Last week marked NYU’s spring break so while students enjoyed fun in the sun–some on southern beaches and others in unseasonably warm Washington Square Park—I had time to socialize at lunches with friends and at a St. Patrick’s Day party. As often with baby boomer social situations, the conversation started with “So how are the kids?” The answer is that the 20- and 30-something kids are fine but their parents are a bit perplexed by their attitudes towards work, their “addiction” to cell phones, and the house rules for boomerang kids. These offspring are all what we would call “good” kids; either already on a path to success or hard at work trying to find one. Not a bad apple in the basket. Yet I came away from multiple conversations with the sense that loving parents are trying to figure out what makes the younger generation tick but are left confused by the cultural differences. What follows is impressionistic report from the front lines of parenting; no names are used to protect both parents and adult children!
Take cell phones, for example. During a several conversations, parent after parent recounted how their adult children’s cell phone mailboxes are full because they don’t use voice mail and never delete messages. Why not listen to your messages? parents asked. The answer, a young man told his mom: “You’re the only one who calls and leaves messages. None of my friends do.” The guaranteed way to reach her son, another mom related, was to text. Yes, the parents nodded, it seems most sons will actually text back. Alleluia! Daughters, all agreed, are decidedly less difficult to reach and do actually listen to messages…sometimes.
But daughters and sons are equally rude, according to parents, when it comes to constant texting: while having a conversation, during meals, while shopping, while walking in the park, on family vacations. One mom asked her son to stop texting at the dinner table; he was insulted that she said he was being rude. Another mom wondered what exactly her daughter constantly texts. Was there that much drama in her life? No, she was assured by other parents, it just that young people update multiple friends on the tiniest details of their lives, which prompted one mom to ask rhetorically, “Do any of you care what I had for lunch today?” Chalk it up to generational differences.
Parents were also flummoxed by their adult children’s attitudes toward careers. One young man told his mother that he was looking for a job that he could “enjoy” going to each day. “Why do you think they call it ‘work?’” she told him. “It’s not supposed to be fun.” Another was puzzled why her son the attorney no longer wants to practice law. “I guess he’ll find a business-type job,” she said with a shrug. Yet another father was taken aback when a friend’s daughter announced that her job was “nothing really important.” He was a bit exasperated: “She’s 22. She’s not going to be CEO!”
The overflowing nest generated much discussion, with the most frequent concerns about job counseling, charging rent and overnight guests. The struggle was neatly summed up by one woman who saw her challenge as “making the transition from a hands-on mom to an occasional sounding board.” But how does that work when junior is looking for a job by surfing the web and not much else, or not being assertive in networking, or being unwilling to take a part-time job for spending money. No easy answers and, as more than one mom pointed out, not only does the answer vary from family to family but even among different children in a family, depending on personality, education and career goals.
And when employment is finally secured do parents charge rent and how much? The answer was a resounding “yes” from all concerned. Not only is the child now an adult and expected to contribute to the household that provides meals, a nice bedroom and free wifi but collecting rent also teaches budgeting. One mom noted her daughter could afford designer shoes; it just took her whole paycheck. Paying rent forces an adult child to live on a budget. Depending on the family’s economic circumstances some parents used the rent for household expenses while others were socking it away to be returned to help with an apartment security deposit when the child finally moves out.
So what happens when an adult child’s Romeo or Juliet wants to sleep over? Decidedly mixed answers on that. One mom set up her son in a basement bedroom. His longtime girlfriend also recently moved home to save money and the son asked if she could stay over on weekends. The mother felt that there was enough space between the basement and her second floor bedroom so her privacy was not invaded but warned, “No pajamas at the breakfast table.” However another mother was thrown off when her son cavalierly announced that his girlfriend would be sleeping in his bedroom, a few feet and a shared bathroom away from her. The mom was quite firm in her “No way.” She explained, “It’s my house and my rules and if I’m uncomfortable—and I am—then he has to abide by that.”
Attitudes toward house rules also varied. One mom wondered why she needs “rules” for her own child living at home. However, judging from the experience of other parents, it seems that intergenerational living works better when rules are clearly spelled out. Perhaps the word rules seems too prison-like; maybe we should call them something fancy like “principles for living.” Whatever the term, when adult children know they are supposed to do their own laundry and/or family grocery shop and/or pay their cell phone bill, there seem to be fewer misunderstandings: “I didn’t know you wanted me to (fill in the blank).” When adult children have a plan of action for finding a job or going back to get a master’s, parents are also less likely to be, as they saying goes, “on their case.”
Case in point: When her son was about to move back home, one mom and her husband sat down with him and agreed upon household responsibilities, paying rent and career plans. That allowed her, she related, to enjoy his company and not hassle about the details. He stayed home about a year and has now moved out to his own place. And the mom? She misses him!