Adult children can seriously take advantage of their parents–and seriously be moochers.
A few weeks ago I started rerunning an important series I wrote six years ago about handling family dynamics as parents age and require care.
We’re moving the blog to a new domain in the next few weeks (BareMarriage.com is coming!), and we’re only bringing posts from 2018 forward with us. But there were some older ones I wanted to save, so I’m rerunning some of them now.
Six years ago, when we were discussing caring for senior parents, many comments centered on the fact that what made this difficult was that many parents were spending so much of their limited income supporting kids and grandkids who should be caring for themselves. And it was building resentment in other kids.
Rebecca wrote this observation, as a newly married millennial, and I thought I’d rerun it today.
We began our series talking about what it’s reasonable for senior parents to expect from their adult children, because many parents in their golden years are asking far too much of their kids. But then a woman wrote to me with the opposite problem–what about when adult children expect far too much from their parents, and their parents enable it?
What do you say about when the older generation continue to do the basic Life Responsibilities for their adult children (things like loaning money for houses, loaning money for cars, buying cars in their name but for the “child” due to bankruptcy problems of the child?) Also, what about expecting things like babysitting and shopping trips and lunches and “partying” at a moments notice – often a VERY short moments notice, even when the child makes much more money than the parents?
That’s a great question, and my mom asked me to jump in since I’m the generation that is often doing this!
I’m at the stage of life where everyone is getting married.
Seriously–I’ve told my husband Connor that we’ve got to cut it off at three weddings a year pretty soon, because we always seem to be involved in decorating or helping in some way, and it’s getting exhausting!
But because of that, the topics of conversation among all my friends revolve around how to move forward together and pursue your goals. And what I’ve noticed is that the couples who are trying to do it mostly on their own are far stronger than the others.
Helping your kids can sometimes actually set them up for failure.
I know that helping your kids seems like the nice thing to do. But the nice thing and the good thing aren’t always the same thing. Let’s take a look at the “paying for houses” issue for a moment.
There’s a reason banks require a down payment. It’s not because they’re mean–it’s because if you can’t afford a down-payment, you likely aren’t financially ready to be a home-owner. You won’t have savings in place in case the furnace goes or the roof goes.
Homes are expensive. There’s mortgage payments, property taxes, and don’t get me started on upkeep costs and unexpected repairs. Connor and I are currently saving for our first house, but I know we’re nowhere near ready right now to actually buy, even if the down-payment was completely given to us for free.
If you step in and take care of the payment before your child is ready to save up the money his or herself, how can you be sure they’re even ready to be a home-owner? It’s one thing to chip in to help with the down-payment if (a) it doesn’t eat into your retirement fund and (b) you’re topping up what your child has already saved, but when parents pay for these huge purchases for their kids they take away the responsibility from the child.
It’s not a bad thing to have to live in a small apartment for a while. Connor and I are currently in a two-bedroom basement apartment here in Ottawa, and plan to have our first kid here. The first three and a half years of my life were spent in a 2-bedroom apartment in downtown Toronto, while Daddy was doing his residency.
If your kids want to move into a nicer place, they should be the ones to sacrifice and save for it. Not you.
When parents give money to their adult children, it can set up a really bad dynamic in the family.
Usually what happens is that the irresponsible kid gets all the help, money, and attention from mom and dad and the responsible kid is expected to make it on his or her own.
So you’re in essence punishing the kid who went out and got a good job, saved money, and made responsible decisions because that kid doesn’t get the payout but watches his/her sibling make bad decisions and get fished out of trouble again and again.
This doesn’t only apply to money–it can be babysitting, a place to live, food, really anything. If your actions are enabling a child to make bad decisions, whether it’s to use you as free child care so they can party, not work, or live at your house rent-free–that is really unfair to other children and other family members.
People need to be held accountable to the choices they made
If you scrimped and saved all your life, were a good employee, and made decisions that added value to your life, the consequences are going to be pretty good!
But if you decided to never work hard at any job, blew all your money on partying or cars and houses you couldn’t afford, and never saved for retirement? Well those consequences aren’t so fun, but are really important to feel.
What often happens, though, is that parents freak out seeing their kids heading towards doom and destruction and they swoop in to save the day.
But then their kids just do the same thing next week.
When we swoop in, we “disrupt the law of sowing and reaping”, as the authors of the great book Boundaries explain. God set up the world so that a basic law of human behaviour is that “you reap and what you sow” (Galatians 6:7). That’s how people are supposed to learn. When you disrupt that, then people stop learning. (Mom has more on setting boundaries here).
If you’re always available for babysitting whenever your kids need you last-minute because they want to party or go to a friends’ house, or if you co-sign loans and mortgages with them, or if you give them money to cover spending debt, you are not allowing them to feel the consequences of their actions. In fact, what you’re doing is actually saying, “these are good things to do, because you have mom and dad to help you out.”
Speaking as the kid in the situation, sometimes the best thing parents can do to help their adult children is to back out and say, “Sorry, you got yourself into this mess. We will be there to help you make a plan to get out on your own, but we can’t do the work for you.”
The reality is, you will feel the consequences of your decisions, as well.
And it’s not selfish to say, “No, I can’t help you because I am saving for retirement.” You worked for 18 years to prepare this kid to be an adult. Now, they’re adults, and it’s their decision if they want to actually grow up or not.
But it is not your responsibility to keep taking care of them like they’re still children.
Helping with that last part of a down-payment they’ve been saving for, babysitting on weekends so they can have a break, or even coming over to help your child with cleaning and cooking when your grand-kids are young can be such a blessing when your kids are responsible and understand the true cost of such acts.
But when your kids aren’t acting like adults or aren’t making responsible decisions, doing things for them can create a sense of entitlement and reinforce negative behaviors.
So many parents sacrifice everything for kids who aren’t willing to lift a finger to help themselves. A close friend works with a bank and is often asked to review loan applications from people who are trying to cosign on a mortgage or line of credit for their children, and often he says no because the parents simply can’t afford it without emptying out their retirement fund.
If you drain your financial and emotional resources to try and keep your kids’ head above water when they aren’t being responsible themselves, that will affect you. You won’t have a retirement fund, you will be exhausted, and you’ll be stressed. No, it’s not fun to leave a kid to face his or her actions–but it is important, and it can end the negative cycle of destructive behaviors. Some family friends of ours found themselves in this position–they never got to enjoy their retirement because their kids kept coming over and taking groceries, money, and whatever else they needed. Their parents had become their personal convenience store/ATM.
Enabling your adult child’s irresponsible behavior is not the way to help your grandchildren
When I was growing up, I had a friend whose parents never once took her to a doctor’s appointment. She went, but it was always her grandparents who took her. Her parents worked normal hours, had plenty of time to hang out with friends or coworkers after work, but somehow never brought their daughter to her yearly check up.
This started when she was a baby, and for the rest of her life I don’t think her mom (parents eventually divorced and the mom raised her) ever brought her to a check up. And my friend grew up feeling like she never really belonged. Her mom loved her as much as she ever had to, but the grandparents took care of everything so she never had to actually think about her kid. And she just stayed selfish instead of learning how to be a good mom.
At heart, you either think your child is a fit parent who is just lazy and a little selfish, or you think that your child is an unfit parent. In my friend’s case, it truly was the former. Her grandparents didn’t help matters by doing basic parenting tasks that were really her mom’s job. If your child is seriously unfit to be a parent, then it’s time to get child protective services involved. But if they aren’t dangerous, just a bit immature, it’s time to let them feel the weight of being a parent and let them grow up.
Child protective services will often place a child who is being neglected with you. And it’s often less stressful to raise a child yourself than to constantly be worrying about that child if they’re living with an unfit parent. So if your child is unfit, tell your child, “I am raising my grandchild for a year while you get your life sorted out, and if you don’t agree, I’ll just call child protective services. But right now you aren’t coping without me, and that’s not right.” In other words, go all in, or don’t do it all. But don’t enable your child.
Being told “no” is never fun. Telling your kids you’re no longer their ATM machine likely won’t be fun for them to hear, either. But even though it might be uncomfortable, it is so important in the big picture.
People get away with whatever they can get away with! So why not stop the cycle? Why not start creating boundaries that encourage responsible behavior instead of mooching? The long-term effects will be worth it.
I just want to echo what she said about setting up this dynamic where all the focus, money, and time in the family goes to the adult child who is irresponsible, rather than the ones who are doing the right thing. I’ve seen this again and again, and it breeds serious resentment and a really bad dynamic. And it often starts when the kids are teens. So be careful! Love your children who don’t seem to need you as much, too. They deserve it.
And what if you’re the good kid, and your parents are pouring money and energy they don’t have into another kid? The hardest thing is that you may not be able to change this dynamic. But talk to them about it. Ask if this is best for the long-term, for everyone involved. And make sure that they’re not bleeding their bank accounts dry.
Have you had any problems with adult children mooching? How did you handle it? What if it’s a sibling? Let’s talk in the comments!
The Aging Parents Series
- Parents: You Owe Your Adult Children a Life
- Setting Boundaries with Aging Parents
- Splitting Responsibilities for Aging Parents with Your Siblings
- When Parents Allow Adult Children to Be Moochers
- Making Sure Aging Parents Have Their Affairs in Order (and you do, too!) (coming soon)
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