Q: My husband and I have micromanaged, spoiled, and enabled our 21-year-old son all his life. We paid a heavy price during his teen years. At this point, he is arrogant, immature, and irresponsible. For example, he recently went online and posted a vile comment about a former girlfriend. When we confronted him about it, he told us she deserved it. We realize the error of our ways, but our need to protect him from the consequences of his impulsivity and irresponsibility is so strong that we can’t seem to break the habit. On the positive side, he holds down a good job and is also going to college. Can you give us some advice?
A: When I began writing this column in 1976, I never thought parents would ever ask me for advice concerning problems with young adult children, and for many years they did not. Over the past ten years or so, however, as the pigeons of what I call Postmodern Psychological Parenting have come home to roost, more and more parents have asked me what to do about children (and they are most definitely still children) in their twenties and even thirties still living at home, still expecting their parents to solve their problems, and still acting irresponsibly.
For forty years and counting, American parents have raised children in a manner that emphasizes feelings over rational thought and good citizenship. With rare exception, post-1960’s “experts” encouraged parents to focus on the “inner child,” allow their children to express feelings freely, and cultivate high self-esteem.
In the home and America’s public schools, training children to think straight and prepare them for responsible adulthoods took a back seat to helping them feel good about themselves and protecting them from failure and disappointment. The result is Generation E — self-absorbed young adults who have a high sense of entitlement and low regard for others.
When feelings are not bridled by rational thinking, they drive behavior that is often irresponsible, self-dramatic, and destructive (of self and others). When the goal of parenting was to teach the child to think properly and act responsibly, that description rarely applied to a child above age twelve, which is why coming-of-age rituals like the Jewish Bar Mitzvah took place around a child’s thirteenth birthday. Today’s parents have bought the myth that behavior of the above sort is normal for teenagers, so they don’t expect much more, and they don’t get more than they expect.
The clarity of hindsight can be painful indeed, especially when it regards a child, but you have an opportunity here to redeem yourselves. I know you would say you love your son, but let me challenge you: Love is doing for someone what they need, not what they want. Your son needs you to stop enabling. He needs you to emancipate him.
The only cure for his irresponsibility and feelings of entitlement is being out on his own, having to pay his own bills, solve his own problems, and so on. He has no reason to wake up and smell the coffee if you continue to serve as his safety net. Yes, it's going to be painful for all concerned, but as the saying goes, "no pain, no gain."