Grown up, but not out Rules: With more kids staying home past age 18, it's time for parents to update the house regulations.

September 27, 1998|By Gayle Vassar Melvin | Gayle Vassar Melvin,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

You love your child. Truly, you do. But the baby who melted your heart with his first steps has grown into a young adult who shows scant interest in moving out, and the nest is getting a little crowded.

Some days you find yourself fantasizing about turning your child's bedroom into a home office. And then you feel just a little guilty. Family is forever, right?

Sure it is. But living with an adult son or daughter isn't the same as living with a child. After all, not many twentysomethings appreciate their mom telling them to eat their broccoli.

While the child-rearing books don't address this situation, it's one that's becoming more common, according to the U.S. Census. About 15 percent of all U.S. households include a child 18 or older, up 5 percent from 1970.

Experts cite a number of factors in the reluctance to leave home: spiraling housing and college costs, a rise in the age of first-time brides and grooms, and an overall lengthening of adolescence.

Certainly, there are parents of young adults who understand their children are no longer, well, children, just as there are young adults living at home who are caring, considerate and slowly moving toward independence.

But then there are those who want all the freedom of adulthood and all the parental support of childhood. Like toddlers with cars, they make their messes, then drive off into the night to play with their friends.

"It can be very difficult," says Bence Gerber. His son Jason lived with him until he was 22, and then for several months when he was 24. "When they are still in high school, at least you feel like they are kids and they should follow your guidance. Once they are working, there is a different set of expectations. You don't have the same excuse of 'You have to be home at a certain time because of school.' "

For Gerber, the flash point often centered on the clutter Jason created. One day Gerber got so angry that he went around the house taking photographs of the younger man's "pigsties." Then Jason's girlfriend moved in, much to Gerber's dismay.

"At a certain point, he had no respect for me," says Gerber, a computer software salesman. "The only leverage I had was to threaten to kick him out."

Actually, there's another solution, say experts. By acknowledging how things have changed - i.e., your child is now an adult - and yet hasn't changed - i.e., he's still living in your house - you can begin crafting an agreement that should help everyone live more peacefully under the same roof.

"Parents need to draw careful boundaries around what is acceptable to them, keeping in mind that they are not dealing with a child," says Bill Foulds, a marriage, family and child counselor.

"For example, it doesn't work to say, 'As long as you live in my home, you come home by 10 p.m.' But you can say, 'If you are going to come home at 4 a.m., you need to come in very quietly so you don't disturb the other people in the house.' "

The clearer the expectations, the easier life is going to be, says Foulds. "Talk about whether they need to participate in family functions, whether they will be available for meals or want to take care of that on their own, whether you want them to do chores," he suggests. "But make it an open discussion. You have expectations, he has expectations."

Sometimes it's the parents who are having a hard time letting the adult child go, says Theresa Wildt, an assistant professor at John F. Kennedy's Graduate School of Professional Psychology.

"There is this view that the world really is harder now. With the increased violence and economic struggles, I wonder if parents are feeling more protective," she says. "But the bottom line is, when does it become a situation where, if you don't push the child out of the nest, the child will have a real struggle with adulthood?"

Not every child is ready to fly the nest at 18, says Margie Darlington. Her daughter Adrienne, 19, decided to stay at home and attend community college after high school.

Darlington says there haven't been any clashes between mother and daughter, but agrees that rules have to change as an at-home child gets older.

"It has to be different. You have to give them the freedom to grow up," Darlington says. "In high school, she had a curfew. Now it's: 'You don't have a deadline, but you must come home.'"

Adrienne does her part as well. She keeps her room clean. She also buys her own clothes, gas and car insurance out of the earnings from her part-time job. If she weren't in school, she'd be expected to contribute toward household expenses.

But what's a parent to do if the adult child isn't as easy to live with as Adrienne? What if he or she is refusing to follow house rules, or making no effort to become self-sufficient?

Communicate, stresses Foulds. Go over the expectations again and be willing to follow through if the adult child refuses to do his part, whether it's making an effort in school or contributing to the household income if he's living at home after graduation.

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