Is Parenting Over When Kids Grow Up?

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My kids at ages 18 and 21.

How much support should parents give their kids — emotionally and financially — when they’re technically grown up? When I was young, in my early 20s, I was on my own and didn’t receive help financially or emotionally from mom or dad. In fact, I moved to California, got a job and was married within a couple years. Several months after college, I was basically on my own.

Today, parents are helping their kids by paying rent or giving monthly stipends until their kids are “on their feet.” My best friend from college explained to me, “The less you do for them, the faster they become independent.” While that may seem like contradictory advice, it’s really the truth. If you do too much for your young adults, the more dependent they become and the less likely they will grow and learn life lessons. I have two separate friends with daughter’s the same age as mine who said something like, “The Bank of Dad ends in six months after graduation.”

In a Wall Street Journal article called Parenting Isn’t Over When Kids Grow Up by Mark McConville, he explains the challenge of how to help your kids without undermining their independence.

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My daughter after she finished college.

Let’s say that you have recently launched your son or daughter toward college—or a job, or the armed services or perhaps graduate school. In any case, you are done with parenting, ready to collapse into an easy chair, pour yourself a drink and reflect on a job well done.

Then the phone call comes about an intolerable roommate or unfair professor, or hours cut back at work, or a request for a small loan for recording equipment or perhaps a donation for a three-month trek through Europe. And it suddenly dawns on you: You’re parenting in overtime.

How does this happen? Forget the myth that adulthood begins at age 18 or 21. Psychologist Jeffrey Arnett has famously charted the developmental stage that he calls emerging adulthood—“a gradual transition from adolescence to full adulthood that stretches from age 18 to roughly age 30.” His research shows that only in their late 20s do most people feel like an adult “most of the time.” Young people must accomplish a host of big and small developmental tasks to help make the transition, from getting their own living quarters to changing the oil in their car. And one of the paradoxes of growing up is that true independence involves learning when and how to ask for help.

Meanwhile, for economic reasons, more emerging adults remain intimately connected to their parents than ever before. A recent U.S. Census Bureau study shows that over 30% of young adults ages 18-34 still live with their parents. A 2019 Pew Research survey found that the majority of these parents provided financial (60%) and emotional (77%) support within the past year.

So, like it or not, your job isn’t finished. But what should overtime parenting look like? Fortunately, there are some principles that can minimize your sense of powerlessness and frustration while maximizing your ability to support your transitioner’s growth.

One of the ideas I liked the most in the article was the rule that if you’re invested more than 49% of any task, financial support, etc., then in essence you own it. You’ve taken over and you’re doing more than you should. That’s a pretty good guideline to go by.

Follow the 49% rule. Most 20-somethings need emotional support and practical coaching as they face unfamiliar hurdles—filling out applications, opening bank accounts, interviewing for jobs. But however much initiative, energy, or emotional investment is required to accomplish a task, limit your contribution to 49%. Once you drift over 50%, you own it, and you’re likely to see your transitioner’s motivational investment diminish.

That is what happened with a 19-year-old client of mine the summer before beginning college. He was highly anxious about the transition, and this manifested as foot-dragging on a variety of mundane but necessary tasks: submitting medical forms, selecting courses, confirming dormitory placement and so on. His father, anxious about his son’s stalled initiative, stepped in to “help” by tracking due dates, completing forms and generally nagging his son to take care of business.

Unwittingly, his father had crossed the 49% line and taken ownership of the transition process. I said to the dad: “Think of yourself more as a consultant than a supervisor—ready with your wisdom and guidance but allowing your son space to wrestle with the key challenges of initiative and ownership.” He did, and in a few short weeks, the young man got his act together and headed off to a successful college experience.

Another important tip is to allow our children to learn from failure. If we get worked up over their failures or impending tasks and act like everything is a crisis, then we’ll probably jump in and take over. That doesn’t allow our kids to learn from mistakes and become competent adults. Life is a learning curve. I’m continually learning about how to improve — even with parenting my 20-something-year-olds. My kids should be allowed to learn at their own rate, too.

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Me at around the time I graduated college.

How do you help your adult kids and set limits so you don’t do too much?

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