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Are You Too Close to Your Kids?

New AARP study confirms that when it comes to raising children, we don't take after our parents

On vacation in Vermont last summer, my son Sam and I would go out on Lake Champlain in the motorboat every morning. We'd hook sunfish and perch, maybe talk Phillies, maybe Phish, maybe philosophy. You know: man stuff.

spinner image Family goes for a walk in the woods together
From left: Ariyon Fountaine, 25, with her dad Conrad and mom Gail, near their New Jersey home.
Nathaniel Welch

But when he'd catch a frisky fish, my strapping 23-year-old son would carefully dangle it over to me: Will you take this off the hook for me? Please?

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If I'd asked my own dad to unhook a fish when I was Sam's age — or even half Sam's age — he would have been dead silent, a clear message to deal with it myself. But these days our kids tend to keep one foot planted in childhood even as they go bounding into their mid-20s with the other. Like many boomers, I'm much closer to Sam and his brother, Nick, 19, than I was to my own parents.

The Generations Study

According to the new AARP The Magazine Generations Study, we boomers talk more frequently with our young-adult children, plus spend more face time and share more intimate confidences with them, than we did with our parents. We also help our kids more, doling out about twice as much advice and practical help as parents did in the mid-1980s. (See below for more about the study's results.)

And we've justified it. Coming of age during economic hard times, many of our kids are struggling to find jobs, to find themselves, to find their way out of their childhood bedrooms. Both of my sons live at home, and I enjoy having this time with them. But I also find the statistics about their generation a bit unnerving. So I wonder: When we keep our kids close, do we keep them from growing up?

At 20, I couldn't wait to leave home. I wanted to be my own man — never mind how I would support myself. During my 20s my mother called me maybe once a month, and my father called me only once. It was to tell me to stop selling my blood; my mother had gotten wind that it was dangerous. (I ignored his advice.) My friends were kindred spirits: We wanted to make our own way, and our own mistakes.

That was the old way of growing up.

Emerging Adulthood

Jeffrey Arnett, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, suggests that young people ages 18 through 29 go through a new stage of life he calls emerging adulthood — a period of searching and self-discovery when people make the choices that will define their adult lives.

Young people face a more complicated job landscape than their parents did, he argues: Modern fields like computer technology offer greater choice, but they also require more education. Young people also have a wealth of options in their personal lives, facing fewer strictures about marriage and sexuality. Parental support and advice, when it's available, can be invaluable.

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Take Conrad Fountaine, 59, and his daughter Ariyon, 25. Conrad's father was a janitor, and his parents stressed education: Five of their six children went to college and straight into careers. Conrad works as a therapist at a private school for autistic children in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Ariyon has a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania and is, like her father, a social worker. But unlike her father at her age, Ariyon still lives in the family home. "I had wanted to be out by 25 but decided I'm not beating myself up about that," she says. "I don't want to rush out to something I can't afford." Ariyon values the time she spends with her father. They talk "about everything," she says. "Even relationships. He understands my personality."

Closer Is Better

Karen Fingerman, Ph.D., professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, studies parent-child bonds, and she confirms they're getting tighter. Furthermore, she says, these closer bonds "should be celebrated."

When I called Fingerman to chat about her findings, I was skeptical. All this help flowing from parents to grown children can't be entirely good, I said. Doesn't it encourage some kids to remain kids forever?

"Initially, I shared the same bias," she responded. "So God knows I looked for it." But in some 3,500 interviews with parents and offspring over the past two decades, she found that, across socioeconomic groups, grown children do better in life when their parents are more involved.

In fact, the generational separation of the 1960s and '70s was a blip on history's radar screen, not a universal cultural norm, Fingerman points out. "Most cultures have maintained closeness between parents and children," she says. "In America, the middle 20th century was an anomaly — in some way the baby boomers are the odd ones."

Putting Family First

Our increasingly multicultural country may play a role in the shifting — or shifting back — of relationships between generations. Carlos Berrios, 55, grew up in Swedesboro, New Jersey, but never bought in to the leave-home-at-all-costs edict of his youth. "Everything revolves around my family," says the tuxedo-rental-store owner, whose heritage is Puerto Rican.

Carlos' daughter, Jenna, 21, went away to college on Maryland's Eastern Shore but soon transferred schools and moved back into the family home. At the time, her great-grandmother — Carlos' grandmother Ricarda — was living nearby, and Jenna's move allowed her to help care for the family matriarch during the last two years of her life. Jenna, now a senior, will get her own place when her career is on track, but she's in no hurry, she says.

Of course, not every boomerang family is at peace with the situation. Many parents struggle to support dependent adult kids. But the more I look around, the more I see young adults who are close to their parents and yet are independent — even if they still live at home. If this seems like a contradiction, it's not: As Fingerman's data bear out, good parenting fosters both affection and autonomy. Tighter bonds allow our kids to bloom fully in an ever more complicated world.

My son Sam, a college graduate, works as a teacher's aide. He thinks I should stop worrying so much about whether his generation is growing up fast enough. He's saving his money so he can get a place of his own.

And now I'm fighting the urge to tell him: What's the hurry, Sam? Take your time.

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Robert Huber is a freelance writer living with his wife and (for now at least) two sons in Philadelphia.

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