When do parents stop the cash machine's flow?

May 02, 2006|By SUSAN REIMER | SUSAN REIMER,SUN COLUMNIST

My fellow mothers and I barely have time to read the mail, let alone an out-of-town newspaper. But word of a recent New York Times news story zinged through our ranks like word of a neighborhood divorce.

Under the headline "The Bank of Mom and Dad," reporter Anna Bahney described a disturbing trend: young adults, some in their 30s, are receiving from their parents regular stipends of thousands of dollars a year.

The reason? Stalled wages, skyrocketing housing prices, student loans, delayed marriage and "young people [taking] the scenic route from adolescence to adulthood."

This is desperate news for those of us who have been paying cell phone bills, car and car insurance payments, tuition and rent, buying gas cards and food and taking care of the occasional credit card disaster while our teens and twentysomethings battle through college.

We were under the apparently mistaken impression that there was an end date. That perhaps within six months of college graduation, the kids would be launched and we'd have enough new money in the budget to tour the world.

Apparently not.

"The bottom line is that the assumption that financial obligations to children ended after graduation from high school or college is going the way of the pay phone," Bahney wrote.

This is not about aimless kids returning home to sleep until noon until they find direction. This is about young adults living on their own and working decent jobs, but not earning enough to keep them in the style to which they became accustomed as our kids.

And Bahney points out that this is not about trust funds or about "a couple of $20 bills tucked into a card at the holidays." According to research out of the University of Michigan, parents are paying $2,323 a year to help support children 25 and 26 years old and $1,556 for children 33 and 34.

If my son reads this, he is going to consider $2,323 an opening offer. And if my daughter reads this, she is going to wonder why there is a limit. If my husband reads this, he is going to say, give them the money, they are good kids.

But I am not sure how I feel about it. One woman quoted in the story said she enjoyed seeing her children "spend their inheritance now," and I can understand the pleasure of being able to give your kids money they need or money to play with, as long as it doesn't leave you without money for your medications.

But there is an implied control in this arrangement that makes me feel uncomfortable -- and should make the kids feel uncomfortable, too. Whose money is it, exactly, and who decides how it gets spent?

What if Mom and Dad don't approve of how you are spending the $300 a month they are sending you? What if you aren't using it to pay off your student loan? What if you are taking trips or buying hot cars? Doesn't Thanksgiving get a little tense under those circumstances?

What if Mom and Dad decide your new wife should stay home with the new baby and they are willing to supplement your income so she doesn't have to work? What if Mom and Dad are willing to pay for your certification as an accountant, but dig in their heels when you tell them you want to go back to school for a master's in art history?

What if the parents are willing to lend you the down payment on a house, but gently press you to live in a neighborhood of their choosing? What if they will buy you a car, but it has to have side air bags and a perfect safety rating?

I don't know about you, but I can't negotiate lights off in an empty room with my kids, let alone where or how they will live their lives as adults. And, as a group, the parents of my generation have been so over-involved in our children's lives that it would be nearly impossible for us to hand out cash without at least a hint of the strings that are attached.

And, yet, what pleasure it would give me to make my children's lives easier.

Do you think they are counting on that?

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear audio clips of selected Susan Reimer columns, go to baltimoresun.com/reimer.

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