Getting to Know Today's adult child
Think back to 1959. Cars had fins, television broadcast in black and white, and a microwave was a hairstyle, not an oven. Most agree life was simpler then; certainly our culture was far more predictable. Everyone knew the script—young people finished high school and either went to college or got a job. For some, their first job was in the military. With or without college, full-time employment meant that independence was just around the corner. They would find their own apartment and start to save for the day when they married and began a family.
That was forty years ago. Then if you had an adult son or daughter, the grown child typically lived near you. After the child married (most married young), the young couple often would join the whole clan for Sunday dinner and for holidays at your home, though otherwise the young couple would live their own lives. As parents, now and then you might have watched the grandchildren, and when you retired the grown children made their pilgrimage to Florida or California to see you, usually with grandkids in tow. Everyone knew their role and played it quite well. If life was not always happy, at least it was stable.
THOSE CHANGING TIMES
Forty years ago, this book would not have been written. But things have changed during the past four decades, and the predictable is no more. It began with the tumultuous sixties that attacked a way of life we had taken for granted. The birth-control pill came first, followed by legal abortion; together they fueled the so-called sexual revolution. Vietnam and political intrigue led to Watergate and a disillusioned public. Society became mobile, and people moved (often because of job changes) every five or six years; change seems always just around the corner. Now we sometimes wish we could go back to those more predictable times, before Vietnam, before social upheaval, before the sexual revolution and rebellion against tradition.
Nowhere have the changes been more poignantly felt than in the family circle, and particularly by parents of those amazing and puzzling young people we call Generation X, as well as some of the younger baby boomers. Among the changes affecting the contour of the family circle are:
1. Adult children typically live more than one hundred miles away, often out of state.
2. Parents hope to see their children one big holiday a year, not every Sunday for dinner.
3. Many adult children don't marry until their late twenties or their thirties.
4. Some adult children have live-in partners of the opposite sex, sharing their lives and sometimes their checking accounts, but not marrying. They're convinced marriage is too risky, at least for a while.
5. Adult children value leisure time more than their parents and feel less loyalty to their jobs.
It is easy enough to try to lay blame for the changing, unsettled times solely on uncontrollable factors. Yet many of today's uneasy parents have to look no further than their own experiences in the sixties and seventies, and often the actions of their own parents. For it was then that some of their parents no longer felt compelled to stay in marriages that were not bringing them the emotional satisfaction they desired. Many young people decided that sex was too beautiful to be kept for marriage, that multiple partners was the wave of the future. The pleasures of recreational drug use and sexual experimentation drew many, and the social stigmas waned; soon accepted moral values were questioned and tossed overboard. Family stability was left floundering in a raging storm and its casualties seemed to be everywhere.
Today some of those casualties are the 40 percent of our young adults who grew up in broken families. They are also the millions who were labeled latchkey children, who had keys to their homes after school, as their parents were away, working. These children were more often shuffled and managed than parented. They and their friends watched their parents and other adults live, and they arrived at conclusions that would later cause their parents great confusion.
With all these changes, we parents wonder now how we should relate to our adult children. Indeed, if there is a set role for parents to play, not many know it well enough to ensure a successful production. There are roles that parents can and should play in the lives of their adult children, as we plan to show in this book; but to play those roles, we need to better understand our children. Let's begin by looking at the prevailing attitudes of our adult children.
ATTITUDES TOWARD WORK AND PLAY
One area confusing many parents is their children's different attitudes toward careers. "Many young adults regard their parents' jobs that kept the parents away from the home as a form of workaholism, and they view that workaholism as a failure." They grew up "watching adults nearly work themselves to death, only to be down-sized and restructured out of their chosen careers. Moreover, this is the first wave of latchkey kids to hit the work force, and they resent the amount of time their parents spent at work."
I heard this attitude voiced during a break at a recent medical conference. The national conference focused on ways to practice medicine as a Christian physician in a managed care society. Most of the doctors attending were in their early forties. Though at the edge of the young adult years, these doctors were relatively young, among the last of the baby boom generation.
On the conference's final day, I sat at a table with eleven other physicians. One of them looked at me and asked, "Ross, why are people in your generation such workaholics?"
"What do you mean, John?" I asked.
He answered with an angry edge to his voice. "Your generation has set the tone of working too hard and too many hours a day. This makes us younger ones look bad."
I was mildly shocked to hear this from a doctor and responded, "You mean you don't want to work hard, John?"
"I don't mind working hard, but not as hard as your generation does. You seem to want to work all the time."
To my surprise, all the others at the table agreed with him. At first I felt a bit put out with my younger colleagues; but after thinking it over, I realized that what John had said was not all bad. It is true that my generation tended to sacrifice some important areas of life on the altar of work.
John went on to explain that he wanted to give more time to his wife and children than he is presently able to do with working in managed care.
I thought back on my own experiences as a younger physician and family man, and I knew that there was much truth to what he was saying, and I didn't have the hassles then of the managed care scene.
Many of our young people want to establish a lifestyle similar to what their parents have, and they want to do it right away. Although unemployment is at a very low rate as we are writing this book, there are fewer high-paying jobs today. Most of the jobs available are in the service categories, which do not offer a good wage. This means that great numbers of well-trained young people are looking for fewer and fewer high-paying positions.
Today's young adults may have watched their fathers loyally work for one or two employers in their careers. That is hardly an option anymore, and company loyalty to employees is pretty much a thing of the past. One factor in this is technology, which has led to downsizing and greater competition in the marketplace.
Today's young people want the good life now. They want to travel and enjoy hobbies and sports. They want satisfying relationships and freedom to explore and do new things. They don't have much patience with the notion of working decades to gradually rise to the lifestyle their parents enjoy.
This may be one of the most confusing questions in society and also in our families. For the most part, adult children have seen their parents spend way too much time on work, often neglecting home and family. And then, when life should be in the reward stage, they have seen their parents laid off, downsized, or fired. And the parents who have worked too much are also caught in the confusion, compounded by their feelings of guilt for neglecting their children.
ATTITUDES TOWARD PARENTAL HELP
Many adult children display a dependence on their parents that is foreign to an older generation. Perhaps they are silently voicing the opinion that they didn't receive enough time or attention or emotional input when they were younger. Perhaps they are expressing the confusion of the time in which they were coming to adulthood. Whatever the reason, many young adults display overdependence on their parents. In asking for parental help, they seem to be saying, "I need more from you, Mom and Dad."
In some adult children, this is expressed in an expectation that Mom and Dad will fund portions of their lives. The signs that pop up at televised college football games reflect the cry of a generation, "Hi, Mom! Send money." In other children, it comes when adult children insist that their parents spend inordinate amounts of time helping them or caring for their children. It may be that often unexpressed need for more personal sharing, for more verbalization of affection, for more investment of person in the lives of the children.
Some parents feel trapped or overwhelmed by these demands. One young adult answered the phone to hear her mother say, "Honey, I am calling to see if Dad and I can bring your children by for you and Bruce to keep tonight. We have an invitation for a dinner date tonight." Obviously, this grandmother was wanting some relief.
FEELINGS OF GUILT AND DISTANCE
Many of our young adult children were part of the "hurried child" generation. With an increasing number of mothers entering the workforce at that time, and with the rise in divorce, many of these young people were rushed from home to baby-sitter and later from school to baby-sitter. Family life was frenetic and the emotional needs of these children often went unmet. Young people who feel that they were neglected as children may harbor deep anger against their parents. Their behavior at times can make one wonder if they are now punishing their parents or demanding that they will get the time they needed—now if not then.
Parents who know that they gave their children less than enough time or attention may now feel the guilt of this neglect. Such guilt makes them less able to deal well with their adult children.
At the same time, some of those who need more from their parents stay away from home because they can't handle the complications of their families' lives. When Gary's son, Derek, was in the university, he remarked one Christmas: "Five of my best friends did not go home for the holiday. Their parents are divorced and they didn't want the hassle of trying to relate to them separately. They stayed on campus feeling as if they no longer had homes and families."
MEET TODAY'S YOUNG ADULT
About Generation X
In this book we are talking about relating to your eighteen-to thirty-five-year-old child. (We also will look at those on the cusp of adulthood, ages sixteen and seventeen.) Of course, some of the discussion will also help you understand and deal with older adult children, especially those in their late thirties and forties. But the focus is on those young adults who are members of Generation X, the name given to those born between 1965 and 1983. This label marks them from the better-known and larger baby boomer generation, who were born between 1946 and 1964. While it may seem artificial and unfair to gather all Generation Xers into one pot, these young people do seem to share enough attitudes to make them a distinct group.
Knowing how great numbers of them think and feel can be helpful to you when you are at wits' end trying to understand your child. This generation has caused much confusion and consternation to their elders.
Many employers complain that Xers are difficult to work with because of their poor attitudes, particularly toward authority. Employers commonly use the following terms to describe them:
Expecting large salaries without adequate experience or expertise
Refusing to listen or to work with diligence or dedication
Slow to accept advice
Lacking respect for the experience of older workers
Using indirect means of expressing their anger, such as tardiness, shoddy work, or undermining their employer
College professors have made similar evaluations of Generation X and many of them cannot wait for retirement when they will not have to deal with these young people any longer. They complain of students: (1) cheating on a massive scale; (2) refusing to take responsibility for their own grades; (3) showing belligerence toward professors; (4) skipping classes; and (5) having abundant excuses for not doing assigned work.
A mature person is willing to take responsibility for his behavior and to accept the consequences of his behavior. Apparently, large numbers of employers and educators feel that these young people refuse to take responsibility on both counts.
However, as many of these Generation Xers are growing older, they are maturing, even as they respond to the culture in which they have grown up. Clearly they are not so much people of bad character as they are children who have taken a long time to grow up. In previous generations, young people between ages eighteen and twenty-one were able to take responsibility for their lives. Generation X is maturing more slowly; we watch some of them beginning to take responsibility for their lives around age thirty.
The reasons for the longer maturing are not crucial, nor should our Generation X children be criticized for the pressures (and diversions) that society and their parents may have given them. The point is their entry into true adulthood typically has been delayed. That raises a question. What is adulthood?
In American society we used to have predictable times and means for marking the transition to adulthood, such as finishing high school, getting married, having children, owning a home, and settling into a career. But as Ross E. Goldstein, a specialist on generational transitions, comments:
Assembling these pieces of the "American Dream" is becoming more difficult. It may be time to redefine the meaning of being "grown up." If we continue to apply the same standards used to identify the transition from childhood among Baby Boomers, we may discover that Generation X will never grow up.
This is not the first time that the definition of "adulthood" has been adjusted in our society. When college or other advanced education became the norm for a large share of American men and women, the deferral of adulthood began. Young people delayed marriage, had their children when they were older, and started careers later.
Today as Generation Xers finish their schooling, they are not always ready to tackle the challenge of jobs and families. In their inability or reticence, they are creating a new phase of life between dependent childhood and independent adulthood. And, some see them as doing this on purpose. Career counselor Rebecca Haddock has noted, "Many of the students I work with are planning to return home after college. It's not viewed as a last resort. It's part of a plan."
These young people who move home can be divided into two groups: the planners and the strugglers. The planners expect to return home and to live there until they are ready to marry and raise a family. The strugglers simply go home. They don't want to struggle alone and need the security of home.
A QUESTION OF EXPECTATIONS
What does everyone expect? Good question. What we have been talking about so far is the matter of expectations. We parents have some expectations that are very different from those held by our adult children. What we consider to be failure or immaturity may be regarded in a completely different light by our adult children. They may see their actions as careful planning, as normal and necessary steps in achieving their goals.
These differing viewpoints would not be so conflict-producing if our expectations were only for our own lives; but when our expectations lean on our children and seem to create pressures for them, trouble is just around the corner. And when our children expect certain things of us that we are not able or prepared to give them, we feel pressured. And then, when none of this is openly expressed, the pressure escalates and the stage is set for a confrontation.
Most parents, for example, expect some time for themselves when their children are grown. Instead they may feel put upon by their young adult children. Some parents watch as their children return home after college and take up residence in the home. When the adult children marry and do set up their own household, their parents may discover that the child care never ends. As one father said some years ago, "I thought that when the kids were grown, they would take care of themselves, but that isn't the case. When they marry and have children, my wife and I have that many more people to take care of." This particular family was very stable and loving and the father did not mean that the children were moving back home; rather, there was a level of emotional dependence he hadn't expected.
Parents also find themselves in confrontations with their adult children over other dashed expectations. Perhaps your children have given you disappointment, frustration, and concern from one of the following situations: doing poorly in college, wasting time and money; finishing college but then wandering and/or moving back home for a while to "get their feet on the ground"; having a marriage end in divorce in a few years, perhaps moving back home with a child or two; spending far beyond their means; or making lifestyle and employment choices that turn out disastrously.