The father said to his servants, "bring forth the best robe and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry . . .
--Parable of the Prodigal Son
Well, maybe not . . . .
Whether adult sons and daughters of the '80s are prodigal or not, their parents may not feel much like throwing a block party if the kids decide to move back home.
But as more and more young adults are taking a drubbing at the hands of modern life--with skyrocketing housing costs, loss of jobs, divorces or other circumstances forcing them to cast around for a safety net--the old home and hearth has become an increasingly popular option.
And their parents are finding themselves faced not only with new--and sometimes unwanted--house mates but also with a new thicket of rules and codes of behavior at a time in their lives when they may have expected to be finally free of the restrictions that children impose.
"It's a pretty harsh world out there these days," says Marge Vinolus, a licensed clinical social worker whose Tustin Psychotherapy Group specializes in the problems created by what she calls "boomerang children."
"It's really a problem of the '80s. The parents may be struggling to reestablish their own relationship after the child has left, and then, all of a sudden, boom! the kid is back in the home. That's fine if the mother and father can keep the executive capacity in the home and keep anything from interfering with their marital function. But if the parents are unable to let go of their care-taking role or establish their relationship as a couple, the kid is going to come in and muck things up."
That's a lot of potential muck, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which reports that 22 million young adults are dependent on their parents for housing. In 1984, 52% of adults between the ages of 22 and 24 lived with their parents.
Those figures, says Ken Chew, assistant professor of social ecology at UC Irvine, "are not really huge in terms of numbers, but they are huge in terms of importance. It's a distinct reversal of a trend and it goes counter to what has been holding up since the mid-1960s, when every young adult who could possibly afford to move out did it."
Whatever the reasons that today's adult children return to the nest, the effect of their arrival on the doorstep is fairly universal, Vinolus says.
"First and foremost, the parents go through a loss of privacy. Then there are basic economic increases with more people in the house. There's more responsibility than the parents have been accustomed to for a while."
And, she says, the parents may find themselves living with a stranger: their little boy or girl grown up.
"It's so very strange when children go away," says Marsha Barnes, 41, of Los Angeles, whose son Darrin, 22, has moved back home with her after two years at Arizona State University. "They develop their own lives and you develop yours. Having him gone gave me more freedom, and when he came back, there were real adjustments. I had to let him know he was living in my house, and there were going to be certain rules."
Which, Vinolus says, is exactly what parents of boomerang children should do.
"I'm very big on contracts," she says, "preferably ones that are made even before the child moves back in. You have to make contracts about communication, hours, friends stopping by, sex in the parental home, cleaning, drinking, drugs, can he go to work, can he vegetate on the couch--all the sticky, icky things, the whole works. But sometimes, instead of sitting down and trying to come up with a plan, the parents will just say, 'Well, why don't you come home for a while?' "
Without a plan, Vinolus says, the parents may find themselves and their children reverting to the roles they played before the children moved out for the first time: Mom and dad wash the clothes, make the beds, cook the meals, gas up the car--and worse, pick up the tab.
"I don't think parents can bear this (economic) burden without considerable resentment," says Pat See, a professor of sociology at Chapman College in Orange. "It's just human. There has to be equitable economic participation by the child to avoid that."
But, Barnes says, the question of whether to require the adult child to bear part of the economic burden can be a Catch-22.
"If you're an adult, and you come home, it usually means you don't really have (the money) you need to live on your own. You need a handout. So I'm my son's support, I'm the one who has to be responsible. But I don't think he sees it like that. If a child pays $25 of a $50 phone bill, he says, 'No problem. It's mom and dad.' "
Two-generation coexistence isn't always traumatic, however. Chew says many parents welcome their children home.