American parenting has become more involved — requiring more time, money and mental energy — not just when children are young, but well into adulthood.
The popular conception has been that this must be detrimental to children — with snowplow parents clearing obstacles and ending up with adult children who have failed to launch, still dependent upon them.
But two new Pew Research Center surveys — of young adults 18 to 34 and of parents of children that age — tell a more nuanced story. Most parents are in fact highly involved in their grown children’s lives, it found, texting several times a week and offering advice and financial support. Yet in many ways, their relationships seem healthy and fulfilling.
Nine in 10 parents rate their relationships with their young adult children as good or excellent, and so do eight in 10 young adults. Rather than feeling worried or disappointed about how things are going in their children’s lives, eight in 10 parents say they feel proud and hopeful.
“These parents, who are Gen X, are more willing to say, ‘Hey, this is good, I like these people, they’re interesting, they’re fun to be with,’” said Karen L. Fingerman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies adults’ relationships with their families.
As for the adult children, she said, “You get advice from a 50-year-old with life experience who is incredibly invested in you and your success.”
Also, these close relationships don’t seem to be holding back young people from reaching certain milestones of independence. Compared with their parents as young adults in the early 1990s, they are much more likely to be in college or have a college degree, Pew found. They are somewhat more likely to have a full-time job, and their inflation-adjusted incomes are higher. (They are much less likely, though, to be married or have children.)
The new data suggests that, indeed, young adults are more reliant on their parents — texting them for life advice when older generations may have figured out their problems on their own. But the effects do not seem to be wholly negative.
Professor Fingerman and her colleagues have found that close relationships between parents and grown children protected children from unhealthy behaviors, and young adults who received significant parental support were better able to cope with change and had higher satisfaction with their lives. It was a finding “we just couldn’t believe the first time,” she said, because of the assumptions about over-involved parents.
Both things can be true, said Eli Lebowitz, director of the Program for Anxiety Disorders at the Yale Child Study Center — “that they do rely a lot on their parents, and they do get a lot of positive support from them.”
In previous research, parents often expressed ambivalence about their continued involvement in their adult children’s lives. But the Pew study suggests that has changed, Professor Fingerman said, perhaps a sign they have come to embrace it.
Among parents, seven in 10 say they are satisfied with their level of involvement in their grown child’s life. Just 7 percent say they’re too involved, and one-quarter would like even more involvement. Young adults say the same.
When baby boomers were growing up, there was a belief, rooted in the American ideal of self-sufficiency, that children should be independent after age 18, not relying on their parents. But that was in some ways an aberration, social scientists said. Before then, and again now, it has been common for members of different generations to be more interdependent.
Parents’ involvement in young adults’ lives began to grow in the 1970s. The transition to adulthood became longer, and less clear-cut: It was no longer necessarily the case that at 18 children left home for college, marriage or jobs. Parenting gradually became more intensive, as people had fewer children and invested more in their upbringings.
In recent years, that has also meant providing children with more emotional support, research shows: “They may be the first generation of adults who have parents who actually grew up with the mind-set of talking about this kind of stuff,” Professor Lebowitz said.
In the survey, six in 10 young adults said they still relied on their parents for emotional support, and a quarter of young adults said their parents relied on them for the same, including 44 percent of daughters who said their mothers did.
About seven in 10 parents of young adults said their children ask them for advice, especially about finances, careers, physical health and parenting (among those with children). That’s a change from when they were young — half said they rarely or never asked their parents for advice.
There were gender differences: Young adults were somewhat more likely to say they had a good relationship with their mother than their father. Young women communicated with their parents more frequently than young men.
Cultural and policy factors play a role in parents’ involvement in their grown children’s lives. In the United States, parents and children often rely on one another for child care and elder care. In many immigrant families, it is common for multiple generations to live together or support one another. And technology has made it easier to stay in regular touch.
There is also an increasing understanding that children have different needs, and decreasing stigma around helping them, said Mark McConville, a clinical psychologist in Cleveland. Consider a bright teenager with ADHD, he said. A generation ago, his potential might have been written off. Now, it’s much more likely that his parents identify the issue and find programs to support him — and as a result, that he attends college.
He said a small subset of young adults struggle with starting independent lives (the subject of his book, “Failure to Launch: When Your Twentysomething Hasn’t Grown Up … and What to Do About It”). But overall, “this new prioritization of their relationship with their kids and attending to their kids’ needs” helps children succeed, he said.
Economic factors have changed, too. Young people are more likely than in their parents’ generation to have student debt — 43 percent do in their late 20s, compared with 28 percent when their parents were that age, Pew found — and are buying homes later, if at all.
Partly as a consequence, parents support their children financially for longer periods — one-third of young adults told Pew they were not financially independent from their parents. They are a bit more likely to live with their parents than the previous generation.
But for many families, support in the form of money or housing can be beneficial to parents, too. Of young adults living at home, three-quarters helped with expenses. One-third of young adults gave their parents financial help in the last year, particularly in low-income families.
And a majority of adult children living at home and parents in that situation said it had a positive effect on their relationship.
“There’s a two-way street going on that I think we need to acknowledge,” Professor Fingerman said. “They’re not all kids living in the basement being pampered. They’re kids having relationships with their parents that are good ones.”