of care, the levels of care. The lowest level is the care  for self only. We all go through that. A transition from that level to the next one occurs when you begin to look at yourself and realize that care for self only is selfish. (That would be very similar to Kohlberg's stages one and two.) The second level, and the one that Gilligan and Kohlberg say women get stuck in, is care for others only. In fact, women are socialized to be the good mother, to be the good wife, to be the good secretary, to be the good gopher. Women are taught to be good persons, to do things for other people. Have you ever seen a woman prepare a meal and make sure that everyone has sat down at the table before she sits down; and then when she passes the chicken, she makes sure that everyone else got a good piece of chicken; and even when the back is the only thing that's left, she takes it and says, "I love backs"? Haven't you heard mothers say something like that, and possibly even said yourself, "You're a good woman"? When enough people tell you that you are a good woman, you tend to stay there.

Such self-sacrifice is not the highest level of moral reasoning. There is a transition level that moves either a man or woman out of that stage of doing everything only for other people. You are in that stage when you sit around thinking, "I've been had," when you realize that someone has done you in. When you finally realize that people are using you, that is moving into a higher level of moral maturity. The highest level, according to Gilligan, occurs when you are concerned for both yourself and others, because if you are not concerned with yourself, you cannot help someone else. Therefore, in the highest level of moral maturity, you are considering self and others, but the ultimate is to keep the relationship together.

There is a similarity between Kohlberg and Gilligan here. The ultimate in moral maturity is equality, but the difference is the way that women and men are socialized. From the boys are socialized to stick up for themselves. Daughters are socialized to accommodate to, rather than hurt, the relationship. If daughters are socialized to be only "the good person" and to take care of someone else, there is no way that daughters are ever going to get ahead in the business world. They will always find themselves holding secondary positions.

Both sons and daughters should be taught the ethic of justice as well as the ethic of care. Many of our sons are now being trained in the ethic of care. Sons, too, need to learn that the relationship is as important as sticking up for yourself.

The ethic of care is typified by these words: responsibility, relationships, avoidance of hurt, compassion, connection, the web or fabric, interdependence, and equity. The ethic of justice is characterized by these words: individual rights, rules, equality, reciprocity, fairness-and there is nothing wrong with these words.

These are two avenues for reaching moral maturity, and one is not better than the other. However, we have traditionally socialized our sons to follow the ethic of justice, and we have socialized our daughters to follow the ethic of care. And we may be hurting both of them when we do that.

In both of these theories, there are antecedents. Before a person can move to the highest level of either justice or care, he or she must be able to think on the highest level, to have reached the highest level of congitive development. However, a person can have reached the highest level of cognitive development and yet be on level two of moral maturity, because a person must have experienced certain dilemmas, certain areas of conflict, or certain issues in order to move up in ethical areas. Another antecedent besides cognitive development is affective volition. You have to want to act in a morally mature manner. If you don't want to, or have the strength to, or the help to, or the time to, often you can't move up.

Problems in families often occur because each member may be operating on differing stages of moral reasoning. There are many different areas that must be experienced in each one of these stages, and not everyone in the family would have learned the same thing at the same time. The father may be on the very highest level of the ethic of care, and be able to act in that way, but the mother may not have reached further than the second level. That family is going to have trouble, because the parents are operating on different levels of moral maturity.

Another condition necessary for reaching moral maturity is independence. Filial maturity is that relationship between parents and children in which neither is dependent on the other. Often, adult sons and daughters cannot reach the highest level of moral maturity when they are with their parents, partially because they cannot get beyond the parent-child relationship. Think about it this way. In the beginning, young children idealize their parents-their parents can do no wrong. When children get to be teenagers, you are well aware that they're moving out of that stage! The children become disenchanted with their parents, and the parents get a little disenchanted with those children, too, at that stage. The ultimate in filial maturity is equality-when you can talk with your parents on an equal basis, or when you do not always give up your life and your family to go over and take care of your mother. If you still feel guilty when you have to say no to your mother, that is back in filial idealization, not filial maturity.

I realized, myself, about five or six years ago, that I was keeping my mother-in-law in the good mother-in-law position and myself in the good daughter-in-law stage, and it hit me that I had to quit that-that what I had better do is begin to see this woman as an equal. The interesting thing was that when I stopped putting her in the position of having to fulfill the total role of the good mother-in-law, she was free to become a person. She began to do things she had never done in her life. We became more nearly equal than we ever had been before.

Remember that equality is the highest level of the ethic of justice and is also the highest level of the ethic of care. Here are some indicators of filial maturity, that is, being equal: when there are feelings of attachment to the person but not ownership; when both sides understand and accept normal changes and societal expectations; when both sides maintain good health and meet needs, Have you seen women in particular, and men too, who do things that are against their health in order to cater to someone else, and then they get sick? That may not be serving the other person at all; they may be setting up a stage for being a martyr-which is not the highest level of moral maturity.

Another indicator of filial maturity is assuming that people should be self-reliant. You have responsibilities both to your own spouse and children and to your parents, but you should never give up your own family in preference to your mother's and father's family. Seeing each other as individuals opens negotiation for changes.

In contrast, here are some situations that cause filial anxiety. It is very difficult to reach an equal status with your parents after you are grown if there has been a long-term alienation or rejection between you, and when there is little willingness to give or receive help. Have you ever tried to give somebody something and they wouldn't receive it? Another source of filial anxiety is an appeal to obligation and duty, such as: "You owe it to me; I spent so much time with you raising you when you were a child; you owe it to me to come over and do this for me." That's when your parents are using you, or you are using your adult son or daughter. That is not the highest level of moral maturity.

Another source of filial anxiety is when there is perceived dependency of the other person, when that other person is not really dependent. There are many adult children who perceive their parents  as dependent, and they always try to tell them what to do: "Let me on buying this house; let me help you decide how to buy your help you with your bank account; let me help you make the decision automobile." The parents may not want that help. They wish their children would stay home. Past overload, too, can be a source of filial anxiety.

A parent's denial of a need for help can be a source of filial anxiety, as well. My father needed a hearing aid. Have you ever tried to get someone who can't hear to want a hearing aid? You say, "You need a hearing aid," and he says, "No, I don't; I heard you." And, of course, you were yelling at the top of your voice.

When former subordinate-superordinate roles are continued by both parents and the adult child, there is no way to reach filial maturity.

In some research in progress at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, one of our students interviewed some upper middle class adults about what it was that they wanted to do when their parents got too old to take care of themselves. Most of the daughters said, "I want to be sure that my parents are independent, but I would certainly be willing for them to come into my home." None of the sons said this. The sons said, "I want my parents to be independent, and I will help them keep their own home, or help them move into a nursing home." Notice the difference? When women have an overload, however, they start yelling, "There's more than I can do; let's put them in a nursing home." In that way, there will be a great many problems between the parents and the children, purely because the daughter took on more than she should have.

In summary, there are two avenues to moral maturity. Women tend to use the avenue of the ethic of care because they've been socialized that way. Men tend to use the avenue of the ethic of justice because they've been socialized that way. But these are two parts of the dialectic of moral maturity. Both are needed in order for us to rear nurturing daughters and nurturing sons.