Last month I wrote about a mother concerned about her 22-year-old daughter. She felt her daughter was struggling and she didn’t know how to help. I advised her that small children need parents who will manage the environment to keep them safe, whereas adolescents need our support and faith more than our management skills.
I was flooded with e-mails mostly from mothers of adult children between the ages of 20 and 30 with similar concerns.
One was worried about her 23-year-old daughter who seemed insecure and unable to maintain consistent relationships with her boyfriends. The mom wondered if there was anything she should do to help her.
Another was concerned about her 26-year-old daughter who returned home after living away for several years. Her daughter had been rebellious as a teenager, and now mom found herself checking up on her as if she were an adolescent.
All of this concern about children in this age group is really no surprise. In his book, Emerging Adulthood, University of Maryland professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett observes that in 1970, a typical 21-year-old was nearly finished with education, married or engaged, and likely to be a parent within a couple of years.
Not so today. The average four-year college education takes 51/2 years, and marriage, children and career track typically don’t converge until the late 20s or early 30s.
Where do they live during this decade? Bob Schoeni, an economics and public policy professor at the University of Michigan, says the percentage of 26-year-olds living with their parents has nearly doubled since 1970, from 11 percent to 20 percent.
Given the fact that most parenting books stop after adolescence, parents are on their own with this new generation. So how do we know when to get involved and when to back off? Well, the rules of parenting are pretty much the same. As our children grow, so must we. Over time, our jobs involve less management and more consultation. And when our children are adults, the latter should be offered only when asked for.
After all, if we don’t respect their adulthood, how can they?
When they move back home, we must treat them like adults. Living under your roof carries with it certain benefits and responsibilities. Many families I know charge their adult children rent or have them contribute to the household expenses. Most have these new adults share responsibility for household duties. On the other hand, these adult children should not be scrutinized for where they go and the hours they keep as long as they are respectful of everyone else.
Remember the overall goal is to help them achieve independence. So all decisions about rules and roles should be in that context. For example, does allowing them to live rent-free or subsidizing their income give them the freedom to pursue their goals, or does it give them the freedom to stay stuck?
As you struggle with these short-term issues, it might be helpful to think about the long term.
One of my e-mails was from Joseph. He said that until his mid-30s, he lived an unsettled life. He went to school, worked various jobs, and then hitchhiked around Europe and even dabbled in drugs. He said that looking back, he was sure his mother had anxious times, but she generally trusted and respected him. As she aged and became more fragile, Joseph grew more anxious about her living alone. But despite his anxiety and desire to be protective, he always had great respect for her wishes to be independent. Just as she respected him several decades earlier, he respected her now.
After all, as we care for our children, they will care for us. And if we care with anxiety and intrusive advice, that’s what we can expect in our senior years. But if we care with love, honor and respect…