Failure to Launch

Dear Mr. Dad: Our 27-year-old son lost his job and moved back in with my wife and me. While it’s nice to have him around, it’s been six months now and he shows no sign of moving out. Part of the problem is that my wife and I have very different approaches. I want our son to get his life back on track. But the other day I discovered that my wife has been giving him money every month. She’s even been paying some of his credit card bills for him. This has led to a lot of tension around the house—between me and my wife, and between me and my son. What can we do?

A: Boy are you in a tough spot. Actually, you’re in two tough spots at the same time. On one hand, you’ve got an adult child who is waaaaay too old to be living someplace where he isn’t making a rent or mortgage payment every month. On the other hand, you’ve got a wife who’s actually encouraging your son to keep doing exactly what he’s been doing: freeload. Fortunately, there is a solution. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be easy.

To start with, you and your wife have to come to some kind of an understanding. Soon. In my view, your role as parents of an adult child is to do whatever you can to help him be independent. That means finding a job, getting his own place, buying his own groceries, picking up his own dry cleaning, driving his own car, and putting gas in it.

Your wife may not realize it, but by paying your son’s bills and giving him walking around money, she’s doing more harm than good. She may think she’s just helping him through a tough patch, but what’s actually happening is that he’s becoming less and less independent, and more and more dependent. She’s also sending a strong message—which I’m sure isn’t the one she really wants to send—that she doesn’t have any confidence that he’ll eventually be able to get back on his feet. What possible incentive does he have to be a grown up if he’s being treated like a child? And whether he admits it or not, he’s probably feeling a little humiliated. When you explain this to your wife, there’s a good chance she’ll agree to take your son off the family payroll.

Once you and your wife are on the same page, the two of you need to talk with your son. Tell him that you’re sorry that he lost his job, but that he needs to get serious about moving out. It’s important to have a list of reasonable expectations. For example, you expect him to make finding a new job his full time occupation. He should be spending at least five hours every day sending out resumes and trying to set up networking meetings and job interviews. It’s also perfectly reasonable to give him 90 days notice that he’ll have to find another place to live. In the interim, you’d like him to start contributing something towards household expenses.

I know this may sound harsh, but believe me, you’ll be doing your son a huge favor. (Plus, if you see that he’s truly making and effort but things aren’t falling into place for him, you can always extend some of your deadlines.) The bottom line is that putting him in a situation where he has responsibilities and obligations will help restore some of the self-confidence he’s undoubtedly lost since he moved in with you.

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