The Parent Trap?

Adult children are relying more on their parents than ever before. But as a UT professor and her colleague explain, that’s not entirely bad.

Just when parents thought they might finally be free of their children, many of this year’s college graduates will pick up their degrees —and move back home. Even those who don’t may continue to live off the parental dole; at the start of HBO’s hit series Girls, Hannah, played by Lena Dunham, is trying to keep the monthly checks from Mom and Dad coming. The fragile economy could exacerbate the phenomenon of delayed adolescence, keeping Americans in their late 20s and even early 30s dependent on their families for years.

But this is not necessarily the nightmare scenario it’s made out to be. Our research shows that the closer bonds between young adults and their parents should be celebrated, and do not necessarily compromise the independence of the next generation.

Grown children benefit greatly from parental help. Young adults who received financial, practical and emotional support from their parents reported clearer life goals and more satisfaction than young adults who received less parental support. This support ranged from room and board to making a car available, to parents’ listening to their son or daughter talk about the day.

Twenty-five years ago, young people sought advice and help from naïve peers. Today’s young adults may be savvier than their predecessors; they receive advice and help from middle-aged adults with greater life experience and material resources to offer.

This relationship has been evolving over the last generation.

In 1986, about half of parents reported that they had spoken with a grown child in the past week. In 2008, 87 percent said they had. In 1988, less than half of parents gave advice to a grown child in the past month, and fewer than one in three had provided any hands-on help. Recent data show that nearly 90 percent of parents give advice and 70 percent provide some type of practical assistance every month.

It turns out that many parents and children want this close contact. We first observed a shift in this relationship in 1999, when the economy was booming. Even before the cellphone era, many 20-something women talked with their mothers several times a week. They discussed boyfriend problems, classes and plans for the future. They brought home their laundry, went shopping with their mothers and even pronounced their mothers (and sometimes their fathers) their “best friends.” Their descriptions might have seemed cloying, yet the mothers involved said that they were thrilled. They took pride in their daughters and reveled in the intimacy.

These trends have accelerated over the past 10 years. Adult offspring today text their parents often, befriend them on Facebook and willingly accept emotional support, advice and a financial boost. Young men are as likely to be involved with parents as young women.

The benefits of parental involvement are not surprising from a global perspective. In other cultures and among many ethnic subcultures in America, young adults are expected to be intensely involved with their parents. Romantic relationships and marriage were the ties of primary importance in the United States during the 20th century. But in this new century, with delays in marriage, more Americans choosing to remain single, and high divorce rates, a tie to a parent may be the most important bond in a young adult’s life.

Technological and economic developments have contributed to this shift. Nationwide cellphone calling plans and e-mail ease communication. Young people spend extra years in school to pursue well-paying careers. Teenagers who don’t go on to higher education need even more parental support while they work at low-paying jobs with irregular hours. The economic downturn did not push kids out of the family.

Although this parental support seems to be a good thing, the new arrangements also rankle many people and violate ideals of autonomy that have long prevailed in this nation.

In our surveys, parents and grown children alike reported uneasiness, viewing intense parental support in adulthood as a sign of damaging over-involvement. Parents reported less satisfaction about their own lives if they believed their children were too dependent. The problem isn’t with the help, per se, but with viewing that support as abnormal and worrying that it could cause harm. Maybe we just need to get over this discomfort.

In fact, we could be celebrating the strong bonds between today’s young people and their parents, rather than lamenting the foibles of the next generation. Forty years ago, the news media were filled with reports of a generation gap. Let’s be grateful that we’ve finally solved that problem.

Karen L. Fingerman is a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. Frank F. Furstenberg is a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood. This story was first published in the New York Times.

Illustration by Ashley Solano.


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