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Launching the Stay at Home Son: 7 Steps to Cut the Apron Strings

launching stay at home son

Another school year is ending—but many kids didn’t graduate from high school or college. Almost one third of teens don’t finish high school, and most who start college don’t finish. They are stalling, and it is affecting families. I had to chuckle when comedian Zach Galifianakas described his character in a recent movie: “I’m a stay at home son.” This has become the challenge of today’s world. A perfect storm of elements is impacting the way adults relate to kids. Consider these shifts:

  • Two years ago, when I wrote Generation iY—Our Last Chance to Save Their Future, about 60% of college students moved back home after college. Now, according to The Baltimore Sun, 80% of students intend do so. Often they move home without a plan. Mom and Dad feel they can’t turn them away. How could they?
  • Teens and young adults remain the highest unemployed demographic in the US. Employment for twenty-somethings hovers at about 35%. Just 29.6% of adolescents had jobs last summer. Today, kids somehow don’t need to work—parents and grandparents supply their income.
  • According to a new Harris Interactive survey, about 60% of parents provide financial support to their adult children who are no longer in school. One in two have finished school but have stalled in launching their career. What’s more, one third of males between ages 22 and 34 still live at home.
  • The MacArthur Foundation, which sinks millions of dollars into studying this dilemma, suggested on their website that adolescence doesn’t end until 34 years old.

“Parents are continuing their involvement longer than we expected,” says NEFE chief executive Ted Beck. “Financial pressures are higher for this generation. If I was in their shoes, I would be concerned.”

To be clear, you should know—I love these young people. They’re not bad kids, or stupid kids, or even necessarily troubled kids. But elements such as a troubled economy, fewer job opportunities, and the fact that many older veterans are taking those entry-level paychecks so they’re not unemployed themselves, have made it difficult for youth to spread their wings.

Seven Ideas to Launch Them into Life

So—what can parents do to foster authentic maturity and adult readiness in their kids? Let me suggest some ideas.

  1. Set clear boundaries and deadlines. If a child moves home after college, set a mutual date for them to prepare to move out, and when they get a job, ask them to pay rent, as preparation for their future. When my daughter graduated, she moved home to save for graduate school—but she’s working two jobs and paying rent.
  2. Discuss their strengths and passions, and set expectations. Help them connect to online assessments that can measure what they bring to the table in terms of job value. Gallup’s StrengthsFinder, for instance, can furnish feedback on their top strengths. Both of my kids have taken this assessment (and several others) to know what they possess. From this conversation, set realistic expectations. A Jr. Achievement survey reports that 62% of teens expect to be on their own by the time they reach age 24. That’s not happening. You can aid in preventing disillusionment.
  3. Help them jump into volunteer work. Even if the full-time-career job isn’t open, help them step into some meaningful volunteer work, both for experience and to add to the resume. (It sure beats sitting around the house.) Volunteering has become a popular outlet for grads who find themselves in between school and career.
  4. Guide them in clarifying what’s really important to them. The new issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology compares traits of college students today with those of previous generations of students. There is an increasing trend of valuing money, image and fame more than inherent principles like self-acceptance, affiliation or community. Push them to think outside of themselves. I met with my daughter and had a conversation about this that turned into several action steps.
  5. Encourage them to identify a cause and add value, not vice versa. We’ve all heard this before—Generation Y hates the phrase “Pay your dues.” Sadly, they’re prone to build a resume and sell themselves to the highest bidder. Instead, encourage them to not seek the job that pays the most, but one where they can add the most value–one where they actually seek to pay their dues because they believe in the work. They may have to start small, but this is where real career growth happens. Money usually follows a person who adds value.
  6. Connect them to mentors and colleagues in your circle. I worked with my two kids to set meetings with several colleagues who became short-term mentors–ones that embody the disciplines and passions my children yearn to realize. They’ve gleaned wisdom from those mentors. The mentors are friends of mine who have since shared their contacts with my kids.
  7. Expect something from your teens and young adults. A hundred years ago, seventeen-year-olds were leading armies, working the farm and contributing to their families’ income—and everyone knew it was in them to do it. Today, we under-challenge kids. We don’t expect much, and they live down to our expectations.

In the end, people mature as both autonomy and responsibility are distributed evenly. If a young person wants autonomy (to be free and independent), they must demonstrate an equal amount of responsibility to earn it. For instance, if my son wants the car keys—he cannot get them unless he agrees to buy the gas. It’s simple, and life only works when the two go together. When autonomy comes without responsibility, parents are doing too much protecting and not enough preparing.

Let’s get these kids ready for life.

What can parents do to launch the stay at home son and foster authentic maturity in their kids? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

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  1. David Bundrick on May 7, 2012 at 9:54 am

    Thanks, Tim, for sharing these great principles! Parents will benefit from employing them.

    David Bundrick, PhD
    Vice President for Student Development
    Evangel University
    Springfield, MO

    • Tim Elmore on May 7, 2012 at 9:55 am

      Thanks for taking time to read and comment, David. Best wishes!

      • Andyford on May 10, 2012 at 1:28 pm

        When I started to have children my father, who is a poor farmer, said see that field. I said, yes. See those animals, I said” Yes.” If I give them too much feed they will founder. Yes, I said. My father then said children are the same way.See my father knew that my siblings and I had turned out responsibily because we were not spoiled. He also knew that I had married a prominent business man who had two children who were in and out of treatment centers, and expensive colleges. I never forgot that and our three girls are flourishing.

        • Bridgetjones on May 10, 2012 at 1:32 pm

          I also believe that in less severe cases- children expect to be maintained the same lifestyle as their parents. They expect to go from college to the country club. WE need to let kids know that they WORK themselves up to that point. 

          • Tim Elmore on May 14, 2012 at 9:49 am

            So true! Helping students have realistic expectations as they move from backpack to briefcase is essential.

        • Tim Elmore on May 14, 2012 at 9:48 am

          Thanks for sharing!

  2. Dirk Baxter on May 7, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    Similar to athletes taking the field, enabling future leaders through increasing challenges and the opportunities to stretch and sometimes fail is critical to growing and becoming stronger. Encouraging them to know the rules of the game (boundaries), engage a coach (or mentor), contribute to team success (setting expectations), and having focus in effort (what is their cause and future) – these are all critical. I enjoy how you outlined the areas where parents or leaders can help those coming into their own succeed.

    • Tim Elmore on May 7, 2012 at 1:35 pm

      Great insights. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Laroyalrangers on May 7, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    Tim, I work with boys and leaders of boys.  The issue is not when they are in their 20’s or 30’s it is when they are in their pre-teen and teens.  I call it simply initiative. 
    As parents we must foster the qualities that build initiative.  Most folks do not have an opportunity to provide an invironment that fosters initiative.  We must create those invironments on purpose if we expect to launch the next generation.

    • Tim Elmore on May 7, 2012 at 1:35 pm

      I totally agree! Initiative is a critical ingredient for real-world success.

  4. a50sapproach on May 7, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    Parental involvement has changed as family size has changed.  Parents with large families simply couldn’t afford for all their children to remain home and their lifestyles to be funded by the parents.  As our incomes and family sizes changed so did our parenting style, unfortunately raising children to the age of 18 and them taking responsibility for their life and their finances is rare but the age of 34 is unacceptable at my house.  
    You idea of having your friends mentor your children is great–I would include former teachers, people at church, anyone in the clubs and organizations that they have previously belonged.  But if that fails and it sometimes does then they must kick in the
    creativity that this Generation is so famous for:
    I would form a partnership with them.  Help them to launch an e-publishing site.  Have them to write a book /blog about the journey of the unemployed teen/young adult–or any other topic the two of you agree on.  I would have them post YouTubes about hobbies, talents, academic strengthes.  In essence,  I would show them how to get a job in the 21st Century.  Initially we would stick with their career choice ultimately they would secure a job.   As my parents pointed out a great deal during my late teens and twenties–you are entitled to whatever you can do for yourself.  My parental financial obligations end when your adulthood begins but you can always come over for dinner.

    • Tim Elmore on May 7, 2012 at 1:38 pm

      I love this idea of the partnership between parents and students. I also think it’s good to clearly define expectations for what life looks like after 18. Great parents prepare their students for that launch rather than delaying it indefinitely.

  5. Laideabel on May 7, 2012 at 12:54 pm


    Many thanks for this, your articles are always so insightful. 

    The plan should start from when they are teens. Parents should make their teens work during vacations as much as possible, this builds the discipline and responsibility of work in them. It also teaches them to be independent from their teens.

    Waiting till after college may be leaving it a bit late.

    Laide Abel
    Raising Leaders,
    Lagos, Nigeria

    • Tim Elmore on May 7, 2012 at 1:39 pm

      So true! The earlier students learn these lessons, the better!

  6. Mary Frances on May 7, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    I just don’t get it.  Why do we in America have a culture of immature adults?

    What do parents fear when they don’t enable their kids to be independent? What need are they meeting in themselves by letting kids “mooch” off of them forever?  My kids have chores, can cook whole meals, do their own laundry, build things, volunteer in the community, and actually do their own work for Girl Scouts rather than having me sell their cookies and do the work for badges.  And they are 12 year old girls.  In fact, our girls are anomalies among their friends.  The other parents look at me like I am crazy when I say the girls have chores and can cook and do their own laundry.  We want our kids to be able to take care of themselves and be active learners and actively engaged with the world when they are adults.  Are we missing something?

    • Tim Elmore on May 7, 2012 at 8:22 pm

      Not at all! Sounds like you are on the right track!

  7. Darkroutes60 on May 7, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot since my children have become older (16 & 18).  I think how a child goes out into the world is dependent upon how he was parented.  Parents who continually show their children love and support tend to have kids who are less afraid to take on life’s challenges.  I agree with setting a timeline, but it also has to be a realistic one.  Parents who continually give their kids the “18 ultimatum” (you’re out when you turn 18/graduate), see their kids struggle, if not ultimately fail, living outside home.  It takes time to get established and test the waters of adulthood.  My kids know, until they graduate from college and find employment, they’re always welcome here.  I think too many kids get pushed out before they’re ready, and we’re seeing some of the consequences of those pushes.  My father was allowed to live at home until he was in his mid 20’s (the same with my mother), yet I was shoved out at 18, just months after graduating.  I struggled for years trying not only to find my footing, but find myself.  It was a brutal experience, and not one I would readily throw at my own children.  I’m nobody’s fool, as my kids are well aware, but this is a much uglier world than it used to be, and I wouldn’t want my children out there trying to find their footing without knowing they had a safety net to fall back on.  This porch light is on 24/7, and they’ll always be welcome to come in and put their feet up.   

    • Tim Elmore on May 7, 2012 at 8:26 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience. There are pros and cons to the “18 ultimatum” as you call it. Ultimately, parents know their kids best and can determine exactly what age is best. Regardless, the goal should always be to prepare students for an independent adulthood. I think we can all agree that 34 being the new 18 is unacceptable.

  8. David Hutchins on May 7, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    Thanks for the timely information. My “little” boy is 18 and soon to be graduating.

    I’d like to add how my parent’s handled it when I dropped out in my 2nd year of college. They gave me 60 days to find a place and a job. They then offered for me to stay at home if I paid rent. Just incase I couldn’t find a job, they also gave me a list of projects to do around the house. They said I could earn my rent till I could pay rent.

    FYI, minimum wage was a great incentive to go back to college.

    • Tim Elmore on May 7, 2012 at 8:27 pm

      Thanks for sharing – that’s a great example of parents providing a safe place to return – just not too safe that it becomes permanent!

  9. Mike B on May 8, 2012 at 7:40 am

    Thank YOU Tim for some more very powerful tools for me! For my own two children and for those I volunteer and mentor…. always appreciate the wisdom you share. Blessings on your day friend!….

  10. Kevin East on May 9, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    Great article, Tim.  I’ll be passing this on to people.

    When in Panama a year or two ago, I went to visit the Miraflores lock on the canal.  Over the loudspeaker the lady was giving the history of the canal and described how this was one of the only places on the planet where the staff of the ship would turn over the control of the ship to someone not on their staff.  The reason was that a specialist was needed to guide the ship through the intricate system of the 7 locks on the Panama Canal.

    She went on to say they often turn the controls over to a 19 year old specialist in the armed forces.

    Your point #7 is dead on.  My how we can expect so little…..

    Thanks again.

    • Tim Elmore on May 10, 2012 at 7:43 am

      Wow! That’s a great example. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Tweechy on February 22, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    I think the ultimatum should not be about the age of the child but the expectations of what his/her life in the parents’ home will be once they are no longer students. When I graduated from high school and announced to my parents I wanted to take time off before college they did not tell me to leave home but they were very clear that while living at home not only did I have to contribute to the keeping of the household but I had to live by their rules because that was their home. I was expected home for family meals unless I let them know well in advance I had other plans and I had to be home at a reasonable time in the evening because they did not want to stay up worried about where I could be. There was no taking the boyfriend home overnight of course (I know this is allowed in some households) and I would have never attempted such a thing out of respect for my parents. I had to work or look for work and no $$ meant no car: I rode my bicycle everywhere. Needless to say I left as soon as possible. Moved in with a roommate and took a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant for a while. There I learned to waitress, a job that helped me earn some $$ while in college and later a second job I used to save to buy my first home.

    • Tim Elmore on May 3, 2013 at 8:41 am

      This is a great example of healthy transition after high school. Thanks for sharing!

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Launching the Stay at Home Son: 7 Steps to Cut the Apron Strings