When the first of my children graduated from college and returned home, I felt smart about setting boundaries. In the three months we agreed upon, he’d saved enough to fund his move to the East Coast. On day ninety, as planned, he steered his car towards the rising sun and made his way into the world of adult responsibilities.
But that was a few years ago, before the Great Recession. With the second of my children having recently returned home to live, this time it seems less a rite of passage, and more a symptom of wide-scale societal melt-down.
While I am among those who find themselves unable to simply dust off the old list of rules, I have managed to pull together new guidelines for parents of Boomerang Kids (or, as I will refer to them: BKs.)
1. You can help but don’t enable.
If your BK’s could or should be able to do it for themselves, stay out of it—even if you could do it easier, simpler, or better than them at this point. If they don’t have challenges to face and overcome, they won’t grow. Regardless of whether your BK’s are employed or not, they can be expanding their skill sets, their levels of maturity, their willingness to take on adult responsibilities, their compassion and so on. Tip: If you are leading the job-hunting process for them or filling out their school applications, you’re enabling.
2. Trust and respect are non-negotiable.
If you don’t trust your BK, and if you don’t respect one another, they shouldn’t be living in your home. Period. By the way, the degree of trust and respect one deserves or provides has nothing to do with how much money one is able to bring in during these challenging times.
3. Don’t impose on your BK’s world.
If your BK didn’t attend Aunt Martha’s birthday when he was off at college, don’t necessarily expect him to help frost the cake now that he’s home. Your BK needs the space to nurture his own world of relationships and not return to old roles established when he was a child in your home. Don’t take offense when your BK demands a greater degree of distance between his and your life. In fact, be grateful. This is healthy.
4. Tell the truth about the facts.
I worry about those of us who are going further into debt or using money set aside for retirement to help our BKs now and who are self-sacrificing beyond their means. Many of us are surprised to have found ourselves in such a precarious position at this stage of life, and are tempted to keep contributing more than we can afford both out of love—and let’s admit it—to save face.
A better strategy is transparency: telling the truth about the vulnerable position we’re in and problem-solving together. This only works, by the way, if you paid attention to guideline two, the one about trust and respect as the prerequisite for living together under the same roof. Under these circumstances, truth always empowers.
5. Be flexible, but stay vigilant.
As a society, good-hearted people of all generations are in unmapped territory. Will unemployment get worse instead of better? How long will this last? How are we to relate to one another as adults of different generations under one roof?
As the parents of the BK, it is unfair to judge your adult offspring’s progress by yesterday’s standards. It's also unfair to follow yesterday's rules in order to exert the illusion of control. That said, these times of change and transition should not be taken as a free-for-all. We are all making this up as we go, so be flexible—but stay vigilant. The line between helping and enabling, generosity and martyrdom is a thin one, indeed.
When all else fails, be stingy on advice and generous with love. And as the old saying goes nothing lasts forever—not even hard times.