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TELL ME ABOUT IT ®

By Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Dear Carolyn:

Our adult son finished college months ago, but he's showing few signs of doing anything with himself. He's an able adult, but he sits around the house on most days and does very little job searching and very little to help out around the house. He can't afford to move out. We have no economic leverage unless we lock up our food and stop paying his insurance premiums. We've tried to encourage him, be clear in our expectations and offer helpful advice on his job search, but without any results so far. Suggestions?

J.

"No economic leverage"? You have nothing but economic leverage. He has been living in a padded parental grace period that you have provided him. Which needs an expiration date of . . . pick a milestone. For example, "noon."

You've ceded the power to make this decision to him. That's fine as a test of his willingness to take control of his life, but it's not fine when you start to believe that he now has control of yours. Then you become hostages to someone whose only incentive to behave like an adult has been nurtured out of him (for those on the couch who missed it, this incentive being that adult life in any form beats festering on Mom and Dad's couch). How can a guy who has never been challenged to take care of himself know the rewards of taking care of himself?

It's a challenge better issued late than never, so get to it. "Which would you prefer, laundry or errands?" Or, more broadly thinking, "Pick one -- housework or learn how to cook." In other words, it's not whether he earns his keep, but how.

Obviously this won't solve everything. Your "clear in our expectations" has apparently arrived at his ears as "You can tune us out without consequences." Meanwhile, his needing any of this external motivation suggests he's suffering either from an overdeveloped sense of entitlement or depression, or both -- and both introduce the temptation, for people in your very frustrating position, to swing too hard from tiptoeing to making threats.

But if you do take a sudden hard line with threats or chore lists, you run the risk of infantilizing him -- exactly what you don't want when you're nudging your kid to grow up.

So wrap the steel with cotton, and present the hard line as either-or choices. It leaves him plenty of room for it to be his idea to pitch in more, and little room to say no.

If he finds a way to say no anyway -- if you hand him the laundry-or-errands choice and he has the nerve to say, "Neither" -- then, by all means, please, push ahead with the you're-our-kid-but-you're-also-an-adult-now conversation. But even then, I think you'll get a better result if you bypass the wagging finger, and instead invite the adult himself to decide how to be an adult: "What arrangement would you think is fair?"

What he'll find out only if he forces the issue: He ponies up -- in chores and rent, which he can offset with more chores to save money -- or he moves out. Limits only have backbone if you do.

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