Thursday, June 27th, 2019
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Columns: June 2019

John Rosemond June 2019 Columns

Copyright 2019, John K. Rosemond

Emancipation of Adult Children Can Be Messy

When children were raised, reared, or simply brought up, they emancipated “on time.” Upon high school graduation, children went to college, into the military, or became employed. Some, like my wife and myself, got married before they could vote. Those were the days when young people still wanted to leave home and strike out on their own, something their parents celebrated. Empty-nest syndrome was a rarity.

Since “parenting” has replaced child rearing, the average age of emancipation, especially for males, has soared. Older parents all over the country are asking me what to do about children who won’t leave home or leave home only to come back again, and again, and again. The breakdowns involve drugs, alcohol, video games, employment issues, criminality, and emotional collapses of one sort or another.

“When are you going to write a book on adult children who won’t leave the nest?” they ask.

I answer that the “book” will consist of one page on which will be printed two words: Stop enabling! It’s glib, I know, and I really need to stop making light of what is a serious problem for these folks. Nonetheless, it’s almost always the case that the parents in question are, in fact, enabling. They throw money at problems that aren’t caused by a lack of money and money isn’t going to solve.

I have children. I can’t think of anything harder than putting a child out on the street, telling him that the ride is over and he’s going to have to learn to solve his own problems. For one thing, the possibility is very real that the kid won’t solve his problems, that he’ll sink ever deeper into dissolution.

It’s one thing to tell parents that their enabling has become one of their child’s handicaps; it’s quite another to answer the question, “But what if he just keeps getting worse?” with something other than banalities. There must be no guilt quite as overwhelming, as paralyzing, as the guilt that comes from knowing you could have done something to prevent your child’s personal apocalypse, even if the something would have been nothing more than the same-old, same-old.

Some parents have told me they’ve tried emancipation counseling. It’s certainly worth a try, but the all-too-typical story has everyone agreeing on the plan in front of the counselor and signing the contract only to have the whole thing blow up when push comes to shove.

Other parents have told me they finally decided to let the child keep living at home but stop giving him money. That’s a fine idea, except a good number of those same parents report that their kids began stealing from them. What do you do then? Swear out a criminal complaint and have your child thrown in jail? Again, easier said than done.

The good news is that some of the freeloaders in question suddenly pack their bags, leave, and figure out how to make it on their own (albeit often with an ongoing allowance). In the meantime, however, they’ve wreaked emotional and financial havoc on their parents. I recently talked with the single mom of a 44-year-old who has done and is continuing to do just that. She’s forced, at age seventy, to keep working.

Which brings me back to kicking the slacker out, which sometimes (the reader should know) involves the police. Parents who’ve done that tell me that the first six months is the hardest because things get worse before they start getting better. And some parents have told me (the reader should know) that the child in question simply disappeared.

So, when all is said and done, my answer to these questions is one that I have not fallen back on in forty years of writing this column: I don’t know. Life can be very messy at times.

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Take Wait-And-See Attitude With Teen's Friend Choice

Q: Our 14-year-old (he’s going into the ninth grade at a public high school) has taken up with a bunch of kids that we don’t exactly approve of. They have reputations as troublemakers and at least one has already been arrested for shoplifting and had to do some community service. The irony is, they all come from families that are highly regarded in the community. We haven’t seen any dramatic change in our son’s behavior, but he has become more secretive and has told us he doesn’t want to play sports anymore. In the opinion of lots of parents, the kids in question are under-supervised. Naturally, we’re concerned about the potential bad influence. I want to tell him to find new friends; my husband wants to take a wait-and-see. What do you think we should do?

A: I don’t mind taking sides in this; to wit, I agree with your husband.

To begin with, it’s completely normal for kids your son’s age to be flexing their independence – it’s all part of preparing for emancipation (which you should be preparing for as well). In the process of establishing emotional distance from parents and family, a certain amount of “secretiveness” is to be expected, no matter the nature of the child’s peer group. In and of itself, that’s neither a bad nor a good thing; it’s just the way it is.

Boys are naturally inclined toward risk-taking. If they aren’t provided sufficient opportunities to take risks in relatively safe contexts – wilderness camping experiences, for example – they are more likely to gravitate toward peers and activities that are inappropriate or truly dangerous. I witnessed that as a teen and saw the potential for it in my son when he entered adolescence.

The young teen boy (and not boys only, by the way) is in danger of making supremely impulsive decisions; his parents, on the other hand, are in danger of reacting such that he becomes more secretive and perhaps even rebellious. Your husband understands that, I’m sure, which is why he doesn’t want to make matters worse by “clamping down” without a good, concrete reason. In that regard, I need to point out that something as subjective as “We have a bad feeling about those kids” just doesn’t qualify.

I strongly encourage you to trust your husband’s judgment. Partly because they don’t have an intimate understanding of boy-ness, Moms generally tend toward over-protection, even over-reaction in situations of this sort. Unless there’s more here than is reflected in your question, I feel confident in saying that your husband will intuitively know the when and how of intervention if intervention becomes warranted.

In the meantime, this is an ideal time of year to enroll your son in some activities – like the wilderness camping experience I mentioned above – that would satisfy his need for risk while at the same time providing adequate supervision and guidance. Dad can certainly jump in there by planning summer father-son getaways that involve hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, horseback riding, dirt-biking, and things of that sort.

Where your son’s choice of friends is concerned, he’s bound to expand his social sphere when he enters high school in the fall. His present choice of running buddies may turn out to be nothing more than a fling. For now, just keep your eyes open and be ready to step in and establish controls should it begin to look like he’s about to lose all semblance of common sense.

Remember that energy you expend worrying will be energy you won’t have when you most need it.

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The Definition of Bullying Has Been 'Dumbed Down'

Q: Our son is 13 years old and in the 7th grade. Last week he came home from school complaining about how a few of his friends have been bullying him. These same boys were at his birthday party just the weekend before and they seemed to get along fine. Sometimes they poke fun at him when he is hanging around girls that these other boys have either “dated” or currently like. I think he pokes them right back, but they are three or four and he’s just one. Besides, we teach him to be kind, thoughtful, compassionate, and inclusive, so getting in a tit-for-tat really isn’t what we want him to do. I don’t know if we should let it work itself out or mention it to the other boys’ parents. My fear is that telling his friends’ parents will cause them to pick on him even more. On the other hand, I want it to stop. Any thoughts you can share would be most appreciated.

A: Having been a child who was picked on, made fun of and more, and relentlessly so (or so it seemed) from grades five through eight, I consider myself to be an expert in such matters.

The first thing I’ll point out is that children do not tend to do a good job of representing facts when they’re recounting events, especially when the events in question have elicited strong emotion. Getting picked on qualifies as an emotional event; therefore, I’d bet there’s more going on than is reflected in your son’s report. I’m not suggesting that he’s lying; I’m simply saying that emotions tend to interfere with recall.

Second, the definition of bullying has been “dumbed down,” and considerably so, since I was a truly bullied kid. When I was being run down and abused in various medieval ways, there was no doubt about it: I was being BULLIED. Several of my peers took turns chasing me home from school, for example. Like Forrest Gump, I learned to run fast, but if the “Bully of the Day” caught up with me, I was then subjected to various tortures, including being pinned to the ground and tickled until I nearly passed out from delirium. (By the way, in case the reader has never been tickled while immobilized, it’s funny for about a half-second, after which the experience is akin to being roasted alive.)

Name-calling was in a different category altogether. That was not regarded, by me or anyone else, as rising to the level of bullying. “Sticks and stones could break my bones, but words will never hurt me” was the stock response to being called a name. Looking back, it’s apparent to me now that my schoolmates and I were competing with one another for The Best Slur of the Day.

Today, name-calling – making a joke of someone’s last name, for example – is considered bullying. That’s part-and-parcel of the dumbing-down I referred to earlier. It’s no wonder that today’s kids seem to think that anything that causes them momentary discomfort is an aggression. This has had the effect of weakening the emotional resilience of a generation or more of children.

The fact is, name-calling is the sort of thing boys do to one another. (Girls do it too, but more covertly.) It causes some pain, yes, but it’s not life-threatening and left to their own devices, boys will usually work these things out.

You undoubtedly don’t have the full picture, your son is probably over-dramatizing what actually happened, kids’ relationships at this age are on-again, off-again, and you are absolutely correct that intervention on your part may well make matters worse. In that last regard, consider that today's parents tend toward being very defensive where their kids are concerned. For all those reasons, I’d definitely stay out of this.

Bottom line: Tell your son to figure it out for himself or find new friends. He needs to begin learning how to solve his own problems.

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