The sooner you leave the parental nest, the farther you fly. Those are the results I told you about last time. A wide-ranging study of nearly 15,000 parents and their grown children, from 15 countries, was just published. The implications of leaving home early or late for geographical closeness are quite clear. But what about other kinds of closeness?
If you think the answer to that question is obvious, then you are probably blissfully removed from academic debates. Those scholars who believe in “classical life course theory” predict that young adults who stay with their parents “too long” are at risk for a world of trouble.
First, those kids are off schedule. They are not doing what everyone else is doing, at the same time as everyone else. They are “failing” in their transition to the role of a real adult. They are a burden on their parents – interfering with their preferences and “disrupting other relationships and activities.”
In the popular press, those late-leavers are chided as lazy and greedy.
A more recent view is more optimistic. When grown children live with their parents longer, they will have closer relationships down the road. Sometimes this prediction follows from a less-than-altruistic analysis. The parents who let their grown kids stay home longer have built up deposits in a “support bank;” they can withdraw from it later when they need help from those kids. Another perspective suggests that the longer parents and grown children live together, the more responsible they feel for one another.
I think there are other possibilities as well, but first, some results. In the study, all of the grown children had been living away from their parents for at least five years.
The author, Thomas Leopold, got at the relationship between parents and their adult children in several ways. The most straightforward was to ask how many days of the previous year the parents and their grown children were in touch, whether in person or some other way such as phone or mail. Here’s what he found:
172 Earliest to leave
182 Early to leave
180 Average age (in their country) of leaving home
187 Late to leave home
193 Latest to leave home
Those adult children who left their parents’ home the latest were also most often in touch with their parents five years (or more) later. The latest to leave were in contact with their parents an average of 21 more days of the year than were the earliest to leave.
Also included in the research were three measures of helping between the parents and their grown children who had already moved out:
- Did the grown children, in the past year, help their parents with home repairs, transportation, gardening, shopping, paperwork, or household chores?
- Did the parents help their grown children with any of the above tasks, or with babysitting for the grandchildren?
- Did the parents provide financial assistance of at least $325 (or its equivalent) in the past year? (Fewer than 2% of the children provided that much financial help to their parents, so those data were not analyzed.)
The results of the three helping measures showed some trends but the findings were less compelling than they were for the number of days of contact. Only nine percent of those who left their parents’ home early or at the usual time had helped their parents in the previous year. For those who were late to leave, 12% helped their parents.
In turn, the adult children who had stayed with their parents the longest (the late leavers) also received more help from their parents than did their siblings who left the nest at an earlier age (about 35%, compared to about 31%). Leopold suggests that a lot of that help was babysitting for the grandchildren.
There was some initial indication that parents gave a bit more money to the children who left at the earlier ages. However, when various controls were entered into the equation, there appeared to be no real differences in how much financial assistance parents gave to their kids who left earlier vs. later.
In sum, the children who left home later were more often in touch with their parents after they had left. They also helped their parents a bit more often than did siblings who left earlier (a finding that persisted even after geographical distances were taken into account), and their parents helped them a bit more, too.
Could these findings be explained by calculated reciprocity? That’s the idea that the parents helped their late-leaving children the most, so later on, they could draw from the support bank they had built up and get more help from those grown children.
It is possible. The other interpretation – that parents and their late-leaving children had developed a greater sense of responsibility toward each other – is also plausible.
Is it too sappy to entertain the possibility that more genuine affection developed between the parents and their children who lived with them the longest? If so, then the late-leaving children (or at least some of them) stayed in touch with their parents more and exchanged more help because their greater time together deepened their caring and love.
I think what may happen as children grow older is that the relationship between them and their parents becomes more like a friendship than like a relationship of authority. The relationship becomes more horizontal, like equals, than vertical. In the best cases, I think this resetting of the relationship along the lines of friendship also happens when adult children return to live with their parents.
For a long time, most of the research I did was like the study I have been describing. I like to include lots of people in my research and analyze the results statistically. I still like that model, but there is also something to be said for more intensive interviews with smaller numbers of people. When you do that sort of work, as I have been lately, you are reminded constantly that results that are true in general are never true for every single person. Some children who stay with their parents the longest are not going to have the closest relationships in the future.
Woman at the beach photo available from Shutterstock.