I Want to Cut My Kids Off Financially. Does That Make Me Mean?

Posted December 27, 2017 10:24 p.m. EST
Updated December 27, 2017 10:30 p.m. EST

Dear Sugars,

My spouse and I supported our two now-"grown” children through college. One graduated; one moved back home because of failing grades. It’s now five years later, but we’re still paying for their cellphones, cars and health insurance. The one who graduated got a good job, but she’s about to be fired and she wants to move back home. We’re saying no. Are we mean parents? Should we continue to support our children well past their teenage years? When should we cut the strings and let them fend for themselves?

— Still Paying

Cheryl Strayed: You are not mean parents. You are parents who have supported your children beyond the age that you are either legally or morally obligated to do so. You’ve been deeply generous because you wanted to provide your children with an education, security, comfort and ease. Well done. Now you must be deeply generous in another, seemingly paradoxical way: by giving your grown children the gift of independence and self-sufficiency. They don’t pay for their own way in the world for one reason and only one reason: because you do. I encourage you to stop doing it. Allow your adult children to find a way to do it instead. And allow them to struggle with doing it. By providing all that you provide your kids at this point in their lives, you’re preventing them from learning how to problem-solve, sacrifice, persevere, and suffer and benefit from the consequences of their own decisions. In other words, from becoming adults.

Steve Almond: Consider the child who moved home because of “failing grades.” I fully understand why you would want to offer this kid your support, especially if the academic struggle was the result of some broader struggle, such as depression or anxiety. But why is this child still living at home five years later? At what point does offering support become fostering dependence? Nor should it come as any surprise that the daughter who lost her job now wants to move home. You and your spouse are the designated safety net in times of trouble, right? You can’t blame her for feeling entitled to the same privileges as her rent-free sibling. The reason you’re worried about seeming “mean” is because you and your spouse now recognize that you need to change this paradigm. This is upsetting for your kids. It’s also vital to their maturation.

CS: We’re not suggesting you cut the financial cord in a day. The shift in the support you give your children is a process that you could begin now and fully instate incrementally over the course of several months. I suggest you and your partner create a timeline in which you specify the dates on which you will cease paying for each thing you currently pay for and then share that document with your children. This timeline is not based on your children’s desires, but rather your own. Setting this boundary isn’t a punishment, and it doesn’t mean you won’t be there for your kids financially if they should have a genuine crisis.

SA: Please don’t overlook how important it is for you and your spouse to make these decisions together. You have to present a united front, because otherwise your kids will parent-shop. You also need to be firm about your expectations. They need to know that you’re setting out a plan of action, not negotiating with them. This doesn’t mean you have to evict the one living at home tomorrow. It does mean he or she needs to start paying rent — and needs to know when the lease is up.

CS: The reason it’s been challenging for you to stop paying for your kids, Still Paying, is because it’s a reversal of the way you’ve operated since your kids were born. They needed something, and you paid for it. That made sense for a time. But it doesn’t make sense now, and it hasn’t for a while. Your children aren’t children anymore and they don’t truly need you to pay for their lives, even if they find it convenient that you do. Part of being a good parent is modeling healthy boundaries for our children, and this is ultimately that. In establishing yourself as a person who knows and states her limits, you’re showing them how to do that too.

SA: Remember, convenience is the gateway drug to entitlement. It drains people of their empathy, because it fosters the illusion that they can proceed through life without hardship. This makes it harder for them to imagine others who are facing hardship. This is important to remember, because your kids are almost guaranteed to react with petulance, defiance and/or guilt provocation. They’ll feel betrayed and probably push you away. But that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is that they’ll struggle in ways that they haven’t had to previously.

As parents, our instinct is to protect our children from this kind of unhappiness. But when we try to shield our kids from the imperfections of the world, they become imprisoned in childhood. You know this better than Cheryl and I do. We both have younger children, so we’re still in that phase where we pay their fare, no questions asked. But when I think about the qualities I most want my kids to develop as they grow up, resilience is at the top of the list.

Too much of what we call modern parenting has become devoted to the false notion that we can protect our children from every danger posed by the world. We can’t. We can, at best, help them develop the tools (intellectual, emotional, psychological) to contend with these dangers. And by dangers, I don’t mean gun violence or climate change. I mean the dangers that lurk within us — the doubts and anxieties that hold us back.

The central lesson you’re trying to impart to your kids is that leading a meaningful life arises from confronting struggles, not avoiding them. So confront the struggle posed by your children’s dependence. The goal for everyone involved should be to remove those condescending air quotes from around the word “grown.”