Supporting Our Kids at Any Age

– By Sharon Ashton and Raksha Dave-Gates (Counselling Psychologists)

Your kids won’t leave home? Stop cooking with cheese! In this familiar television commercial, we see a frustrated, overworked couple and their free-loading 38 year-old son, oblivious to their distress. The commercial humorously builds on a truth about parenting: overindulging children stifles their ability to grow from childlike dependence into responsibility and independence. But what exactly is overindulgence? We know it has nothing to do with serving cheese! In the TV “cheese family” it appears that the parents continue to treat their son as a helpless, young child rather than an adult. For this example, let’s assume that the parents provide the basics and the extras (like cheese) without giving their adult son the opportunity to be a financially contributing member of the family by either paying rent or providing some of the groceries. They do almost all the household chores like cleaning, cooking, and laundry. When they ask their son to help, he typically partially completes the job, knowing that his parents will finish up for him. These behaviors describe roles in this family since his childhood. The situation in the commercial seems funny because it is presented in an extreme manner and because it touches on a family dilemma that has become more prevalent.

In their book, “How Much is Enough”, Clarke, Dawson, and Bredehoft say that overindulgence is giving a child “too much of what looks good, too soon, and for too long.” Indulgent parents have good and generous intentions, often wanting to provide their children with more than they had themselves in their childhood. Unfortunately, this parenting style patronizes children because it gives them the message that they are not capable and their parents do not want them to grow up. The children are spoiled with “things” and inappropriate activities. They learn NOT to think for themselves and NOT to be responsible individuals.

A healthy shift for parents is to practice supportive care — this teaches children to think and to do what they are capable of doing for themselves. In a supportive family, children are taught competence in skills and responsibilities that are appropriate for developmental level. Young girls and boys develop self-responsibility by managing their own personal care through tasks like tidying their own rooms, washing their hands before dinner, hanging up their coats, etc. They learn responsibility to others when they care for the family pet, set the table for dinner, or call home to let their parents know they have stopped at a friend’s home after school. Whereas indulgent parents provide a lax or soft set of rules and expectations for their children, a supportive family will have clear, reasonable rules that the children are expected to follow and that parents enforce consistently. As children demonstrate growing responsibility consistently, most family rules should be negotiated and updated and parents need to gradually release control to allow increasing freedom and independence.

More often these days, young adults temporarily return home to live with their parents. When this is an agreed upon arrangement, it is beneficial to openly talk upfront about expectations of everyone concerned. It is still appropriate for parents to clearly state any non-negotiable rules that are important to their values and beliefs. As a group, think about all tasks and negotiate who does what. Be prepared to adjust and negotiate in order to find solutions that work for everyone. Notice resentments building? Have a family meeting and find an acceptable solution!