When children were raised, reared, or simply brought up, they emancipated “on time.” Upon high school graduation, children went to college, into the military, or became employed. Some, like my wife and myself, got married before they could vote. Those were the days when young people still wanted to leave home and strike out on their own, something their parents celebrated. Empty-nest syndrome was a rarity.
Since “parenting” has replaced child rearing, the average age of emancipation, especially for males, has soared. Older parents all over the country are asking me what to do about children who won’t leave home or leave home only to come back again, and again, and again. The breakdowns involve drugs, alcohol, video games, employment issues, criminality, and emotional collapses of one sort or another.
“When are you going to write a book on adult children who won’t leave the nest?” they ask.
I answer that the “book” will consist of one page on which will be printed two words: Stop enabling! It’s glib, I know, and I really need to stop making light of what is a serious problem for these folks. Nonetheless, it’s almost always the case that the parents in question are, in fact, enabling. They throw money at problems that aren’t caused by a lack of money and money isn’t going to solve.
I have children. I can’t think of anything harder than putting a child out on the street, telling him that the ride is over and he’s going to have to learn to solve his own problems. For one thing, the possibility is very real that the kid won’t solve his problems, that he’ll sink ever deeper into dissolution.
It’s one thing to tell parents that their enabling has become one of their child’s handicaps; it’s quite another to answer the question, “But what if he just keeps getting worse?” with something other than banalities. There must be no guilt quite as overwhelming, as paralyzing, as the guilt that comes from knowing you could have done something to prevent your child’s personal apocalypse, even if the something would have been nothing more than the same-old, same-old.
Some parents have told me they’ve tried emancipation counseling. It’s certainly worth a try, but the all-too-typical story has everyone agreeing on the plan in front of the counselor and signing the contract only to have the whole thing blow up when push comes to shove.
Other parents have told me they finally decided to let the child keep living at home but stop giving him money. That’s a fine idea, except a good number of those same parents report that their kids began stealing from them. What do you do then? Swear out a criminal complaint and have your child thrown in jail? Again, easier said than done.
The good news is that some of the freeloaders in question suddenly pack their bags, leave, and figure out how to make it on their own (albeit often with an ongoing allowance). In the meantime, however, they’ve wreaked emotional and financial havoc on their parents. I recently talked with the single mom of a 44-year-old who has done and is continuing to do just that. She’s forced, at age seventy, to keep working.
Which brings me back to kicking the slacker out, which sometimes (the reader should know) involves police. Parents who’ve done that tell me that the first six months is the hardest because things get worse before they start getting better. And some parents have told me (the reader should know) that the child in question simply disappeared.
So, when all is said and done, my answer to these questions is one that I have not fallen back on in forty years of writing this column: I don’t know. Life can be very messy at times.