If Only I Believed This New Research in Support of Delayed Adolesence

What Women Really Think
June 4 2012 12:48 PM

New Research in Support of Delayed Adolescence: If Only I Believed It

I experienced a new feeling late last week. It was the deep, slightly quizzical relief that comes of having one’s supposed life failures turned into successes in the pages of the New York Times. In an Op-Ed titled “You Can Go Home Again,” sociologists Karen L. Fingerman and Frank F. Furstenberg propose that delayed adolescence (the phenomenon of twentysomethings relying intensely on their parents for emotional and financial support) may actually be a good thing.

The writers cite the familiar new-normal: grown kids texting Mom and Dad daily, accepting a monthly allowance, and—horrors—living at home. But instead of entering apocalyptic mode, they suggest it’s time to rethink traditional American “ideals of autonomy.” Some of their arguments seem plausible: Perhaps young adults are smart to seek out advice and help from wise middle agers instead of guileless friends. And it’s true that cultures around the world expect close involvement between parents and their adult children. But as someone uncomfortably moored in my own suspended adolescence (I live at home. Please don’t judge), I could not help reading the article at first as a mighty and much-needed validation, and then as a beautiful, empty rationalization. I wish I bought it, but I don’t.

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For one thing, delayed adolescence isn’t a fruitful interdependence between parents and children so much as a child’s straight-up dependence on her parents. I can try to help out with chores and pay for my own meals, but the flow of monetary support really only goes in one direction. And the psychic costs of enmeshment are high. Fingerman and Furstenberg allude to the “uneasiness” both parents and their grown children feel in light of what they suspect may be “damaging over-involvement” in each other’s lives. They conclude, “The problem isn’t with the help, per se, but with viewing that support as abnormal and worrying that it could cause harm.” Yet I would argue that the problem is, at least partially, the help itself. No matter how loving the parent-child relationship, delayed adolescence prolongs a parent's burden of care (and perhaps less significantly, a child’s burden of being cared for). Especially in the returning-to-the-nest scenario, everyone may know intellectually that the situation has changed—the kid’s an adult now—but old dynamics aren’t easy to transcend.

Furthermore, when you live at home, your parents can easily become your default source of social interaction. I get the sense Fingerman and Furstenberg would applaud these casual conversations as a type of emotional support—but isn’t part of honing your social skills as a twentysomething seeking out such support from peers? Not to mention that proximity makes it easy for both parents and adult children to share information they’d prefer, on second thought, to have kept private. (For instance, I know far more about menopause then I’d like to—and I’m sure my folks don’t particularly want to revel in the giddily-spilled details of my dating life, such as it is.)

So why do I live at home? Because it’s far cheaper not to have to pay rent, and because my parents’ house is a 15 minute walk from my work. I can’t overstate these advantages, but I do know that they come at a price. No doubt it’s possible to cultivate one’s independence and selfhood while lodging under the parental roof. And I do believe that the mutually supportive partnership Fingerman and Furstenberg evoke so cheerfully is achievable—just not while one of us is footing the bill. Living it, I can’t quite agree that suspended adolescence constitutes a desirable state for either young adults or their parents. In these economic times, it strikes me more as a necessary evil.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer.