Why do adult children live with their parents?

Posted: Jun 12, 2002 12:00 AM
The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that unprecedented numbers of American adults are living with their parents. Most obvious is the increasingly common phenomenon of men and women returning home after graduating college. Both the newspaper and callers to my radio show offered a variety of explanations, all of which were accurate: So much work -- academic and professional -- is needed today in order to become self-sufficient, therefore, it makes a lot of sense to stay home and save money while preparing for a future profession. There may, however, be an additional and even more significant explanation. Far more adult children stay home today because it is often quite pleasant to live with one's parents. This is a break -- a positive and significant break -- with the past. Very few people in the past would have liked living with their parents beyond childhood. In fact, very many people did not like living with their parents during their childhood. Of course, this is not the first generation of children to love or respect its parents. And surely many people today, just as in the past, have serious problems with their parents. But this generation of Americans (and quite possibly other Westerners) was raised with more freedom, autonomy and respect than probably any in history. Most of us believe that in some important ways, including child rearing, American society has deteriorated. But we also need to acknowledge areas of improvement, and there have been enormous improvements in some of the ways children are being raised. Do you remember the saying "Children should be seen and not heard"? That saying accurately reflected society's view of children. Children were not, to put it simply, taken seriously. They were rarely regarded as persons in their own right or as individuals who should be able to express themselves (that is what "be seen and not heard" meant). Children were regarded more like clones whose primary reason for being was to give parents pleasure and reflect honor on them. It is certainly true that many parents have gone too far, rarely disciplining their children, trying to be their pals rather than their parents, almost never saying "no" to them, and treating them as if they were adults (thus denying them their innocence). But whether or not they went too far, the fact is that a vast number of parents made their homes far more livable, even enjoyable, for their children than parents in the past did. As a result, more and more adult children do not regard being in their parents' company nearly as unpleasant or even embarrassing as children used to. Let's be clear here. It must indeed be the goal of children to live and to make a new home on their own. As the Book of Genesis puts it, "And therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife and be as one flesh." That is the way a person grows up to become a responsible adult. But with so many more years of formal education needed and with marriage happening at an increasingly later age, it is not necessarily a shirking of responsibility and a desire to remain a child that animates some adult children to temporarily live with their parents. The question is: How do you know when continuing or returning to live with one's parents is just laziness or a common-sense decision for the time being? You know by observing what these adult children are doing while at home. Are they partying all night, waking up late in the morning and watching a lot of television? Or are they working hard toward the day they can establish a home of their own? If it is the former, the parents are merely enablers. If it is the latter, the parents have succeeded both in instilling good values in their child and in becoming their child's friend (which is what the parents of adults should eventually become). And that is something new that, at least in this arena of life, makes these days a lot better than the good old days.