As the school year ends, many of us will face the conundrum of high school graduates who don’t plan to continue in school or college graduates who come back home while they search for a career. On the one hand, most graduates are legal adults, with the right to manage their own lives. On the other hand, few young adults in our society are ready to be completely self-sufficient.
So, if we aren’t ready to kick them out of the nest, how do we maintain our relationships (and our sanity) with technically adult children who are still living at home? Over the years, I have had a variety of adult foster children and stepchildren living in my home, and I’ve learned three very important rules that can help in this situation.
We have to clearly communicate our expectations on both sides of the relationship. Do we expect our adult children to do the housework, contribute to bills, or provide their own transportation? Do they expect to be able to come and go as they please with no questions asked? Think through what you expect and have a frank conversation with your child. During that conversation, listen to what they expect and be ready to make reasonable concessions. This conversation is not your opportunity to lay down the law; it is your chance to reach a workable agreement with your adult child.
Have this conversation early. I have not been very good at this part of having adult children in my home and that bad habit has led to some unnecessary and unproductive arguments. I’ve learned that early conversations are particularly important with teenagers who age into chronological adults. More than once, I’ve been blindsided by a child announcing, “I’m 18 now, so I don’t have a curfew.” My response was always a variation on “You are still in school and I’m still paying the bills, so you still have rules.” It’s much easier to tactfully discuss those issues before your child’s birthday arrives.
Agree ahead of time how long your child is going to stay. If it’s a soft target, such as “when I get a job,” then agree on what happens if your child doesn’t find a job by a certain date. If they are finishing high school, discuss clearly what happens after they graduate and how soon. These may be difficult conversations, but you need to have them early rather than after resentment has built up on both sides.
Be sure to set limits on how they behave in your house. Yes, they are adults, but it is still your home. Discuss and agree on the house rules, such as who is responsible for cleaning up the common areas and when they can use the kitchen or laundry. At one time, we had so many teens and adults in our house that we had to post a schedule on the door of the laundry room. Everyone had to use their assigned day or negotiate a trade with someone else. That way, the only arguments we had were who had left their clothes in the dryer too long.
Grant Them Adult Rights — And Responsibilities
Even though the law considers our children to be adults at 18 in most states, we all know that few 18-year-olds can support themselves. Still, they are legal adults and we need to recognize that fact to the extent that we can. When our high school kids became adults, for example, we stopped enforcing a curfew on the weekends. We discussed curfews during the week, and everyone agreed that they needed the accountability to finish school. On weekends, however, they had the right to make their own decisions. We did ask them to give us a target ETA so that we would know when to start worrying about them, and none of them ever balked at that request. They seemed to appreciate our concern as they were exploring their new freedoms.
At the same time, adults need adult responsibilities. Kids who move back home because they can’t afford their own place may feel like they have failed to one degree or another. Relieving them of all adult responsibilities can inadvertently reinforce that sense of failure. For that reason, we have always told our kids that they are either in school or contributing to the bills. We don’t mind supporting their education, but we don’t want to fully support them otherwise. Them paying even a small utility bill goes a long way toward balancing the relationship.
I mention utility bills because we don’t charge rent. We never wanted to argue with our kids about money. Instead, we hand over a utility bill that becomes their responsibility. Then, if they don’t have the money, the issue is between them and the utility company. We always have a backup plan, but we always look for a bill (such as cable/Internet) that will hit them first and hardest.
If a child truly doesn’t have any money, we always have something around the house that he or she can do. I’ve discovered that it works best to put a fair market value on their work. For example, if hiring someone to mow the lawn would cost us $50, our kids can mow the lawn and get $50 credit on their part of the bills. It’s a clear and objective standard that avoids many (though not all) arguments about their contribution to the family.
We enjoy having our children in the house and are fortunate to have good relationships with them. Keeping those relationships strong in close quarters requires work and an intentional plan. Make sure that your plan includes these three key components of clarity, limits, and rights balanced with responsibilities. With those principles, you can both strengthen your relationships and help your adult children become fully self-sufficient.