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Did we spoil our adult children?

Did baby boomer parents drink the Kool-Aid of  indulgent child-raising gurus and, as a result,  raise a generation of  “adultescents” who delay choosing careers,  couch surf their way around the world, definitely not “put a ring on it” and postpone parenthood until 40?

Author Sally Koslow believes we did, and makes her case in “Slouching Toward Adulthood,” a field guide of sorts to a species of 20- and 30-somethings she classifies as “adultescents.” While Ms. Koslow met some focused, hard-working young adults in her yearlong travels while researching her new book, she found that many have been cast adrift by what she calls a “a perfect storm of overconfidence, a sense of never-ending time, and a grim reaper of a job market.”

Of course, the recession stoked the adultescent culture, but Ms. Koslow also places the blame squarely on the hyper- parenting of baby boomers: “It’s one thing to provide our children shelter in a storm and another to function as an entire weather system.” Ouch! Her prescription for undoing decades of over-parenting?  Tiger Mom-style tough love, especially with boomerang kids.

Written in an engaging style, the book provides great insight into the psyches of both the adultescents and their parents.  We chatted with Ms. Koslow last week, before she headed off to promote the book, published today.

Q. In what you call the “wander years,” you found that adultescents spend their twenties and often early thirties in a seemingly endless search for something or someone better. How do parents influence that attitude?

A. It filters down from the parents. Baby boomers don’t think of themselves as old; they are very invested in looking great and living vibrant lives.  Except if we’re not old then our kids must feel very, very young and feel that they have all the time in the world. That’s the logical outcome. If your parents are young then what’s the rush?

Q.  What’s result of that never-ending time mindset for young adults?

A. Not making a plan usually becomes a plan that falls short. The reality is in many career fields if you don’t get on board early then you don’t get on board. That ship has sailed.  With respect to childbirth the human body hasn’t gotten the message that people would like to wait longer before having children.

Q. Doesn’t part of the delay in make major life decision come from the idea, stoked by parents, that young adults should find their passion and only work in a field where they will love their job?

A. Baby boomers have been extremely invested in raising their children in the way they felt was the right way, giving them the sense that anything was possible. That all comes from good motives and trying to be good parents.  We were influenced by Dr. David Elkind’s “The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Soon, Too Fast,” the landmark book on the preservation of childhood. We tried to do that and as a result spoiled our kids to an unprecedented degree in human history.

Q. You suggest that the best way to show our love for our children is to step back and start to “unmother.” How do you do that?

A. If whole point of raising children is to give them roots and wings, then you have to curtail yourself and try to stop parenting. I think it’s a very hard thing for parents to do because it’s just not in our culture, but ultimately we do our kids a favor by being more standoffish.  As parents we were so focused on trying to create smart, funny high achievers we haven’t valued the softer skills such as responsibility and independence, and it’s time for our children to learn these things themselves.

Q. You believe that parenting requires constant renegotiation and we boomers fail at that. As hundreds of college grads move back home this spring, how should the parent-child relationship change?

A. Don’t treat them they way you treated them when they were 14 years old.  They should be taking down the storm windows, raking the leaves, taking care of younger children, doing laundry and making dinner.  They should be treated like adults.  Clarify expectations; that’s the first thing that doesn’t happen. Do some remedial training; show them how to laundry, if necessary.  You want them to be self sufficient. Not reminding them all the time when they are job hunting:  Did you call this person back?” Make them responsible for themselves.

Q. You write that the ultimate goal of being a parent is to become “if not completely obsolete lovingly marginalized.”  How are we supposed to act?

A. Act more like tough but tenderhearted athletic coaches than fairy godparents with limitless credit cards and indefatigable ability to solve problems.  Boomer parents should adopt the mantra: If you step back, they will be able to step forward.  With all that time not shadowing our adult children’s love we can put more effort into our work, friends, other family and projects.


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  • Grown and Flown June 20, 2012, 7:59 am

    We join you in looking to Sally and her work in Slouching Toward Adulthood as wonderful resources to help parents of all ages.

  • ruth nemzoff June 21, 2012, 9:15 am

    Please don’t blame the parents. We are all products of our times, and most parents did the best they could possibly do. Instead of unmothering, just be yourself, but in a way that recognizes that both your child and you have changed.
    Ruth Nemzoff, Ed.D.
    Author and Speaker: Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008)
    Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family. Forthcoming. (Palgrave/Macmillan, September 2012)
    Resident Scholar
    Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center

  • Ruben Ramirez June 21, 2012, 11:50 pm

    Wholeheartedly agree with Ruth. I wouldn’t blame the parents. There’s are so many factors at play it’s ridiculous.

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