The Most Important Job Of Parenting No One Discusses

Just before my 79th birthday, I discovered I have cancer. There is an agonizing period where medical professionals determine the type of cancer, has it spread and what options are available. Your mind goes wild while waiting for test results and the big meeting to discuss a treatment plan.

During that time, I was contacted by Bruce Horovitz from Next Avenue. He wanted to interview me for an article he was writing about what expenses parents should pay after their kids graduate from college. I explained my situation and he asked if I wanted to opt out. Quite the contrary, I wanted very much to participate. Much of the subject matter he wanted to discuss has occupied a lot of my recent thoughts.

Bruce tells us the problem of continued parental support is much bigger than I realized: (my emphasis)

“In a recent Merrill Lynch/Age Wave survey of over 2,700 18-to-34 year old’s that Next Avenue wrote about (“How Young Adults Feel About Financial Independence From Their Parents”), 70% said they’ve received financial support from their parents in the past year. And 58% said they couldn’t afford their current lifestyles without it.”

Richard Eisenberg at Nextwave reports, “Parents’ Support to Adult Kids: A stunning $500 Billion a Year”.

“To put the $500 billion price tag in perspective, by Merrill Lynch’s and Age Wave’s reckoning, it works out to twice the amount that parents of adult children are putting into their own retirement accounts.

In the Merrill Lynch Age Wave survey …. 72 percent of the parents said they’ve put their children’s interests ahead of their own needs to save for retirement. And 63 percent report having sacrificed their financial security for the sake of their children. What’s more, roughly a quarter of parents said they’d be willing to take on debt and pull money from their retirement accounts to support their grown kids.”

Wow! What the heck is going on?

The Race To The Finish Line

Many baby boomers get serious about retirement when they become empty nesters. Today’s generations are having children almost a decade later than their parents. Many are having to move their retirement date, anticipating working well into their 70’s before they can retire.

“Empty nest” used to symbolize parents being financially free, no longer responsible for supporting their adult children.

The parenting message that MUST be discussed

When I got the cancer news, I immediately thought about some friends. We know two sets of grandparents that are supporting their grandchildren. In one case, they legally adopted two of their grandchildren, while mom and dad live rent-free in the basement, refusing to work and regularly sport new tattoos.

Another friend provides considerable financial support to their married child. Both spouses work, have no children, and recently bought a share of a season ticket package for their local sports team. Mom and dad enable a lifestyle they cannot afford.

How do parents get into this mess? How many future generations will be affected?

My story

On the way home from the hospital, I called friend and mentor Chuck Butler, who has dealt with cancer for some time. He has a great sense of perspective. I can’t thank Chuck enough for his emotional support.

When I got home, I wrote a letter to my family telling them about my diagnosis. The following excerpt is why I wanted to be part of Bruce’s interview.

“One realization I had was this – what is the worst thing that can happen? I could die…which all grandpas do eventually. I’m comfortable with the fact I’ve done what I could to raise the next generation to be able to survive on their own. I owe my children a debt of gratitude for doing their job and becoming independent adults.”

I remember my grandmother telling me stories about how the mama bear raised her cubs teaching them how to survive, with great emphasis about that was her job. Eventually, mama bear would run her baby up a tree and disappear, leaving the next generation to survive on their own.

Those stories were passed down to my children.

I emphasized the primary job of parents is to teach their offspring how to survive on this planet on their own.

Once you have accomplished that goal, raising independent children, it is a lot of fun enjoying the rest of the ride; particularly when you see your children also doing their job – parenting.

Our son Dean recently came for a visit. He sent a package and asked us not to open it until he arrived.

It was this picture. I cocked my head and looked at it quizzically. Here is what he said.

“Dad, you told us the story about the mama bear running her cubs up the tree many times. I have never forgotten the feeling I had the first time you dropped me off at the naval academy.

I kissed you and mom good-bye and turned to walk up the steps and report in. With a knot in my stomach, my thought was, ‘I think mom and dad just ran me up the tree!’” The symbolism of the painting made perfect sense. Four years later he was a Naval Officer and never looked back.

How to keep the parenting job on track

As a RetireMentor, this is probably one of the most challenging articles I have ever undertaken. I can only share ideas based on my life experience.

Set expectations early. Independence is a family goal that should be clearly understood. Children play a huge part. Achieving “financial and emotional independence” should be something they strive for.

What you can afford is irrelevant. Many articles discussed what parents can afford. If you don’t have the money, then you can’t help them.

However, just because you can afford to help doesn’t mean you should. The overriding question is simple. “If I do this, will it move my child toward becoming an independent adult or encourage them to remain dependent?”

Being broke and struggling is part of the learning process. Many loving, well-meaning parents don’t want their children to be stressed or have to struggle. Surviving on this planet requires struggle and a good bit of stress. Dealing with those issues is part of the learning process, don’t deny your children these important lessons.

When my youngest son was in his early 30’s, we went to lunch. I reached for the check. He grabbed my forearm really tight and said, “Dad, I will get this one.” I responded, “I don’t mind buying.” Holding on to my arm, he responded in a very stern tone, “Dad, don’t you realize it’s important for a son to be able to show his dad he can afford to buy his lunch?”

Over the years, all of our children, in their own way have proudly displayed their independence. I never realized just how important it was for them.

Expect to be challenged. Most parents, during an emotional discussion, have heard “I’m 18 and you can no longer tell me what to do!” Embrace it! It’s a great opportunity for parents to do their job – parenting.

Life is not so simple as to allow you to have all the freedom and independence of adulthood, without the responsibility. You can’t have it both ways. I followed this advice from a dear friend many times.

My response, “As long as you live in this house, or are receiving financial support, mom and dad’s rules apply. If you want freedom and independence, get a good education and a good job so you are captain of your own ship. I’m looking forward to the day I can no longer tell you what to do as much as you are.”

Tough love only works when both parents are committed. Many of the sad stories we see are a result of one parent wanting to put their foot down while the other secretly funnels money to the child. That is counterproductive, hurting both the child and the marriage.

There has to come a day when you cut the cord. Remember the old saying, “Rock Bottom will teach you lessons that mountain tops never will.” Those lessons are survival.

The reward is worth the effort. While my cancer prognosis is good, and we have high expectations, I had an epiphany type realization.

I can’t imagine what it would be like dealing with significant health issues while worrying if your offspring can survive if you don’t make it. The added stress certainly would not help any recovery process.

My answer to Bruce about what to pay for? Only those things necessary to move them toward the goal of becoming independent adults – with a time limit. They don’t need a new fancy cell phone, an older one that allows them to get text messages and look for a job works fine. If they want the hottest technology, let them proudly buy it once they have a good job.

Eventually, there must be a magic day – the day each offspring accepts the fact it is time they survive on their own, and go about doing so. When that day comes, the entire family is button-busting proud! Both parents and children have done their job!

When my time finally comes, thanks to my family, I will rest in peace!