Tapped Out: Supporting Adult Children

If your kids are so grown up, how come you’re still playing ATM?

By Mary Pleshette Willis

Adulthood, Really?

The transition to adulthood seemed much more straightforward 30 years ago. We went to school. We got an education. We found a job, understanding that, while it wasn’t necessarily our dream job, it was at least a stepping-stone to the career we hoped to pursue. If we weren’t yet earning the riches of Croesus, that was beside the point. The paycheck was an emblem of freedom, of independence; and if we lived in a shoebox, at least it was ours. If we ever needed help, our parents were probably the last people we’d turn to. There was no going back: We had crossed the Rubicon into adulthood.

But in much of the country today, even a shoebox is beyond the reach of many of our kids. So it’s no surprise that a growing number of them don’t appear to be in a hurry to move out. Some are reluctant to leave the comfort and security of home because they can’t afford anyplace else as nice. Others will do almost anything to live on their own, but will happily accept help if they can get it. And then there are those who, after being indulged with more expensive gear then we ever could have imagined (desktop, iPod, cell phone), feel entitled to a similar setup when they leave. Indeed, young adults are enjoying an extended period of dependency, living at home longer (and moving back in more frequently) than ever before. No prizes for guessing who’s footing the bill.

The traditional cutoff for parental support — 18, 21 — is as outdated as a vinyl LP. Which means more and more of us are supporting — and sometimes controlling — our adult children in ways we would never have tolerated from our own parents. This social change is confusing, as both parties try to figure out the new rules for when adulthood officially begins, when children should stop expecting to be taken care of, and when parents should stop playing bank.

Friends and Mothers

"I came from a really rigid background, and I wanted so badly to be close to my children," says Laura Tiffany, a 54-year-old Realtor in Minneapolis/St. Paul whose 23-year-old son, Ben, withdrew from two college art programs — first in Boston, then in New York, both paid for by his parents — before dropping anchor in their basement while he struggled to decide what, finally, to do with his life. It was a frustrating time for everyone. Ben announced he was heading back to New York. "Fine," Laura told him. "But you’re going to have to figure out how to do it yourself." He found a shared apartment with friends, but not a job; so despite their earlier warning, Laura and her husband, Ned, 54, a commercial mortgage broker, opened their wallets again. "We paid his share of the rent," Laura admits.

"I think, from the get-go, our generation has done too much for their kids," she adds. "We’ve been overinvolved."

This desire to be friendlier, more understanding, more hands-on than their own parents was a common theme among the mothers and fathers interviewed for this article. "I’m a good mom," says Gail,* a 62-year-old literary agent who lives with her actor husband, Fred,* in a sunny, art-filled house in the Hollywood Hills. "But I’m not good at disciplining or making rules." This reluctance, she admits, stems in part from the horrible fights she had with her own mother when she was growing up. So when their 24-year-old daughter moved back to L.A. after several years away at school, they were happy to let her stay at home until she found a job and an apartment. But the job she found at a trendy boutique never paid enough to support her, and when she couldn’t keep cats in her apartment, her parents offered to look after them until she found another place. For the next six months, she spent more time visiting her cats and her parents than she did looking for a better-paying job. Meanwhile, they were also paying her car and health insurance, and topping up her cash flow to the tune of $10,000 a year.

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