Is helping adult children good for them?

The Dallas Morning News/Published May 13, 2013



Last summer, my 23-year-old son announced he was heading to California to find his fortune. He had no money, no permanent place to live and, although he was a recent college graduate, he had no credentials in the field he hoped to work.

Could I help him out with some cash?


That may seem like the obvious call, but it wasn’t to me. The money didn’t require a big financial sacrifice, and I asked myself, “Don’t I want to support his dreams?”

But his plan just didn’t seem realistic, so I dithered, fretted and consulted friends who had struggled with similar scenarios. Then I took a deep breath, expressed my reservations, as well as my admiration for his adventurous spirit and said, “No.”

He thanked me for my opinion, packed up his car and left for San Francisco.

Sleepless nights ensued. My mind went right to the worst-case scenarios. Would he end up homeless?


Emerging adulthood

My dilemma is one that many older adults with grown children face: When do you support an adult son or daughter financially or otherwise and when do you pull the plug?

That question brings many parents to see the Rev. Ronald J. Greer, a pastoral counselor in Atlanta and author of Now That They Are Grown: Successfully Parenting Your Adult Children (Abingdon Press, $14.99).

In this case, Greer backed me up.

“When an adult child asks for assistance, you always want to be helpful and responsive,” he said. “But being responsive doesn’t always mean pulling out a checkbook.”

Not that long ago, most children grew up with a clear expectation: When they turned 18, they would be out of the house and on their own financially.

Today, that’s the rare exception. Most young adults are entering independence at a much later age, with parents supporting them — whether with cash, tuition, insurance, a car or a place to live — well into their 20s, or longer, according to Richard Settersten, Ph.D., and Barbara E. Ray, authors of  Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, and Why It’s Good for Everyone (Bantam, $15).

It’s so prevalent that psychologists now recognize a developmental phase between adolescence and adulthood called “emerging adulthood,” said Neil Ravella, a clinical psychologist in private practice in North Dallas.

He points to work by Ron Taffel of the Institute of Contemporary Psychotherapy, who cites data showing that before 1980, most young adults were out of school, married, employed, living in their own homes and probably had a child by the age of 25.

“That’s extremely uncommon now,” Ravella said.

Most young adults today need a longer runway before they lift off into adulthood. Still, many parents feel as if they’ve failed if their kids are still dependent by their mid-20s. Ravella reminds them: Today’s young adults face a crummy job market, not to mention an entirely different world.

“We, as parents, often look at ourselves at the same age and ask, ‘What’s wrong with our kids?,’” he said. “But this longer period of emerging adulthood is a characteristic of the current generation.”

Case in point: Ravella, 63, notes that, when he went to college, tuition cost $143 a semester.

“Had it been $5,000 a semester, I never would’ve finished,” he said. “These days, you can’t make it on a shoestring.”


Saying no

While there are plenty of legitimate reasons why young adults may need more help for more years, that doesn’t mean parents should always say yes.

For starters, Greer has this warning: Parents should not give away money they need for their own financial security or that they’ve saved for retirement.

“You can tell your children that, the good news is, by saying no to this financial request … they won’t have to take care of you in your old age,” he said.

Carol Franzen, a geriatric care manager with Dallas Care Connection, has worked with some elderly people who did say yes too many times. Some ended up supporting their adult children well into their 40s and 50s. She says that’s a mistake.

“In some cases, they’re sacrificing better options for their own care to help their adult children,” she said.

When a young-adult son or daughter asks for help in a financial crisis, Greer said the first question to ask is, ‘How did he or she get into this situation?’ Were they working hard and being responsible? Or were they being less than responsible?

A big medical bill or a car repair can derail an otherwise careful and frugal young person who is just getting started. Add the stalled economy, soaring tuition rates and heavy student-debt loads and some young adults will need help even when they’ve been hardworking and responsible.

Rick and Sallie Diamond of Plano are clear that their son, Tom, 24, has been both. An Eagle Scout, a good student and a recent college graduate, Tom is now working full-time and living in his own apartment. He’s still saddled with debt from college, which prevents him from getting a loan for a car. Tom didn’t ask, but the Diamonds opted to buy him a used car as a graduation present.

“He never asks for help,” said Rick, and that’s part of the reason they chose to help.

They did the same with Tom’s older sister, pitching in on a few rare occasions.

“As long as they keep moving forward and have a clear goal,” the couple is willing to help when they can, Rick said.

The Diamonds recalled an instance when their washing machine broke down about 10 years ago. They were able to afford a new machine but had decided to postpone the purchase a bit. Rick’s parents were visiting at the time and bought a new one for them.

“Parents are always going to help out their kids, as long as it’s appreciated, no matter how old they are,” Sallie said.


Lessons learned

Every situation is different, and there are few hard-and-fast rules. If you can afford to help, Greer offers this basic guideline: Before writing a check, ask yourself, “Will the money ultimately go to help your adult child grow, become responsible and support himself or herself?”

In general, he adds, it’s best not to do for your grown children what they can do for themselves.

When Franzen’s daughter, Alex Klarer, 22, started at the University of North Texas, her parents agreed to pay her tuition and books, but they gave her two options on room and board: stay at home or live on her own, at her own expense.

“I made the choice to be on my own,” said Klarer, who graduates this month. “I wanted to have that college experience.”

She waited tables all through college, and it hasn’t always been easy.

“At times I was a little jealous of my friends whose parents were paying for their room and board,” she said. “But in the long run, it has really helped me to learn to balance school, work and my social life.”

She added that some of those friends whose parents paid for everything foundered a bit after graduation.

“They don’t have a plan,” she said. “They don’t seem to know what to do with themselves.”

Sheltering kids too much from financial realities can deprive them of life lessons, Ravella said.

“The fact is that reality speaks much more loudly than parents ever can,” he said. “The natural consequences of failure are a parent’s best friend.”

When grown kids make questionable financial decisions, Ravella said, resist the temptation to lecture or argue.

“You have to believe that eventually they’ll be OK,” he said. “I think it’s important that parents hold confidence and belief in their adult children — even when they’re going to do things that are ill-advised.”


All’s well that ends well

Speaking of ill-advised: My son made his way to San Francisco, crashed on a friend’s couch and started looking for a job. Within a few weeks he found one! He’s learning software development, getting good benefits and earning enough to get by in San Francisco.

Maybe I’d misjudged my son’s seriousness. Or maybe his lack of cash gave him the urgency and motivation to make it work. Probably it was a little of both.

Not long after, I got another call. Could I lend him some cash to help with the deposit on an apartment?

This time, I said yes.

Again, Greer backed me up.

“This helps him toward self-sufficiency,” he said. “I see that as an investment.”

Mary Jacobs is a Plano freelance writer.


A word from the wise

Rev. Ronald J. Greer, a pastoral counselor and author of a book on parenting adult children, offers this advice on deciding when to help and when to hold the line to keep your relationship with an adult son or daughter on track:

— Focus on guiding your adult children to move forward into this new chapter in their lives.

— Keep in mind the goal: helping them to achieve full maturity as adults.

— Strive to establish a new, loving relationship, adult to adult.

— Start turning your own focus to this new chapter in your life.