HEART OF LIVING: No Longer a Child, Not Yet Grown Up


Dear Emory,

I liked what you wrote last month about “So Sad to Say Goodbye.”  And now I have another question for you…what about when your older teen/20-something comes home to visit, or stay for a longer length of time?

Our son decided he didn’t like his first year in college.  Now, he is once again living at home, working at odd jobs, and trying to figure out where his next step will be. 

I can see that he is disheartened to be home again, while his friends are all away, and I don’t want to give him a hard time.  But he has fallen into the habit of sleeping late, leaving messes behind him wherever he goes, and making it clear to us that he would rather not talk about his future. 

Now what do I do?  How do I parent a kid who is not a child anymore, but doesn’t seem to be ready to become an adult? 

Stalled on Sligo Avenue


Dear Stalled,

I’m not surprised to hear that your son is rethinking his college choices.  The school that looked so wonderful to him when he was 16, may not have been that great when he actually went there to live and study. He has lots of company in figuring this out—a whopping one out of three college students transfer schools before graduating, and many kids come home between times.

Perhaps your son is embarrassed to find himself living at home again.  Or maybe he is just really bummed out.  But turning into the family bum won’t solve any of these problems. The only way to transition out of childhood is to get more engaged with the responsibilities of adulthood.

In the beginning, we parents work hard to shelter our children from the toughest aspects of the real world.  But along the way, we teach our kids “this is how the real world works,” to get them prepared to live in the real world.  This is a time in your son’s life when he is ready to learn another valuable lesson about how “the real world works.”

Helping your son understand that returning home is not the same thing as returning to childhood is a good place to start.

He’ll likely be very happy to hear that you don’t see him as a child anymore, but he may well be clueless about what it means to be more of an adult in your household.  This is what you can kindly and firmly help him understand: his self-respect and personal dignity are based upon his ability to fulfill his responsibilities in life, now and in the future.  You are inviting him to step up as a young adult in your household because you believe he is capable of doing this.  Your confidence in his abilities to contribute will help your son believe this about himself.

To make this easier to imagine, it might help to imagine with your son what his responsibilities would be if he were living in a group house with his peers.  Of course he would be responsible for taking care of himself and his own stuff.  In addition, he would share responsibilities with his housemates for contributing financially, keeping the community spaces clean, doing repair jobs as needed, and sharing in the general buying and cooking food.

Your home is now a kind of quasi group house, and your son can share similar kinds of responsibilities while he lives with members of his family.  For instance, he can be expected to not just clean up after himself, but to also do at least an hour of general cleaning and cooking every day, while still having plenty of time to do odd jobs and check out new colleges.

It’s also reasonable to expect your son to contribute something financially towards the household expenses.  Even a small contribution of about $20 to $50 a week will add to his self-respect because he will feel that much less like your dependent and that much more like your equal.  He’ll appreciate it even more if you let him know you are planning to put his “rent” into a “trust fund” which you’ll return to him in the future as a gift when he is ready to set up his own household.

You’ve helped your child make many transitions, “Stalled.”  From the crib to a bed, from nursery school to kindergarten, and from middle school to high school—this is just one more important transition for your son, as you encourage him to find his way from childhood to adulthood.  Together, you can make this another good learning and growing experience for you both.

About the Author

Emory Luce Baldwin
Emory Luce Baldwin is the co-author of "Parenting With Courage and Uncommon Sense." In addition to being a Takoma Park mom for more than 25 years, Emory is also a family therapist in private practice and a parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). Well over a thousand parents have learned from her how to have healthier, happier, and better functioning families — while enjoying her good humored yet practical approach to the ups and downs of family life. Emory’s family therapy offices are located in Takoma Park and at the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. You can read more about her at her website: www.emorylucebaldwin.com