Why are my kids still living at home?!
Author: Ann Lo, LMFT
Mary is a 20-year old college student, though in some respects she is like a high schooler. She lives at home, drives her parents’ car, eats food that her mother cooks, and gets money to help pay for gas, her cell phone, tuition, and schoolbooks. She maintains passable grades at the local community college she attends, and has a part-time job at a store in the mall to help provide extra pocket-money. Her parents hope she will try to transfer to a U.C. school, but Mary is content to stay the course and see what happens.
Henry is a recent college graduate with his first job. He’s also living at home, though his parents feel it is more like a hotel. He showers and sleeps there, and sometimes has dinner with his parents, but most nights he’s out with friends, and sometimes will take mini-trips on the weekends to go skiing or to visit friends. It has been 9 months on the job, but he is already talking about quitting. He’s not sure what the next job will be, but probably something more exciting and closer to what he “really wants to do.”
Parents are left somewhat bewildered at the life paths taken by their young adult-aged children in their 20’s and 30’s. With all of the opportunities that were given them growing up – piano and swimming lessons, tutoring, SAT prep courses, and never needing to worry about material comforts like shelter, food, clothes, cars, cell phone – why aren’t they more motivated, achieving higher goals, and solidly advancing in a career? Parents who expected their children to “hit the ground running” are seeing their children standing still and looking around, apparently aimless and unsure of which direction to go. The mounting anxiety that parents express about their children’s future is interpreted as additional pressure to angst-ridden young adults who feel they are trying their best to “figure it out,” leading to tension and conflicts.
What’s a family to do? One thing is to understand the contrasting worlds that each has experienced. The stereotypical experience of most immigrant Chinese parents is one of coming to the U.S. as a graduate student (something already requiring much initiative and drive), finding a mate (most likely someone Chinese), landing a stable job and sticking with it in order to provide for the family. Options were limited, and success required hard work and self-initiative – “survival” was the key operating word for life in a foreign country. As parents, they wanted to provide their children all the comfort and ease they did not have growing up. What their ABC children have experienced is exactly that – a life of comfort and ease, with less hands-on experience of life’s hardships. Added to that is the abundance of life in the 21st century: look in any supermarket and you’ll see an entire aisle of choices for a single product; cable TV has over 150 channels; the internet provides limitless access to information.
Young adults are not driven by a need for “survival,” but rather have a need for “significance.” British research Kate Fox has coined a new term for this generation – “yeppies – Young Experimenting Perfection seekers”, the children of yesterday’s “yuppies.” They want personal fulfillment but don’t know what that is and how to get it. Fox describes them as “lifestyle shoppers” who try different jobs and relationships, but are afraid to commit because there might be something more “perfect” out there. What if they make the wrong choice and are unhappy? Young adults can become paralyzed by the flurry of choices. At the same time, there are endless opportunities for “do-overs” if one thing doesn’t work out. All this can contribute to parents’ chagrin that their young adult does not settle down the traditional path of career-marriage-house-children.
Young adults who are pressured into completing a college degree in a major of their parents’ choosing will then spend the next several years trying to figure out what they “really want to do.” Chinese parental advice to “choose a practical major, have something you can fall back on” clash with this generation’s message to “be fulfilled” and “find something meaningful.” Young adults are more idealistic and have the financial means and room to explore endless possibilities for careers, thanks to the provisions of their parents. Some, having experienced comfort and wealth, and want to “give back” and make a difference in the world by becoming inner-city school teachers, for example. This voluntary movement to work with the poor flies in the face of parents who worked so hard for their children to avoid rubbing shoulders with poverty and discomfort.
How can immigrant parents navigate the relationship with their young adult children? Should parents be worried when they don’t seem to be “growing up” or moving on in life? Parental anxiety would be lessened by recognizing the two differences between themselves and their ABC children. One – their approach to life is not the same. There is simply less urgency to find a job and stick to it. Traveling and seeing the world is something to be done before settling into a career, not after years of working or reserved for retirement. Significance, not survival, is the key motivator. Two – their life skills are not the same. Though well-provided for, some young adults have been robbed off the opportunity to develop life skills that adults need. Real adults do more than “just study hard” – they also budget their own time, balance their checkbooks, making decisions, and are responsible for the consequences of those decisions. Those years of being woken up by parents for school or having parents pay for prom may leave them less equipped to function in an adult world of getting to work on time or paying off credit cards debts.
To those “yeppies” at home who lack signs of responsible living (i.e. playing video games all day and not going to school or working), it’s time for parents to raise expectations and stick to them. Ask them to pay rent or contribute to the household groceries. Let them work to pay for their own living expenses like car insurance and movies out with friends. A hard decision that parents may need to be prepared for is telling their adult children to move out.
Some young adults live at home because it is more financially feasible than paying the high cost of rent, but are otherwise independently functioning adults. Parents who find their children back in the nest need to have a good heart-to-heart and discuss expectations for this “new” living arrangement. Indeed it is new, because this is no longer a teenager in need of supervision. “Curfews” are inappropriate and frustrating for young adults who have lived independently for 4 years at college. Clarify expectations about if and when dinners will be shared. Will rent be paid? How much financial contribution is the young adult expected to make to the household? How long will this arrangement last?
The transition to adulthood is one that not only children go through, but parents as well. An adult-to-adult relationship with your children requires an attitude adjustment and a letting go of your responsibility so they can take up their own responsibility. That means letting them make their own choices and figuring things out for themselves, even if it is several years of trying different careers, and even if it means failure at first. A little suffering is good for character building. Be supportive and give them your blessing to spread their wings.
Treat your child like an adult and you’ll soon discover that he is one.