Children who are neither adults nor children
Sunday, May 23, 2004
NEW YORK -- This should be the time of year when new college graduates celebrate their independence, moving into a home they can finally call their own.
"Should" is the operative word.
In reality, many twentysomethings are living in their childhood rooms, struggling to reconcile their status as working adults with their traditional role within the family.
This full-nest syndrome isn't easy on parents, either.
"When you go into bookstores, there are loads of shelves about toddlers, babies, maternity, even some on teenagers, but there is nothing about parenting adult children," says Susan Morris Shaffer, co-author of "Mom, Can I Move Back in With You?: A Survival Guide for Parents of Twentysomethings" (Tarcher/Penguin).
Parents who thought the teenage years posed challenges might soon realize that they were just a warmup for "adultescence," which can hit any time between 18 and 30, says Linda Perlman Gordon.
The markers of adulthood for past generations just don't apply anymore, Gordon says, since it's unlikely that a 21-year-old will be starting a family, buying a house and become established in a career path right out of the gate.
"You can't see this age as black or white. They are not kids and, in some ways, they're not adults; 30 is the new 20," she says.
Gordon, a clinical social worker, family therapist and trained mediator, is the mother of 21- and 30-year-olds; Shaffer is the deputy director of gender equity programs at the Mid-Atlantic Equity Center and is the mother of 21- and 28-year-olds. Both live in Chevy Chase, Md.
Parents are parents for life, but usually there is a change in style and expectations once "children" finish their schooling and join the work force, Shaffer says. However, she adds, respecting adult children's independence can be hard when they are still eating food parents pay for, wearing clothes parents pay for and borrowing their parents' car.
Complicating things further is that there is less of a generation gap than ever before as parents and children share tastes in entertainment and recreation.
Gordon notes the contradiction that today's children seem to be so much more sophisticated than previous generations because they are exposed to so much more at a younger age. For instance, even though they might have a credit card as teenagers, they have no idea how to handle a checkbook to pay off their bills, she says.
"Sixty-two percent of current college graduates expect to move back home. My generation would have rather died," Shaffer says.
Even grown-up children who do venture out on their own are very connected to their parents, calling mom or dad to ask how to hire a plumber or how to deal with a lemon car, Shaffer says.
"We're a very competent group of parents who grew a generation of competent kids but we didn't teach them skill sets that would give them independence. Instead they have skills that make them emotionally and financially tied to us," she observes.
Gordon and Shaffer say the easiest way to remedy this is to use parenting techniques from the children's youth and adapt them, for instance:
Address your children in a manner that encourages effective communication and respectful interdependence.
Nurture your children's development and maturity, rather than supporting their wants and lifestyle preferences.
Base decisions on the individual needs of adult children rather than their sense of entitlement.
Make decisions based on respect for children's emerging adulthood and your own needs.
Avoid imposing solutions on your children or capitulating to their demands.
Make a decision based on the lessons you would like your adult children to learn, not on the results you want.
Be open to choices your adult children make, even when those choices may not be the ones you would make.
Gordon and Shaffer both stress the most important thing to remember is that not the kids nor the parents are a failure if they all reunite under one roof as adults. Instead, see it as an opportunity.
"The chance to maintain an open connection with your children can only be beneficial," says Gordon.
Shaffer adds: "I know my children know me, and children of this generation will know their parents better, so when it comes time to take care of the older generation, the children will step up to the plate."