Guess Who's Staying for Dinner?

updated 08/12/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/12/1991 01:00AM

If you have an adult child who recently set out on his own, leave your porch light on—your son or daughter may soon be returning. According to a recent Census Bureau study, one in nine adults from ages 25 to 34 now lives in a parent's home. These stay-at-homes, whose ranks have swelled from 2 million to 5 million since 1960, include increasing numbers of college graduates who have headed home after confronting a dismal job market and expensive housing. Such "boomerang kids, "says Allan Schnaiberg, a sociology professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and coauthor of an academic study entitled "From Empty Nest to Crowded Nest," may be forced home by economic factors but end up wanting "both the limited responsibilities of childhood and the privileges of adulthood." Schnaiberg, 51', the father of two children and two stepchildren, ages 18 to 25, contends that all too many boomerang kids come from overprotective households. "Faced with failure, they sink back to being rescued," he says. Schnaiberg spoke with Chicago bureau chief Giovanna Breu.

Why has the number of boomerang kids increased in recent years?

If you graduated from college in the '60s and early '70s, you didn't have to be all that diligent to survive, get a decent job, get married and stumble into life. These days it is much tougher. Housing costs have risen dramatically. And white-collar employment is shrinking, even as the number of college grads continues to rise each year. A diploma no longer offers you much hope of gaining access to the executive washroom, unless you are there to clean it.

Is saving money the only reason adult children are returning home?

The parents of this generation raised their kids to expect success but did not teach them to face failure. Given the current state of the economy, parents may have to choose between having independent young adults and having middle-class young adults. Many of these young adults might be launched if they lowered their expectations and accepted work in a lower orbit.

Are men or women more likely to he boomerang kids?

Men, in part because the median age at which they get married these days is 26 or 27, several years later than most young women. Evidence also suggests that women are less likely to return home because they are more restricted than men. They face unresolved emotional issues with their mothers, while men have already gone through that struggle, more or less successfully, at an earlier age.

What kind of new problems do families with boomerang kids face?

There is more competition for privacy and space in a household. If an adult child has a friend stay overnight, where and with whom do they sleep? Are there curfews? How do you make love when you have a young adult up later than you are? Both parents and children have to express needs and capacities and negotiate limits. For example, the old rule that the parent was the chief cook and bottle washer may be totally inappropriate. Each party has to remember that everyone is tired at the end of a workday and indicate what task he or she would prefer to do.

Should parents collect rent?

Most people trade off services rather than board. You can negotiate three or fours hours a week for household chores. The problem arises when the young adult conies home and insists, "I only clean my room and do my wash. Everything else is your responsibility."

Should parents allow returning children an open-ended stay?

One of the worst things parents can do is say, "Stay as long as you want." There ought to be a plan for school or a search for employment and a negotiated time limit for the returning child's stay. If parents create too much of a haven, it makes it even more difficult for the children to assert their independence. On the other hand, if parents throw a kid out without previously establishing a time limit, they'll feel guilty.

What kind of support should parents offer returning children?

Parents need to be realistic sounding boards for their children rather than cheering squads. My daughter who recently graduated from North-western's Medill School of Journalism is telling me that there are no decent jobs out there. I could say unrealistically, "Back in the battle, kid, you can do it." Or I can ask, "How can you find a job that would be a holding action and allow you to move if the market improves?" Or, "Could you be innovative and find a job farther afield?" Parents shouldn't tell their children that they are invincible. We need to see our children for what they are rather than what we wish they could be.

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