Our kids coming out of college have been struggling--it's hard to find a job, no less one that is a stepping stone to a career. A lot of us are supporting those kids, either by hosting them rent free at home (goodbye emtpy nest) or giving them a monthly stipend while they job hunt. When times are tough, tough love doesn't quite seem the right answer. But when does the helping hand stop? Even if we can afford it, is there a point at which we have to tell our kids to sink or swim?
That was a question Carolyn Hax dealt with in a recent column. A mom, whose 26 year old daughter had had an assortment of odd jobs, finally landed a job at an art gallery--a job in her career arc. The mom has continued to give her daughter a $2,500 a month stipend to help cover living expenses. But she would like to break the habit. "I feel she should shoulder more of her own expenses, given what she earns. There always seems to be some unexpected expense that crops up, though, preventing me from cutting back my support." The latest unexpected expense: the daughter wants to quit the job and open up her own art gallery with a co-worker, who would provide the financial banking--but not a living wage for the daughter.
The mom wants to retire but her retirement income isn't big enough to continue to support her daughter at the $2,500 a month level. There is a nagging reason why this mom keeps shelling out money: If her daughter fails at her endeavor, she might be destitute and "then she might have to move back in with me, which would be an intolerable situation."
It's easy enough to say, as Hax does, "Cut this parasite off." When the daughter worked odd jobs, Hax says, the mom was an enabler laboring under the fig leaf of need. But now, "you have proof that you're not preempting poverty, you're insulating her from the cost of her choices."
The fear for many of us is just this: if we don't help out, our children will slip into living in a way that we can't tolerate--and it will happen to them (guilt-inducing music in the background, please) while we have a comfortable place to live and more than enough food to eat. I hear friends raise the question of whether we owe it to our children--and to ourselves--to keep them out of poverty while they find their footing. The issue they raise: Can we afford not to do it?
Tough questions. And hard to deliver the tough love answer to our kids. There are practical issues--what happens when we can no longer afford to help, or like this mother, are ready to retire but can't afford to do so until our children have made their way up the career ladder. By continuing to support them, are we standing in the way of their being able to take care of themselves.
Carl Pickhardt, a psychologist who specializes in adolescence has this observation for parents of young adults: "Just as parenthood doesn’t come with a set of directions for how to get started, there is no fixed schedule for financial letting go. Thus many parents continue their parenting by offering extended help, often of the financial kind, until a firm hold on young adult independence is finally gained."
The tough part is not the tough love but knowing where that line of independence is or ought to be.